Making sense of Canada’s refugee and immigration numbers

If it's unclear how Canada is doing on bringing refugees to safety, it's pretty clear we're letting them remain economically vulnerable after they get here

Remember, before #peegate, when refugees were top of mind? Let’s go back to that for a moment.

I decided I would try to follow the numbers to better understand the current state of Canada’s federal immigration and refugee programs. I learned at least four things that I thought are worth sharing:


1) As an outsider, it is very difficult to get detailed information, or to even get information that aligns from one source to the next.

2) There is a $10-million cut planned to Citizenship and Immigration (CIC)’s envelope for refugees.

3) Federal refugee programs are complex and complicated.

4) There are doubtless other cuts to other programs in other departments that any new government may have to live with, especially if it plans on a balanced budget for 2016.

First, I wanted to know how many refugees we usually take in. Luckily, the minister of citizenship and immigration tables an annual report to Parliament that has some useful information. I’ve graphed it below for ease of reference. The blue line at the top is the total number of refugees who became landed immigrants in Canada in that calendar year.  We don’t know how many are from Syria; the countries of origin aren’t listed. The orange line is the number of primary applicants; one family may have a primary applicant but several dependents. The lines under that show the number of those applicants who were government-sponsored, privately sponsored and those who made their claims here in Canada.

Notice how small the share of private- and government-sponsored refugee applications are relative to the number of people who applied from inside Canada. There have been policy measures to try to reduce the number of in-Canada applications (more on this below), but the number of overseas applications hasn’t really changed much.

Each year, the minister of citizenship and immigration sets targets (as a high/low range) for immigration levels, including different classes of refugee (government-sponsored, privately sponsored, etc.). Those targets are reported by fiscal year in the annual departmental Report on Plans and Priorities, a.k.a. “RPPs.” (You can access a full set of them for all departments for each fiscal year here.) The numbers for 2014-15 and 2015-16 are reported in the table below:

 2014-2015 2015-2016
Low High Low High
GARs 6,900 7,200 5,800 6,500
PSRs 4,500 6,500 4,500 6,500
Blended 400 500 700 1,000
Subtotal 11,800 14,200 11,000 14,000
In-Canada 11,000 12,000 10,000 11,000

Note that the targets for this current fiscal year are down by 1,000 for in-Canada applications and between 200 and 800 for overseas applications. It’s not clear why from the departmental reports. Also, we can’t really compare the fiscal-year targets to the calendar-year outcomes because one-quarter of a calendar year is spent in a different fiscal year. There may well be seasonal patterns to immigration and, without micro data, you don’t know when in a year a refugee arrived.

Next, I wondered what the government had been spending on refugee programming, so I looked back at CIC’s annual Departmental Performance Reports (DPRs, about which you can read here) that go up to 2013-14 so far (2014-15 will need to wait until after Oct. 19) and at the same RPPs mentioned above. CIC also publishes an annual Consolidated Financial Statement and “Future-Oriented Consolidated Statement of Operations” that look ahead as far as March 2016 (available to read here). The graph below shows the dollar amounts the government says it has spent, or will spend, on refugees, using different annual reporting methods.

Lots of broken lines, eh? The blue and orange lines are from the annual DPRs and RPPs, and they use a modified cash accounting method. The green and red lines are from the consolidated financial statements and they use an accrual method instead. The DPRs and RPPs are based on “program architecture”—in other words, the department’s own judgment over what expenditures are properly part of the work it does about refugees. It may well be using a different way of defining that envelope (not just a different accounting standard) in the consolidated financial statements; I have no way of knowing. But here’s the big takeaway: The dollars are slated to go down, either by $5 million this fiscal year and another $10 million next (on a modified cash basis) or by $10 million this fiscal year (on an accural basis). I’d be interested in knowing why.

There weren’t many clues in the published reports. The last quarterly report from CIC did suggest some cost savings from the cancellation of the Refugee Reform Program. I think that included the ill-conceived idea to spend $32 million experimenting with ways to bribe refugee claimants to leave Canada.

Starting in 2012-13, the department started reporting expenditures related to different classes of refugees, but those numbers didn’t help much, either. For example, the dollars tied to government-assisted refugees go from $5.8 million to $8 million to $2.7 million, and other classes are likewise noisy in their data.

But let’s stick with the government-assisted refugees for a moment. These are refugees that CIC identifies and accepts overseas. When they arrive in Canada, they are permanent residents. The government offers them income support for a short time, based on prevailing welfare rates, wherever they are resettled in the country.  Through NGOs (who have already written to Chris Alexander about sudden funding cuts this year), government provides some funding for services, such as language and skills training, to help with resettlement. But most government-assisted refugees have to pay their own freight to get here and to get started in setting up a new household. If they don’t have the money to pay for the medical check, the application fees, the plane ticket (preferably, on a Canadian carrier and only with that carrier’s baggage allowance), or a small lump sum to buy basic necessities, CIC will evaluate them for a loan to cover those costs.

Yeah, you read that right: Save for exceptional cases, we make our government-assisted refugees pay us back the costs we charged to get them here. We give them a grace period during which we don’t charge interest, but we give them a maximum time to pay back the loan (sometimes $10,000 per adult) and CIC has the right to pursue collections and garnish wages, if the minister so decides. The repayments from existing loans are used for new loans (subject to a global cap on the revolving fund). Last year, we issued $14 million in new loans and collected $12.5 million from newcomers working to pay off their debts. Given this model, I can’t help but wonder how “ability to repay” may inadvertently influence selection. The interest rates, by the way, are set in stone when the loan agreement is written, so there are some loans today carrying over nine per cent interest!  If loan recipients default (and, for accounting purposes, CIC bets that about 10 per cent will), we bar them from sponsoring any members of their families. You can read some first-hand accounts of the effects of the loan repayment here.

Government-assisted refugees have long had some of the worst settlement outcomes of any class of newcomer. (Here’s a link to a study I did years ago with Sam Ladner.) Government-assisted refugees spend 56 per cent of their income on housing. Even three years after arrival, Canada’s labour market offers a job to just 59 per cent of government-assisted refugees, compared to 72 per cent of privately sponsored refugees.

If it’s unclear how Canada is doing in meeting its own targets for bringing refugees to safety in Canada, it’s pretty clear it’s letting them remain economically vulnerable after they get here.

So I think I’ve covered my first three points, and I want to end with a little more on point four: program cuts—whether $10 million this year or next—are baked into projections of a balanced budget for this fiscal year and thereafter. They are not unique, for example, Employment and Social Development plans to spend $373,000 less on its Youth Employment Strategy this year and to cut it by another $18 million the year after. In other cases, program spending is frozen this year (to the dollar; it’s an impressive expectation of accurate forecasting) with cuts to come in 2017-18. The disability programs at ESDC are slated to come down by a cool half million, for example. Any new government will either have to live with those cuts (if it can even find them!) or, if it plans to reverse any AND stay out of deficit without hiking taxes, it will have to find something else to cut even more. See also Stephen Gordon’s post on this point.

The various parties are making different commitments in this campaign, whether on Syrian refugees or fiscal prudence. I hope my adventure above shows why clear answers to questions such as, “How many Syrian refugees has the government admitted so far?” can only really be answered by someone with inside information, such as the minister in charge. Likewise, I hope this also reminds us that we need detailed answers to the question, “What would you cut or tax instead?” from the federal parties themselves. I hope we get over #peegate. And I hope all of us start to pay a bit more attention to what happens to refugees after we’ve brought them here.