Refugees and social assistance: FAQs

The following are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions about recent changes threatening refugees' access to social assistance. See


Why is there a concern now about refugees’ access to social assistance?

The Omnibus Budget Bill (Bill C-43), which received Royal Assent on 16 December 2014, includes amendments to the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act. These amendments allow provinces to deny social assistance to refugee claimants, by imposing minimum residency requirements.

Further information

Before these amendments were adopted, provinces could not impose minimum residency requirements without losing money from the federal government under the Canada Social Transfer (CST).

After these amendments, provinces can impose residency requirements, without affecting their Canada Social Transfer payments, on anyone other than Canadian citizens, permanent residents, victims of trafficking on a temporary resident permit, and accepted refugees.

Refugee claimants are the principal category of persons that have access to social assistance but are among the groups protected from minimum residency requirements.

What is a minimum residency requirement? How would it affect refugee claimants?

A minimum residency requirement means that a province denies social assistance to a person who has been living in the province for a specified period of time. As a result of Bill C-43, provinces can now impose a minimum residency requirement on certain groups of people without permanent status in Canada, particularly refugee claimants. If a province imposed a minimum residency requirement, refugee claimants would be denied social assistance for the first months after arriving in Canada, or after moving from another province.

Further information

For example, if a province imposed a minimum residency requirement of two months, it would mean that a newly arrived refugee claimant would have no access to social assistance for their first two months in Canada. It would also mean that a refugee claimant who moved from another province (maybe to reunite with family members, or to look for work) would not have access to social assistance for their first two months in that province.

For more information about the impact upon refugee claimants see: ISAC Presentation to the senate committee on social affairs, science and technology, especially section: Who does Bill C-43 impact? and the section : What is the impact of Bill C-43

Why is this so problematic for refugee claimants?

If a minimum residency requirement is imposed, many refugee claimants will lose their only source of income. Most refugee claimants arrive with little or no money, and they often have no network of support in Canada. They don’t have immediate access to a work permit. Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in Canada.

Further information

In some cases, refugee claimants may be eligible for a work permit, but it takes several weeks (months actually) for a permit to be approved and issued. An alternate source of income is required, at least in the interim, which social assistance frequently provides. Even with a work permit, it can be hard to find a job, particularly for people who are suffering from trauma and the impact of violence and persecution in their home country. Many speak neither English nor French. Others are not eligible for a work permit, such as newly-arrived claimants from countries that the federal government has designated as “safe” – regardless of the violence or persecution they have experienced there.

Without social assistance, they will be unable to feed, house, or clothe themselves and their families. They will be forced to turn to already overburdened charities and shelters, or they will end up on the street. Those with serious health needs will have no access to prescription drugs that are covered as part of social assistance benefits.

For more details see:

BCPIAC Submission to the Standing Committees on Immigration & Finance on Budget Bill C-43, CCR: C-43 and social assistance: kicking people when they are down and, regarding reduced access to health care for vulnerable refugee claimants see Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care

Who exactly are refugees and why should I be particularly concerned about them?

Refugees are persons who are fleeing persecution. They have been forced to leave their country of origin because they are at risk of serious human rights abuses. Many have fled after experiencing grave injustices and trauma, such as physical or sexual violence, unfair imprisonment and torture. Canada has a legal obligation to protect refugees because they are not protected in their home country. Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in Canada: they have no protection from their home government, they are usually suffering from the physical and psychological impacts of persecution, and they lack security and support here in Canada.

Further information

Some examples of refugees are people persecuted for their religion or political opinion, women fleeing gender-based violence, and LGBT persons at risk of violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

For more information about refugees, see UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Is cutting refugees off social assistance contrary to international human rights obligations?

Yes. Denying basic social benefits, particularly to refugees, contravenes the spirit and letter of numerous international human rights obligations that are binding on Canada, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

Further information

Canada has signed the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights which requires us to “recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.”

Canada also has a particular duty to protect children, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under the Convention on the rights of the Child, Canada must take “appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status [...] shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance” (art. 22 (1)). Canada must also “recognize for every child the right to benefit from social security, including social insurance, and shall take the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of this right in accordance with their national law” (art. 26(1)).

Leaving refugee claimants destitute could also lead to violations of the Refugee Convention. If refugees have no means to support themselves, they will not be able to prepare properly for their refugee hearing, which may lead to them being wrongly rejected and sent back to persecution in their home country.

For more details see:

Amnesty International, Denying Social Assistance to Refugee Claimants Violates International Law: Bill C-585 Must be Withdrawn and  Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers' brief (pages  4-5).

Is cutting refugees off social assistance contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Yes. The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that the Charter protects the basic rights of refugee claimants in Canada. Depriving them of social assistance would affect their right to life, liberty and security of the person (section 7) and expose them to cruel and unusual treatment (section 12). It would also be discriminatory toward a prescribed group (section 15).

Further information

In 2005, the UK House of Lords ruled that the exclusion of some claimants from state support amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment”, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, by denying “even the barest necessities of life” (ex parte Adam). In July 2014 the Federal Court of Canada drew on this case in finding that the Canadian government’s cuts to refugee health care constituted “cruel and unusual treatment” in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Following the same logic, a court might well conclude that depriving refugee claimants of the barest necessities of life also represents cruel and unusual treatment.  

For more details, see Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers' brief (pages  3-4)

Do refugees currently receive a higher amount of social assistance than other people in Canada?

No. This is a persistent but completely false myth.

For more details see

Canadian Council for Refugees: Refugees and income assistance - rebutting the chain email ("pensioners' myth")

What effect will this have on refugee support systems?

If provinces cut refugee claimants off social assistance, they will shutting out access to health and social services to some of the most vulnerable people in the country. This in turn would put a large amount of pressure on shelters and charitable organizations. Already overstretched NGOs would find refugees with nowhere to turn on their doorstep, with no possibility of providing the support they require. Refugee shelters would be under threat of closure.

For more information, see the testimony of Romero House at the House of Commons Finance Committee, 17 November 2014 and CCR: C-43 and social assistance: kicking people when they are down (page 5)

Why would a province cut refugee claimants off social assistance? Wouldn’t this be counter-productive?

We hope that all provinces will see that cutting refugee claimants off social assistance would be a bad idea, for the refugee claimants and for society as a whole. Costs would simply be transferred onto front line service agencies. Refugee claimants would likely be forced into the already bursting shelter system in local municipalities. Their health would deteriorate and some would end up in hospital emergency rooms.

However, governments sometimes make decisions that appear to save money in the short-term, without calculating the long-term costs.


Will this affect refugees or only refugee claimants?

Cuts would affect refugee claimants, many of whom are refugees. Approximately 50% of refugee claimants are found to be refugees in Canada’s refugee determination process. This means that about half of the people affected would be refugees.

Wouldn’t cutting off social assistance deter unfounded claims?

There is no evidence that a denial of social benefits would deter fraudulent refugee claims. The federal government made this same argument to justify cutting access to health care, but in a recent court decision the Federal Court found that there was no evidence for this argument.

For more details about the myth of deterring unfounded claims see: The Hamilton Spectator, Cuts to health care undermine our humanitarian efforts. For information about the UK experience, see CCR: C-43 and social assistance: kicking people when they are down (page 6)


How many people would be affected?

Most refugee claimants need to rely on social assistance for a short period when they first arrive. In recent years, between 10,000 and 25,000 persons have made a refugee claim each year: most, but not all, probably received social assistance, at least for a short time when they first arrived.