B.C.’s Syrian refugees face income squeeze with switch to provincial welfare

January 23, 2017

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

For Bassam Sua’Ifan and Yousra Al Qablawi, money was already tight. Rent, utilities, car insurance and the cost of feeding and caring for seven children account for the family’s entire budget.

Now the Syrian refugee family must make some hard budget choices as their income been reduced by close to $500 a month, Bassam says, with the transition from federal support to B.C. welfare. Hundreds of Syrian families who arrived in B.C. between December 2015 and March 2016 are experiencing the same thing.

Government-assisted refugees are supported by Ottawa for their first 12 months in Canada. Although federal refugee support rates are tied to provincial welfare, there are a couple of differences that translate into as much as $350 a month less for families with two or more members, says Chris Friesen, settlement services director for the Immigration Services Society of B.C.

One difference is a transportation allowance included in federal, but not provincial support. The transportation allowance is intended to help refugees get to English-language classes and employment services to help them find work, as well as medical appointments, Friesen said.

The other main difference is that under the terms of federal support, refugees can earn up to half the amount of their stipend without clawbacks.
On B.C. income assistance, any money earned is clawed back from support payments dollar-for-dollar on any income in excess of $200 per month for a single person or $400 for a family with dependent children. This has been a disincentive to private sponsorship groups who want to support their families for longer than 12 months.

“If you do that, you’re essentially making a donation to the provincial government … it will be deducted dollar-for-dollar,” Friesen said.

The Immigrant Services Society has recommended to the B.C. government that the transportation allowance be extended not only to refugees, but to all recipients of B.C. welfare. Those on income assistance should also be allowed to earn at least half their stipend without having it clawed back from support payments, he added.

“We think that they’re worth considering for everyone throughout the province … who find themselves on income assistance for periods of time.”

There are 1,950 government-assisted Syrian refugees, or 490 families, who arrived in Metro Vancouver mostly between December 2015 and March 2016. A survey conducted in November by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. suggested about 17 per cent had found work. The survey also found they were waiting an average of four months to start English classes.

Michelle Stilwell, B.C.’s minister of social development and social innovation, was not available for an interview, but said in an e-mailed statement that Syrian refugees are entitled to the same social supports as other low-income residents, including subsidized housing, child care and free MSP coverage. Those with disabilities will receive more support than they did under federal assistance, she added.

“WorkBC Employment Services Centres are already providing services to more than 200 Syrian refugees. About 75 per cent of those who have completed the program have found employment,” the statement said.

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