On December 6th, 2016 the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights released our report on Syrian refugee resettlement in Canada. As part of the release, I, as Deputy Chair, along with The Hon. Jim Munson, Chair, and committee member The Hon. Thanh Hai Ngo, held a press conference. The following were the remarks I made to the media this morning.
“Welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada was a tremendous effort for which we should be very proud. We saw the generosity of Canadians and the ways in which they welcomed Syrian refugees into their lives, their communities and their hearts.
As part of our study, we heard from many refugees who shared their stories of gratitude, as well as, a strong desire to be able to participate fully in Canadian society as soon as possible.
We also heard from many refugee service organizations who gave candid evidence about their experiences on the ground, as front line service providers, in the resettlement process of such a large number of refugees in such a short period of time.
While I join my colleague in commending the success of the program, I also must express how crucial it is for those we have welcomed, to have the support they need to achieve successful integration. The welcome was warm but, there is more to be done.
As Senator Munson pointed out, lack of language skills, as well as financial and mental health issues are significant barriers to integration.
Fortunately, solutions would be relatively easy to implement — provided the government is willing to allocate sufficient resources to do so.
We know that the ability to communicate in English or French is imperative to the integration process. And yet, we heard a lot of testimony regarding the lack of available language classes and even less availability for language classes with childcare attached which are especially important for women. This should be a straightforward problem to fix.
Mental health issues are also a barrier that threaten the success of the resettlement program. Syrian refugees have fled from the violence of war. Some have lost loved ones, others their livelihoods; and all have lost the place they once called home.
Therefore, it is not surprising that such traumatic events may take a toll and form the basis of mental health issues. The extent of this problem is still unknown.
We heard that there is often a sense of relief and joy following initial migration — and that this can mask mental health problems which may only reveal themselves months later. And, if problems have already surfaced, they may only be “the tip of the iceberg.”
Furthermore, stress and anxiety caused by the integration process itself, may put further strain on mental well-being.
In this regard, we are not convinced that Canada is sufficiently prepared to help refugees suffering from mental health issues; which are further complicated by language barriers and the need for mental health specialists who possess an understanding of cultural norms.
In our view, the government must establish a comprehensive plan to deal with this emerging issue. This plan should contain culturally-appropriate interventions that address varied mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
One program that is immensely helpful to refugee families is the Child Tax Benefit. Time and again, we heard testimony that for refugees with limited means and a family to support, access to this benefit made a significant difference in their ability to just get by. It also decreased their reliance on food banks in order to feed their families.
Unfortunately, delays in processing applications have meant that some refugees have waited months before receiving these much-needed funds.
We heard testimony that the Canada Revenue Agency requires clients to fill out extensive questionnaires and provide many supporting documents, which has also led to delays. These bureaucratic hurdles are regrettable, especially at such a critical time for refugee families.
Therefore, our committee recommends that the CRA maintain timely processing times for the disbursement of the Child Tax Benefit, so that refugees do not face such financial hardship in their first months in the country.
We also recommend that the government conduct outreach activities to make sure that refugees are fully informed about tax filing requirements for the continued receipt of the benefit.
Timely processing of applications would also have the salutary effect of benefitting all Canadians who are eligible for the Child Tax Benefit.
Syrian refugees have shown great courage and resilience. They have overcome so much to come here and we cannot fail them at this critical juncture. I have every confidence that we will not — but we must act swiftly.
Our report provides the government with clear priorities and direction, based on evidence we heard from experts and refugees themselves.
We trust that the government will listen to us — and to the people whose successful integration depends on what happens next.
Thank you for your interest in this important issue.”