Accommodating Syrian Refugees’ Legal and Other Needs - LawNow Magazine

Accommodating Syrian Refugees’ Legal and Other Needs

The Syrian Crisis

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized the Syrian refugee crisis as the world’s single largest refugee crisis for almost a quarter of a century under its mandate. As of March 2017, the UNHCR reports that 6.3 million Syrians have fled their homes and remain trapped in Syria. 4.9 million Syrians have sought refuge in countries outside of Syria. The vast majority of Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in other countries have fled to surrounding countries and include with corresponding numbers: Lebanon (986,942), Jordan (666,113), Egypt (128,956), Iraq (249,641) and Turkey (3,589,384). In addition to these neighboring countries, Europe has received a large number of Syrian refugees (i.e., between the periods of April 2011 to October 2017, Europe received 996,204 asylum applications from Syrian refugees).

Recent Canadian Measures to Address the Syrian Refugee Crisis

In response to Syria’s civil war and the resulting refugee crisis, the Canadian government committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 4, 2015 and February 29, 2016, which was known as the #WelcomeRefugees initiative. Canada’s commitment under this initiative was to be completed under strict timelines. Canada successfully delivered upon this commitment on February 29, 2016. Accordingly, between 2015-2016, Canada welcomed its highest number of refugees since the 1980s. As of January 2017, 40,081 Syrian refugees have been resettled into Canada under the #WelcomeRefugees initiative.

According to the Alberta Government, Alberta has historically welcomed 10% of Canada’s immigrant population. In the Government of Canada’s recent Syrian refugee initiative, according to the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies (AAISA), Alberta, Ontario and Quebec lead the country in the number of Syrian refugees resettled provincially. In particular, during the periods of January 2015 to September 2016, Alberta resettled 7,415 Syrian refugees. Refugees are different from immigrants because they are forced to flee their homes and do not choose to immigrate.

Canada’s International and National Obligations to Refugees

Canada signed the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Status of Refugees on 4th June 1969 (Convention). Canada recognized its obligations for refugee protection not merely as a humanitarian gesture but also a legal requirement as a signatory state of the Convention. The country’s national obligation to ensure refugee resettlement is protected under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, SC 2001, c 27.

Refugees are different from immigrants because they are forced to flee their homes and do not choose to immigrate. Unfortunately, until 1976, Canada treated refugee claims in a similar manner to other immigration claims. The Immigration Act 1976 introduced the new refugee class and distinguished refugee claimants from other immigration applicants and also recognized refugee resettlement as a legal right. Judicial interventions further acknowledged rights of refugees. In its landmark decision of Singh v Minister of Employment and Immigration, 1985 SCC 65, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) confirmed the availability of the basic rights for the refugee claimants under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Recently in Kanthasamy v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 SCC 61, the Supreme Court extended the scope and definition of “humanitarian and compassionate grounds”  to include the best interests of a child directly affected under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, SC 2001, c 27.

The Legal System in Canada to Support its Obligations to Refugees

Part 2 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides the framework for refugee resettlement. Refugees can be resettled in Canadian soil under either of the following programs:

  • Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program (outside of Canada); and
  • In-Canad Asylum Program (not generally applicable for Syrian refugees).
Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program

Refugee applicants from outside of Canada can be resettled under this program in the following three ways:

Refugees acknowledged by the UNHCR (known as Convention Refugees) are eligible for this program. The Government of Canada is responsible for the initial settlement (for up to one year) of these refugees through the Resettlement Assistance Program. The UNHCR or other organizations can make referrals for resettlement under this program.

A Group of Five (G5) or Community Sponsor (five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents) can sponsor refugees under this program. Prior to sponsoring, the groups have to sign agreements with the Government of Canada to be eligible as Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH). A G5 may only sponsor applicants recognized by the UNHCR or other organizations and will be financially responsible for the resettled refugees for up to one year.

The BVOR Program matches refugees identified for resettlement by the UNHCR with private sponsors in Canada. The goal is to engage in a three-way partnership among the Government of Canada, UNHCR, and private sponsors. The Government of Canada will generally provide up to six months of income support through the Resettlement Assistance Program while the private sponsors will be responsible for financial support for the other six months of the initial year.

