Takeaways from the 2015 #WelcomeRefugees Initiative

Shaheen Chohan

As of December 2017, an estimated 11 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to the civil war that began in 2011. While the vast majority have sought refuge in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, an additional estimated one million Syrians have fled to Europe. In comparison, Canada has resettled a relatively modest number of refugees: approximately 40,000 under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 #WelcomeRefugees initiative, which aimed to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. Now, a little over two years later, we seek to understand the issues the federal government has confronted in the post-resettlement of Syrian refugees and the key takeaways for future policy making.

Current Policies and Programs

Currently, resettled refugees enter Canada under three streams. The first is Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs), who are defined as convention refugees and are referred to the government by the United Nations. Refugees within this stream receive government financial support and resettlement services for up to one year, and often have higher needs than other refugee groups. The second is Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVORs), who are matched with private sponsors and receive a combination of government and private financial support. The last is Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs). PSRs can be either convention refugees or in the “country of asylum” class, whereby individuals have experienced refugee-like conditions but do not qualify as convention refugees. Those in this group have private sponsors who provide financial support for up to one year after arrival.

Generally, refugees can access services like literacy and language training, labour market access supports, childcare, and crisis counselling from local settlement agencies funded by Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Canada as part of the Settlement Program. GARs are eligible for additional supports including reception at port of entry, temporary accommodation, life skills training, and income support, through the Resettlement Assistance Program. This financial assistance consists of a one-time allowance for furniture, clothing, and household staples, in addition to monthly income support for up to 12 months.


The majority of Syrian refugees admitted as part of the #WelcomeRefugees initiative were GARs (57.2%), followed by PSRs (34.1%) and BVOR refugees (8.6%).

According to a 2016 Rapid Impact Evaluation of the Syrian Refugee Initiative, refugees who were admitted as part of the initial 25,000 Syrian refugee commitment differ based upon the stream in which they entered Canada. Specifically, PSRs tend to be older, have a smaller family size, are more educated, and have a better knowledge of Canada’s official languages compared to GARs and BVORs. The Syrian population also has several specific needs that may create potential challenges for the future; dental, medical and mental health needs were identified by the evaluation as pressing. The report also observes family and cultural differences in parenting and the rights and roles of women and girls in society.


Immediate and Essential Needs

Of the refugees surveyed for the purposes of the 2016 Rapid Impact Evaluation, 63.6% of GARs and 74.9% of PSRs indicated that their overall immediate and essential needs like securing childcare, finding a doctor, or filling out tax forms were mostly or completely met soon after their arrival in Canada. PSRs generally responded more positively than GARs on every topic.

However, the evaluation found income support levels were inadequate to meet essential needs of Syrian GARs and BVOR refugees. When surveyed, 69.8% of GARs stated that the financial support they received was not sufficient. Finding affordable permanent housing was particularly difficult, as rental costs tended to be higher than the shelter allowance they received. Overall, the 12 months of income support was not seen as being enough time for Syrian refugees to establish themselves in Canada, given the language barrier and the medical issues they have to overcome prior to accessing the labour market.

Settlement and Integration

The evaluation assessed success in settlement and integration in five domains: language, early economic establishment, knowledge and skills to live independently, development of social networks, and satisfaction with life in Canada.

Language needs were identified as an issue for GARs: 83.2% had self-reported not knowing either of the official languages. Syrian refugees in focus groups highlighted the desire to learn English, though some identified barriers to attending English classes like the need to work, lack of available classes, or not enough support from sponsors.

Of those surveyed, 9.7% of Syrian GARs and 52.8% of Syrian PSRs indicated they were currently working in Canada. The most common form of employment for both GARs and PSRs were in sales and service positions, such as cashiers, restaurant workers, grocery store clerks, etc. The biggest challenge facing both GARs and PSRs in finding a job was associated with learning an official language. Focus groups and interviewees also identified that the income support clawback refugees face when working can be a disincentive to finding employment.

In the area of knowledge and skills to live independently, the evaluation found that Syrian refugees generally had a lower level of understanding of Canadian activities than previous refugee populations.

While it is still early in the integration process, perspectives on whether Syrian refugees are making connections with broader Canadian community was mixed. Some reports indicate that there are instances of Syrian refugees remaining within their communities, while others suggest that Syrian refugees are doing well in connecting with the Canadian community.

In terms of satisfaction with life in Canada, the majority of Syrian GARs and PSRs indicated that they were happy or very happy with their lives in Canada. In addition, 90% of Syrian GARs and PSRs reported having a somewhat strong or very strong sense of belonging to Canada.

The Challenges

A number of ongoing challenges have been identified that are associated with the Syrian Refugee Initiative moving forward, including government financial support, challenges for youth, and mental health.

The transition to “month 13” is a concern. As financial assistance from the settlement program only covers 12 months of support, refugees may apply for provincial social assistance if they have not found employment by month 13. The data indicates that many of the Syrian refugee population will require long-term and persistent financial assistance.

The evaluation also showed that refugee youth may be falling through the cracks. Due to their age, youth may not be accessing services. Given the integration challenges mentioned previously, this group could become disenfranchised and have a harder time developing a sense of belonging to their communities.

Accessing mental health support and services will also be necessary for the long-term successful integration of Syrian refugees.

Looking Forward

The Syrian Refugee initiative was a success in many regards. Overall, Syrian refugees who were surveyed reported being happy with their life in Canada, and the evaluation found that their immediate resettlement and essential needs were being met. At the time of survey, around half of adult PSRs had found employment, and the majority of Syrian refugees who were not working were looking for work or intended to look for work in the near future. With these successes in mind, there are also key lessons to be learned for future initiatives.

First, there is a distinct need for end-to-end planning. While a major component of the Syrian Refugee Initiative was focused on the operations, there was lack of and forward-looking preparations regarding integration beyond the first few weeks of arrival in Canada. Second, it is essential to have accurate and complete refugee information, allowing for mobilization of appropriate resources. The evaluation found that Syrian refugee arrivals targets were not well communicated to settlement partners in a timely fashion. Thirdly, we should ensure pre-arrival services (for example, orientation), which are essential to successfully resettling refugees on a positive integration path and setting realistic expectations. Lastly, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada should consider a central coordinating office for future large-scale refugee initiatives to ensure consistency in communications and effective coordination with stakeholders.

Two years later after the #WelcomeRefugees initiative, the task ahead is to help integrate Syrian refugees into Canadian society by improving access to affordable housing, meeting language needs, increasing assistance with job searching, and addressing health concerns. Although there have been challenges, this initiative should be applauded for strengthening Canada’s humanitarian legacy.

Shaheen Chohan is a 2019 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. Born and raised in Toronto, Shaheen holds a Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from York University. Her policy interests include environmental policy, international development, and foreign affairs.