Refugee advocates are calling on the federal government to end what they call the "cruel" practice of forcing refugees to pay back interest-bearing loans to cover transport and medical costs.
The federal Immigration Minister says the government is covering the cost of bringing in Syrian refugees, but advocates say thousands of other refugees are struggling to repay the government loans they were issued when they arrived.
Chris Friesen with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia says he works with immigrants who are facing a mountain of debt and many are struggling to even buy the basics of food and clothing.
"More and more refugees are using, for example, their child tax benefits; they're using part of their food money [to pay back the loans," said Friesen.
"They're asking their children to work after school, or in some cases, even drop out of high school to help and meet the financial needs of the family."
Refugees charged interest on loans
Loans are granted to refugees to cover the costs of their medical examinations abroad, travel documents and transportation. More loans are also available to cover rent, phone deposits and work tools.
Refugees are required to start paying off the loan 30 days after arriving in Canada.
If the loan isn't paid back completely after a specified period of time (between one and three years, depending on the amount borrowed), refugees are charged interest on the amount remaining.
Friesen says Canada is the only country in the world that charges refugees interest on the loans they're issued when brought to this country — and the issue is causing a stir in the refugee community.
"We have Syrians coming into the country, staying in the same facility as other refugees who have loans, and they're asking us to explain to them why the government is giving preferential treatment to Syrians versus them."
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, Vancity Credit Union is offering new refugees interest free travel loans for the purpose of buying out government loans and avoid paying the interest.