Alberta Human Rights Act (AHRA): Supporting Syrian Refugees Against Discrimination

Alberta’s provincial human rights legislation sets out the standards for human rights in the province of Alberta and shares many similar themes with the international human rights agreements to which Canada is a signatory member. As per section 20(1) of the AHRA, the protection of the Act applies to “any person” “…who has reasonable grounds for believing that a person has contravened this Act…” Thus, an individual refugee residing in Alberta is within the jurisdiction of the AHRA.

AHRA and Accommodation

In Alberta, the AHRA protects Syrian Refugees and all Albertans from discrimination in certain areas based on specified grounds. The AHRA recognizes that all people are equal in dignity, rights and responsibilities, regardless of race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, gender expression, gender identity, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status or sexual orientation.

Accommodation means making changes to certain rules, standards, policies, workplace cultures and physical environments to ensure that they don’t have a negative effect on a person because of the person’s protected ground. The goal of accommodation is to allow equitable participation in any of the areas protected by the AHRA.

Albertans who need accommodation to overcome a disadvantage caused by the application of a rule or a practice may include employees, prospective employees, union members, tenants, and customers, among others. The reason for the accommodation must be based on a need related to a ground that is protected under the AHRA. The duty to accommodate applies to employers, landlords, business owners, public service providers, educational institutions, professional associations, trade unions and others. The employers and service providers have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to accommodate individual needs to the point of undue hardship. To demonstrate a claim of undue hardship, an employer or service provider must show that they would experience more than a minor inconvenience.

The law recognizes that, in certain circumstances, a limitation on individual rights may be reasonable and justifiable. Discrimination or exclusion may be allowed if an employer can show that a discriminatory standard, policy or rule is a necessary requirement of a job. In British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGSEU) (1999), 35 CHRR D/257 (SCC) [Meiorin], the Court provided direction to employers as to how to determine whether a particular occupational requirement is reasonable and justifiable. The Supreme Court outlined a three-part test. The Meiorin test outlines an analysis for determining if an occupational requirement is justified. Once the complainant has shown the standard or requirement is prima facie discriminatory, the employer must prove that, on a balance of probabilities, the standard:

  • was adopted for a purpose that is rationally connected to job performance;
  • was adopted in an honest and good faith belief that the standard is necessary for the fulfillment of that legitimate purpose; and
  • is reasonably necessary to accomplish that legitimate purpose;
    • to show that the standard is reasonably necessary, the employer must demonstrate that it is impossible to accommodate the employee without the employer suffering undue hardship.

Employers and/or service provider should make inclusive policies to accommodate different members of society before adopting a bona fide occupational requirement. These should take into account Syrian Refugees as newcomers in Alberta. Accommodation measures should be considered when they are simple and affordable and do not create undue hardship. In particular, many Syrian refugees suffer from Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the trauma they have endured.

Challenges Faced by Refugees

It is important to recognize that the various challenges faced by refugees’ resettlement processes are unique to each individual. In December 2016, the Senate of Canada requested the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights to prepare a report on the status of Syrian refugees and their experiences to integrating their life in Canada [Senate Committee Report]. In responding to this request, the Committee met with various key stakeholders in this area, including individual refugees themselves. The Canadian Council for Refugees made a report called “Refugee Integration: Key concern and areas for further research” [Refugee Integration Report]. From these two reports the following common challenges are faced by Syrian refugees:

Access to employment

The Refugee Integration Report (at page 10) noted that access to employment is a major priority concern for refugee integration in Canada. This issue further expanded to “access to appropriate employment”. The Senate Committee Report stated (at page 35) that some Syrian refugees have education and/or experience in their respective fields, but, like other newcomers to Canada, they may find their qualifications are not recognized. Moreover, language, education and work experience are prerequisites to be considered for a job in Canada.

