Is it fair to ask refugees to repay plane fare—with interest?
Amel Madut was 14, living in her native Sudan, when government soldiers entered her town in 1983 and began shooting at anyone who crossed their paths.
Madut and her cousin ran from school and, as the soldiers were blocking their way home, hid in the woods at the edge of town.
They and numerous other students, some much younger, were found by rebel soldiers of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, who protected them.
Then they started to walk. For more than three months, they walked from South Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
The group started out with 300 children but by the time they reached their destination, that had shrunk to about 60, the rest having died along the way of starvation, thirst, illness, falling bombs, and from attacks by government soldiers, venomous snakes, lions, crocodiles and other wild animals. Madut survived to reach the refugee camp, only to be taken as a wife by a rebel soldier. She soon became a mother and found herself moving from one refugee camp to another, from Ethiopia to Sudan and eventually, to a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya.
Finally, in late 2002, she got her ticket out of the chaos. Canada accepted Madut and her three children, aged 11, eight, and three at the time, as refugees. They were flown to Vancouver and it was at Welcome House, run by Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, that she learned she was already in debt in her new country.
Madut, who had escaped often horrific circumstances, could barely speak English and had no job prospects, now owed the Canadian government about $5,600 for their plane tickets—plus interest.
Only Canada charges interest
Canada is one of only a few refugee-granting nations to require repayment of such transportation costs. And according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, it’s the only country to charge interest on the loans, a requirement that came into effect in 1995.
The student population of Edmonds Community School in South Burnaby includes many refugees, often from large families.
“What I find so offensive is it puts the most vulnerable of people into a constructed state of poverty when they are already coming into the country with nothing,” said Edmonds principal David Starr.
“We’re talking about people who have left these horrific situations who have got nothing, and part of the welcome to this country is they’re stuck with a bill.”
The refugees have been identified by the United Nations as being at risk for their safety, he said, noting there’s a difference between refugees and immigrants. “Refugees don’t have a choice ... These are people who are in urgent need of protection.”
Starr has seen the hardship the loan program creates and the stress families endure due to the financial cloud that hangs over their head.
“To me, it’s mean spirited,” he said. “The worst part of all is the ‘with interest’ part.”
He noted that most refugees won’t speak up or complain about the loan program because they’re grateful to be in Canada and reluctant to criticize those that have helped them. Indeed, “they take it as a point of honour to pay it back.”
The Immigration Loans Program was first introduced in 1951 to help people displaced by the Second World War who were moving to Canada to start a new life, according to Remi Lariviere, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The loans can cover expenses ranging from travel to Canada to medical exams to establish a person’s admissibility to the country.
The loans are taken from the “consolidated revenue fund,” Lariviere said by email from Ottawa.
“Loan repayment is an essential component of the Immigration Loans Program as repayments are used to finance new loans for other refugees in need. The global repayment record is over 90 per cent.”
While she could not comment on what other countries require of refugees, Lariviere noted that while some don’t require transportation loans to be repaid, Canada offers assistance which many do not, such as monthly income support, health care and free language training.
Burnaby-New Westminster New Democrat MP Peter Julian said the loans cause “real hardship.”
“What we’re seeing is a real shift in what have been traditional Canadian values of acceptance, of refugees that have led over generations to building our country,” Julian said, citing as examples the contributions of Vietnamese boat-people and Hungarians who had to flee the crackdown in Eastern Europe.
Refugees want to contribute to their new country, to work hard and pay their taxes, he said. “Having to pay back this debt makes it more difficult for them to do that and takes them longer for them to do that.”
Madut has paid back her debt
For Amel Madut, she said she heard from others at Welcome House that she had to pay for her plane tickets.
“When other people are paying, why not me?” she shrugged.
During her first year in Canada, where she settled in Burnaby’s Edmonds neighbourhood, Madut was unable to attend school because she couldn’t find childcare for her three-year-old daughter. At the one-year mark, the federal government notified her she was now required to start repaying the loan. By then, she was on social assistance.
“I told them I’m not working, they said, ‘you have to pay.’”
So she started paying $85 a month. A large sum considering she was receiving $1,000 a month on assistance, plus a few hundred dollars in child tax benefits. Her rent alone was $970.
When her youngest daughter was old enough to attend kindergarten, Madut became pregnant, giving her four mouths to feed.
“It was difficult but I had no choice,” she recalled. “I had to do it. Sometimes I go to the food bank.”
When her cousin arrived, also as a refugee, Madut was able to leave her one-year-old child with her, allowing her to work.
But finding work was a struggle, since everyone wanted her to have prior experience. Eventually, through word of mouth, she was able to find a job as an office cleaner, first on-call, then part-time, earning $8 an hour minimum wage, about $800 a month. The B.C. rental assistance program helped subsidize her rent and she began repaying $100 a month to the loan program.
It took her more than six years to repay the money. Madut said it was made more difficult by the regular statements she received, on which the amount owing never changed.
“I’m paying, paying, paying and you still see the same amount ... I don’t feel good, like I’m doing nothing.”
She never knew what progress she was making in repaying her debt until the day when suddenly, she received a letter from the federal government saying it was all paid off.
Today, she has five children in Canada and is looking for work again after getting laid off. Life is not easy but at least that burden was lifted.
And she’s grateful to Canada for getting her out of the refugee camp. Shortly after arriving at the last one, a man in a neighbouring hut was shot and killed.
“What is the reason? Nobody knows. There’s no one to complain to, complain to who?” she recalled. She was relieved to arrive at Welcome House and to finally have the privacy of four walls for her family.
“Here is better. You can have shelter, medicine, so many good things.”