September 18, 2015 6:28 pm
Updated: September 18, 2015 7:32 pm

Reality Check: Are refugees an economic burden?

WATCH ABOVE: Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair accused Stephen Harper of fear mongering and dragging his feet on the refugee crisis.


Conservative leader Stephen Harper defended his government’s record on refugees during Thursday’s leaders’ debate, saying the Conservative government only took away health care benefits from “clearly bogus refugee claimants who have been refused and turned down.

“We do not offer them a better healthcare plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive,” Harper said.

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READ MORE: Reality Check, debate edition: How ‘truthy’ were Trudeau, Harper, Mulcair?

Neither is true: People awaiting the result of their refugee application or appeal, and people from countries the government has deemed safe, have also had their health care cut.

And because of the complex maze of systems that have resulted from the Interim Federal Health Program Cuts, many people who should qualify for care get turned away.

And are refugees getting better health care than “ordinary Canadians”? Not really: The federal program is similar to provincial health care provided to welfare recipients.

The idea that refugees are taking advantage of government services is nothing new, said University of Toronto political science professor Phil Triadafilopoulos.

“For ages, politicians have said refugees A) most of them are lying and B) they are sort of a suck on the welfare state, a suck on social services [and] they take more than they can contribute,” he told Global News.

READ MORE: UN condemns Hungary for firing tear gas, water cannons at refugees

In fact, says Gillian Zubizarreta, settlement coordinator for the Halifax Refugee Clinic, government bureaucracies — difficulty in obtaining a work permit, for example — can often be more of a barrier to refugees’ contributing to the economy than refugees’ desire to milk social programs.

“There is so much stigma around refugees not contributing, which not well-founded at all. It’s patently untrue,” she said.

“From what we see, our clients are so entrepreneurial in spirit and the moment they have work authorization they are out there doing whatever they can, Even those who barely speak English are taking jobs that are well below their expertise.”

And Canada recoups most of what it spends on refugees: They’re all obliged to repay the cost of their transportation and initial medical assessment — with interest. (Critics have argued this debt actually hampers their ability to get a good economic start in Canada.)

As well, the lion’s share of the Syrian refugees the Canadian government has committed to resettling are expected to be privately sponsored, meaning private individuals or groups “commit to provide assistance and support to refugees for their first year of residence in Canada.” A 2007 evaluation from Citizenship and Immigration Canada found that “privately sponsored refugees tend to become more self-sufficient sooner and are less likely to go on to social assistance.”

READ MORE: Will this photo help people grasp the desperation of Syrian refugees?

A table on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website shows privately sponsored refugees survive with approximately half the amount of income support than those resettled with government assistance.

There’s also evidence suggesting refugees benefit economies, rather than drain them.

A study released this week from Oxford Economics, a U.K-based forecasting and analysis firm, estimated the impact 1 million new asylum-seekers will have on Germany, the world’s fourth-biggest economy. The researcher found that if Germany accepted an extra 1 million refugees over the next three years, it “could raise GDP by 0.6% by end-2020 and reduce inflationary pressures.”

That boost to Germany’s GDP, according to the Oxford Economics research, would come thanks to a “rise in the labour supply” which would also “ease growing supply bottlenecks in the labour market and ease wage pressures.”

READ MORE: New danger for refugees: leftover landmines in Croatia

Canadian Business editor-in-chief James Cowen made a similar case this week.

“Done properly, bringing refugees into our country isn’t about charity. It’s about investing in the future — both theirs and ours,” he wrote. “Germany has had success with an ‘early intervention’ model that identifies skilled refugees and pairs them with opportunities as soon as possible.”

Triadafilopoulos noted many of the refugees fleeing Syria are “very well educated” and adding a large number of workers to an economy with a declining labour force — like Canada and Germany — may boost productivity.

“By tapping into a sense of self-interest rather than just humanitarian compassion, perhaps you can mobilize even more support,” he said. But that’s not why we accept refugees, he argued. We do it because we are obligated, as a signatory to the Refugee convention, to accept people in “dire need of sanctuary.”

READ MORE: The European migrant crisis is only getting worse. Here’s what you need to know

The Canadian government has been under pressure to accept more Syrian refugees, especially. Canada has resettled more than 2,300 Syrians in the past two years. Germany expects to accept 1 million refugees, asylum seekers and migrants by the end of this year.

Harper promised last month a re-elected Conservative government would also accept a further 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq over a four-year period.

His adversaries want action sooner than that. Trudeau vowed immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees; NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is promising to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this year.

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