Social media a vital lifeline for Canada’s Syrian refugees: report

Governor General David Johnston meets Syrian refugee Osama and his baby daughter as they arrive at the Welcome Centre at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Friday December 18, 2015. A new report examines the experiences of Canada's Syrian refugees.
Governor General David Johnston meets Syrian refugee Osama and his baby daughter as they arrive at the Welcome Centre at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Friday December 18, 2015. A new report examines the experiences of Canada's Syrian refugees. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA – Social media and messaging apps have proven to be a vital link for the roughly 40,000 Syrian refugees who have come to Canada over the last few years.

A government study published Friday digs into some of the challenges the refugees have faced in Canada.

The Immigration Department evaluation of the Liberals’ landmark refugee program surveyed 581 of the 8,918 privately sponsored Syrian refugees who arrived between November 2015 and March 2016. Just over 26,000 Syrians were resettled in Canada during that time.

READ MORE: ‘We are not going to just drop these people’: sponsors promise more support for Syrian refugees

One troubling find: a handful of Syrian refugees paid their sponsors to come to Canada.

Of those surveyed, 23 said they paid someone to complete their sponsorship application, or to provide for their own support while in Canada, with some suggesting they were asked to pay.

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While the report doesn’t say how much the refugees paid, private sponsorship groups aren’t supposed to accept or require any funds from a refugee for submitting a sponsorship.

“If instances of sponsors asking refugees to pay for their own sponsorship come to our attention, we will investigate, however, we will not comment on any investigations which may be underway,” immigration spokesman Remi Lariviere said in an email.

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The report revealed it’s not just Syrians who have paid their sponsors. Of 451 privately sponsored refugees from elsewhere surveyed for a previous study, about 19 said they’d paid too.

The slight difference is one of several between the Syrian cohort and other refugee populations.

The evaluation of the first wave of Syrians – there are now more than 40,000 in Canada – documented that compared with other refugee groups, some are less educated and have less knowledge of an official language. Syrians also have bigger families and a lower level of understanding of Canadian rights and freedoms than refugees from other groups, the evaluation said.

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Those factors have all contributed to challenges during the settlement process, but the evaluation revealed another one – the way refugees use social media.

“Unlike any other refugee populations, social media and mobile applications are very commonly used by the Syrian refugees and the population who are actively connected to each other via mobile devices, specifically WhatsApp,” the report said.

“. . . Refugees were comparing what Syrian friends received in terms of services in other cities and provinces and requested equivalent services and support,” the report found.

WATCH: Half of adult Syrian refugees unemployed 1 year later: Liberals

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The profiles of the first wave of refugees – how many have found jobs, how many are enrolled in language classes etc – has likely shifted since the collection of the data last September.

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At that point, only 10 per cent of adult government-assisted Syrian refugees had found work, a number officials have said is comparable to other government-assisted refugee populations at that point in the process.

One change since September is the arrival of the refugees’ 13th month in Canada. Refugees only receive financial support from the federal government or private sponsors for 12 months and now the entire first wave has been here for longer than that.

Those who’ve not yet found a way to be economically self-sufficient could go on provincial social assistance; based on historical trends among refugees who’ve accessed provincial aid, the evaluation estimated that in March 2017, approximately 1,890 to 2,005 Syrian adults would possibly become eligible.

The department could not confirm Friday whether that forecast came true.

The evaluation highlighted other challenges ahead. Among them, the particular case of Syrians aged 18 to 21.

A focus group with them revealed that they had been out of school for their teen years, but felt they couldn’t enrol in Canada because they were now too old, raising concerns about how well they’ll do in the job market.

READ MORE: Childcare, language training lacking, but ‘key’ to Syrian integration: Senate report

“Many partners and stakeholders were concerned about the youth group,” the study said.

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“The perception was that given the integration challenges mentioned above, this group could become disenfranchised and have a harder time developing a sense of belonging to their communities.”

Syrians were asked about their sense of their fit in Canada.

About 77 per cent of those asked indicated they were happy or very happy with their lives in Canada, and 90 per cent reported having a somewhat strong or very strong sense of belonging.

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