Health Issues

The Refugee Integration Report (at page 11) noted that health issues are a top priority concern for the integration of refugees in Canada. Several issues that make it difficult for refugees to access appropriate health services were raised. The Senate Committee Report noted (at page 9) that there needs to  be greater coordination between the various levels of government and the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship in addressing the mental health needs of the Syrian refugee population. In particular, many Syrian refugees suffer from Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the trauma they have endured.

Language Difficulties

The Refugee Integration Report (at page 11) noted that refugees often face long waitlists to attend language learning classes. Furthermore, the Senate Committee Report noted (at page 33) that many community service agencies expressed concern with the limited number of English language classes offered in conjunction with child care spaces for attendees. This was found to be particularly troubling for females, who were found to be the primary childcare providers in the home.

Limited Financial Resources

Many Syrian refugees initially traveled to Canada with the assistance of a government loan and have experienced difficulty with beginning the repayment of this loan upon arriving into Canada. The Senate Committee Report stated (at page 32) that refugees are struggling to meet their basic needs with the financial support provided through the refugee settlement programs, and therefore find the additional expense of repaying government loans to be burdensome. Further, the Senate Committee Report noted (at page 34) that a refugee’s financial challenges are further compounded by the various difficulties they face in securing employment.

Limited Access to Social Assistance

The Senate Committee Report noted (at page 8) that Syrian refugees are encountering delays in accessing government benefits, such as Canada Child Benefits. As a result, many refugees struggle with meeting the basic needs of their families.

Youth Issues

Additional funding is needed to meet the unique needs of Syrian refugee youth as they settle and integrate into Canadian society,  according to the Senate Committee Report noted (at page 36). Namely, refugees from this age group have demonstrated difficulties with integrating into Canadian society, concurrently with experiencing the unique challenges of adolescence. Further, the Committee heard evidence about the lack of extra-curricular programming available in local communities across Canada, specifically tailored for this demographic.

Gender Issues

The Senate Committee Report (at page 39) stated that gender based issues were highlighted via a recommendation for the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to work more closely with immigrant service agencies in the community to appropriately address domestic and gender-based violence in a culturally sensitive manner. The Committee heard evidence by witnesses indicating that the prevalence of gender based issues increases among a population group when individuals face language barriers, are new arrivals in a country and have pressing family demands, such as finances and child care.

Family reunification

The Senate Committee Report stated (at page 40) that the Committee heard reports that there is a need for a greater emphasis by the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship on reuniting Syrian refugees with family members. Many newly settled Syrian families in Canada remain separated from loved ones and in turn face emotional barriers and burdens to successfully settling into Canadian life knowing that their loved ones remain in harm’s way. Family reunification is essential for full integration.As of March 2017, the UNHCR reports that 6.3 million Syrians have fled their homes and remain trapped in Syria. 4.9 million Syrians have sought refuge in countries outside of Syria.

Key recommendations to address these concerns and that will assist in accommodating Syrian Refugees include:

  • increase funding for language classes with childcare facilities so that all refugees can learn English or French;
  • expedite recognition of foreign education and work experiences to enhance employment opportunities;
  • develop workshops and programs to address culturally sensitive youth and gender issues;
  • develop a comprehensive plan to deliver mental health services to Syrian refugees. This plan should contain culturally appropriate interventions that address widespread and varied mental illnesses, including those related to ongoing trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • eliminate or reduce debts that some refugees owe to the Canadian government by converting travel loans into grants or introducing debt forgiveness mechanisms. Create more financial assistance for refugees;
  • make social assistance and services more accessible to refugees; and
  • accelerate family reunification processing time as members of their family still abroad may face persecution or other serious risks to their safety. Also recognize an inclusive definition of family.

Supporting Canada’s Syrian refugees is not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation for Canada. The Government has an obligation to ensure that they have the same opportunity as any Canadian to thrive in Canada.

*Some of this information was taken from ACLRC’s new publication: Refugees and Discrimination: Teacher and Student Materials (Updated Syrian Refugee Edition) 2018, online:


Hasna Shireen
Hasna Shireen is a Research Associate with the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, at the University of Calgary in Calgary Alberta.

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