Is B.C. a ‘desirable economic destination’ for Syrian refugees?

Refugees expected to boost labour market, put pressure on rental housing, but questions remain about work skills, language training, financial support  

A Syrian refugee and her child at a volunteer's camp in Greece. B.C. will accept 1,900 Syrian refugees by February | Credit: Shutterstock

Satisfying basic human needs – food, shelter and health care – will be first on the docket for the 1,900 Syrian refugees expected to reach B.C. over the next three months.

“Then the big question is how quickly people who are brought in from a situation like this become financially independent. Because that’s the goal. Nobody is hoping we bring in large numbers who will never be able to take care of themselves,” said Dan Hiebert, a University of British Columbia geography professor specializing in Canada’s refugee settlement policy.

English-language training and job skills conversion will be needed to get refugees well-paying jobs in the medium term and make them financially independent, according to Hiebert.

The federal government will provide support for refugees for two years. If the newcomers are not financially independent by then, it falls on the province to support the refugees living in B.C.

“The quality of the medium-term stuff, of course, depends on how well the short-term stuff is done,” Hiebert said.

As many as half of the Syrian refugees that have entered Germany suffer from mental trauma brought on from living in a war zone, according to a September report from the German Chamber of Psychotherapists.

Canadian taxpayers will spend $564 million to $678 million over the next six years covering costs of government-sponsored refugees who require mental health support and other basic needs.

Housing the bulk of those refugees in Metro Vancouver, where the majority of B.C.’s support services are located, will require about 1,500 housing units in a region already dealing with concerns over affordability.

Bryan Yu, senior economist at Central 1 Credit Union, said in the short term most of the units will come from government and charitable housing arrangements as opposed to the rental market.

It’s not until the refugees become more economically self-sufficient that Yu anticipates the influx of newcomers will have much of an impact on the rental market.

“The thing with the rental markets is they’re already very tight, especially in the Metro Vancouver area. So that’s going to put some pressures on that subset of the market. I don’t foresee a big uplift in [home] ownership demand from this.”

Yu added that experts don’t yet have a clear handle on who’s coming to B.C. or what their skill sets are, making it difficult to gauge the impact refugees will have on the labour market.

Over the medium term, he said, B.C.’s labour market supply will increase, but it will “take time” for existing job skills to transfer properly to Canadian companies.

What’s clear now is that the influx of refugees will boost demand in the region for consumer goods, Yu said.

Josh Labove, a researcher and doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, said the number of refugees coming to Canada and B.C. by February is “far from boiling the ocean” and citizens should view them as an investment in a human resource.

The federal Liberals initially pledged to sponsor 25,000 refugees on top of the 11,000 pledged by the previous Conservative government. On November 25, it was revealed 1,900 out of 25,000 refugees would be making their way to the West Coast by February.

But Labove said finding jobs in the Metro Vancouver workforce could be a challenge without proper skills training, and many could end up with low-paying careers. In addition to basic support services, refugees will need assistance networking with longtime residents as well as understanding the country’s labour market and banking system, according to Labove.

“Whether or not B.C. will be a desirable economic destination, I think it’s still a little too early to tell.”