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William Watson: Now we know how well Trudeau’s Syrian refugees are doing. It’s not good


With the world now reconsidering Justin Trudeau, it’s useful to update one of his very first signature policies: the admission of 25,000 Syrian refugees in the opening months of his prime ministership. We forget already how controversial that was — signature grandstanding, many people thought — and how the government at first had trouble meeting its self-imposed deadline. But the refugees eventually made it in and Statistics Canada recently published one of the first evaluations of how they’re doing.

Unfortunately, the numbers are extremely preliminary: 2016 census data for people who arrived in 2015 and early 2016. In terms of actual outcomes, they mainly show how many refugees told the census-takers they were employed. Not surprisingly, since many had been in the country only a few weeks, most weren’t.

Among Syrian refugees admitted in 2015, however, employment of male refugees who had been privately sponsored was about 55 per cent, which doesn’t seem so bad under the circumstances. For males who were government-assisted, however, and who tended to be the harder cases to begin with, the employment rate was less than five per cent. Syrian refugees were also less likely to be employed than 2015–16 refugees from other countries. In part this was because on average they had been in the country a shorter time, but it was also because their demographic characteristics made them less employment-ready than refugees from other countries. Taking such factors into account, their employment rates were only slightly below those of non-Syrian refugees.

But of course the goal is to have Syrian refugees do well in absolute terms, not just in comparison to other refugees. To that end, the fact that fewer than half of the Syrians spoke either official language when they arrived here, while 51 per cent of men and 47 per cent of women didn’t have a high-school diploma, seems bound to make absolute success difficult.

That refugees do have a tough time is clear from other recently released StatCan data, including neat tables that let you toggle an immigrant cohort’s income — broken down by different classes of immigrant — to see how the cohort was doing one, two, three, four or five years into its members’ stay in Canada.

For instance, if you look at the cohort of all immigrants who arrived in Canada in 2011, the median income five years on of those who did have wage and salary income was $28,800. Looking specifically at economic immigrants with earnings, they had median income of $40,400, while earners in the “Canadian experience class” — those who had spent time here on a different type of visa before formally immigrating — had five-year median income of $61,300.

Five years on, however, refugees from the class of 2011 had median earnings of only $21,500. Among those, government-assisted refugees were making just $16,200, while privately sponsored refugees were at $22,400. In their very first year of earning, these two groups had made just $6,900 and $18,900, respectively. So their median incomes had gone up. Just not very high.

Seeing what the data say is not inherently anti-immigrant or anti-refugee. I’m a second-generation Canadian myself, my father having had the great wisdom to come here at the age of two and a half. (I guess I’m really third generation). His parents weren’t refugees, but they were looking for a better life. So was some ancestor of every one of us now living here, whether they arrived by steamer from Europe, as in my grandparents’ case, or by land bridge from Asia, in the case of First Nations.

For us to slam shut the door behind us would be wrong in many different ways. And of course many immigrants, refugees even, will do much better than the median numbers suggest. (In fact, for the 2011 immigrant categories mentioned, average incomes are higher than median, which means some people already are doing better.)

Besides, 25,000 Syrian refugees are less than one-tenth of one per cent of Canada’s population. In the larger scheme of things, the challenges they pose are barely noticeable. We’re a rich country. We can afford to help out some of the most desperate people in the world.

But let’s not kid ourselves. There will be remarkable and inspiring exceptions (which the CBC will surely find and broadcast) but on average, people who come here speaking neither English nor French and without a high-school diploma won’t find it easy going in the kind of economy Canada’s is now.

Yes, as interviewed champions always tell us, with hard work and determination anything is possible. But possible is not the same as likely. Even with hard work and determination, many people who start with such big disadvantages will face tough sledding.

That doesn’t mean we should keep refugees out. It does mean we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if their income numbers don’t turn out the way we’d like.



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