The Halifax Regional Municipality is waiving transit and recreation centre fees for asylum seekers for up to one year.
Halifax regional council agreed to expand the Welcomed in Halifax program (WIH) on Tuesday. The program provides a WIH card to refugees for free public transportation and access to any HRM-owned recreation facility in their first year of settlement.
Along with Tuesday’s addition, the program will now also apply to refugee claimants with rejected claims. The municipality expects about 20 requests per year from asylum seekers, according to a staff report.
HRM has received almost 1,600 refugees since the initial approval of the WIH card in November 2015.
Coun. Russell Walker brought up concerns about waiving the fees for recreation programming. He said many residents in his district cannot afford a recreation centre membership, even after they’ve been officially accepted into Canada.
“I don’t think it is, should I use the word fair? I don’t think we’re treating apples to apples here,” he said in the meeting.
Coun. Waye Mason supported the initiative, as other additional changes could be made for other refugee needs later on.
“The idea is that anybody who is coming to the country for the first time has assistance with recreation and with transit at the same time,” he said. “And so right now what we do is if you’re a refugee, you have access to it.”
Mason said that sometimes refugees can be in Canada for a few years before their claim is processed. These changes to Welcomed in Halifax are expected to make this in-between time financially easier.
“The idea is to simply give them access to the help they need as early as we can,” he said in the discussion.
Annual costs for the HRM in lost revenue for 20 asylum seekers would be approximately $1,700 in transit fees. For recreation programming, at an estimated $100 per individual, the annual cost in lost revenue would come to $2,000.
According to the UN Refugee Agency an “asylum-seeker is someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.” A refugee is defined as an asylum seeker whose application has been successful.
Numbers from the UN website indicate every year close to one million seek asylum internationally. In 2017 there have been 35 total asylum claimants in Nova Scotia, according to the Canadian government.
Coun. Richard Zurawski spoke from personal experience and said immigration is important.
“We came to Canada with a suitcase and 10 bucks and Canada was gracious to us and provided us as many of the opportunities as we needed,” he said. “And we became functioning citizens of Canada. I support this whole-heartedly.”
Coun. Bill Karsten also spoke in the meeting about being a newcomer to Canada with about “15 dollars and a few suitcases.” Unlike Zurawski, he gave a different view.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact … immigrants do land here that are very successful in their own country. And those are also immigrants that we try to attract and hopefully keep,” he said.
The motion was unanimously approved.