07/12/2016 02:50 EDT | Updated 07/12/2016 02:59 EDT

Refugee Response Exposes Overreliance On Voluntary Sector

canada refugee donation

Volunteers sort through clothing donations for Syrian refugees who are expected to arrive in Canada within the next month. (Photo: REUTERS/Ben Nelms)

A recent New York Timesarticle presents a mostly glowing picture of Canada's reception of Syrian refugees. It highlights the extraordinary hospitality of Canadian refugee sponsors, noting that "the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand" to welcome new Syrian families.

Canadians' welcome of Syrian refugees, and the Vietnamese before them, is emblematic of our culture. Across our diverse country, we are united by an incredibly strong belief in volunteerism and mutual aid. Response to the New York Times article was alternately one of pride (from Canadians) and envy (from non-Canadians).

Mixed Reviews of Canada's Treatment of Refugees

The Times article was almost overwhelmingly positive. A recent statement from Senator Jim Munson, chair of the Senate Human Rights Committee, offers a less glowing appraisal of the situation faced by Syrian and other refugees in Canada. Senator Munson notes that "fine words and open arms... are not sufficient to address the very real and very urgent problems that lie ahead" for new refugees, and points to a pressing need for mental health services, fast-tracking of child benefits and increased funding for language training programs.

Senator Munson's statement brings attention to the gap between the intensive mutual aid offered by individual Canadians and the confusing, bureaucratic and often penny-pinching supports provided by governments. Nowhere is this more evident than in the income benefits offered by provincial welfare programs.

Starting Off in Poverty

John McCallum, the federal Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has said that he has to "work very hard not to treat refugees better than we treat Canadians." This means that refugees -- particularly those sponsored by the federal government rather than private citizens -- have to make do with provincial social assistance benefits that are far below any reasonable measure of poverty.

As Canadians have been doing for more than three decades, refugees from Syria and many other countries turn to our nation's food banks, because government supports for the most vulnerable don't even provide enough money to cover the most basic necessities. That fact that (as Minister McCallum has noted) "many Canadians who have tight budgets use food banks" is being treated as normal -- as if not having enough food to eat is par for the course. When did this become acceptable?

A Patchwork System

The kindness of Canadian strangers -- in refugee sponsor groups, in food banks and in many other capacities -- is heartwarming and laudable. It is also imperfect and, unfortunately, unequally distributed. Some refugees will land in better circumstances than others; similarly, while Canadians have donated generously to immigrant settlement organizations in response to the Syrian influx, other necessary services that rely on public support languish. This patchwork effect is the unavoidable result of our overreliance on the voluntary sector.

Only governments have the capacity to offer equitable levels of service regardless of one's location or circumstance. Our response to Syrian refugees is just one example of how the voluntary sector -- partially and imperfectly -- is filling the gaps left by governments.

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