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Refugees and Social Assistance

"They will soon be accepted as refugees and become contributing members of society, but when they first arrive, they desperately need a helping hand. Denying that helping hand would be contrary to who we are as a country." - Loly Rico, CCR President

Canada Without Poverty is committed to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society. Refugee claimants are examples of individuals and groups that need our protection because of their uniquely vulnerable position. Refugees come to Canada after fleeing persecution and violence.

Most recently, CWP was compelled to stand up for refugee rights with the passing of Bill C-43. Certain provisions of this omnibus budget bill, specifically sections 172 and 173, would allow provinces to potentially impose minimum residency requirements before refugees could apply for social assistance without the amount of money provinces receive from the government in the Canada Social Transfer being affected.

This is problematic as refugees are already in a vulnerable position. Imposing a waiting period before they can access essential social assistance programs forces them to turn to emergency services (such as shelters and food banks). This results in a restriction to accessing basic needs, which contravenes Canada’s international human rights obligations.

Refugee rights are outlined in international law in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 Protocol), which Canada has signed on to. Their rights are also specifically protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other legal instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrine the right of all people to have their basic needs met without discrimination, including refugees.

CWP and other concerned non-governmental organizations (for example, the Canadian Council for Refugees) raised concerns in October 2014 – before Bill C-43 was passed – about the implications for refugee claimants and Canada’s human rights obligations.

In November 2014, CWP presented to the Standing Committee on Finance with more details on the problems with sections 172 and 173 of the Bill as mentioned above. The argument was divided into three clear segments: the role of the provinces, the impact on a particularly vulnerable group, and the contravention of Canada’s human rights obligations.

The major concern over the provinces was the lack of financial consequences through the Canada Social Transfer; in other words, provinces would not have their payments docked for imposing minimum residency requirements on refugee claimants. This is particularly concerning because the existing system granted the provinces the freedom to choose how to administer their own social assistance, as long as they provided for the most vulnerable groups (including refugees).

The second argument proposed that refugees are among the most vulnerable groups, due to their likely traumatic circumstances and need to access basic necessities before they can become situated properly in Canadian society.

Thirdly, CWP suggested that the provisions in Bill C-43 would breach Canada’s international human rights obligations to protect refugees and provide basic necessities to everyone, regardless of circumstance.

Despite the human rights concerns raised by CWP and other organizations, Bill C-43 was passed in December 2014.

Refugees will not be forced to wait for a minimum residency requirement to pass unless a province decides to impose the requirement.

So far, no province has passed a residency requirement, but without firm commitments by provinces this could change. Together with our partners we’re working to make sure this doesn’t happen. To learn more about the issue visit the Canadian Council of Refugees website here.