When Diego Cardona's family arrived in Canada as government-assisted refugees 10 years ago, they were on the hook for travel loans totalling about $1,800.
Today, the amount owed is almost exactly the same.
Mr. Cardona, 19, is a member of a group of young refugees and immigrants who on Wednesday called for an end to such loans, saying they create unnecessary hardship for families. Canada is also the only country that charges interest on refugee loans.
The group, part of the Vancouver Foundation's Fresh Voices initiative, said the current refugee crisis also requires a faster family reunification process and the establishment of a national standing committee on refugee and migrant youth issues.
"Do we want refugee families who are settling into the country to pay back a refugee loan because that's the best way to invest their time? Or do we want the young people in those families to invest their time in getting an education and going to postsecondary?" Mr. Cardona asked.
Mr. Cardona, along with his mother and his sister, arrived in Canada from Colombia in 2005. They first settled in Quebec before moving to British Columbia in 2007. His mother has since died.
He said the amount owed on the loan recently climbed to as high as $2,900, due to interest.
However, Mr. Cardona said Citizenship and Immigration Canada has agreed to waive the portion involving his mother, bringing the amount owed close to the original total.
Nada Elmasry, who is also a member of the group but came to Canada as an immigrant instead of a refugee, said she's spoken with refugee families who were so burdened by the loans that they had trouble just buying food.
"Yes, they are paying the refugee loans, but that money is being taken away from their basic needs," she said at Wednesday's news conference.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, said last week she would like Ottawa to stop saddling refugees with travel loans. The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. has also criticized the practice.
The Canadian Council for Refugees has said the loans undermine the ability of refugees to contribute to their full potential. It has said refugee youth can be forced to work long hours while going to school and to put off postsecondary education.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in a statement that refugees who are to be resettled typically have few personal financial resources and are unable to access traditional lending institutions. It said the loans provide access to funding that would otherwise not be available, and cover medical examinations that are required to establish a person's admissibility to Canada.
"At any time, people facing hardships can request a review of their repayment arrangement so as not to create further undue burdens," the statement read, adding that the federal government has received $91 back on each $100 it has lent since the program's inception.