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Wave of asylum seekers floods Toronto’s shelters
Thousands of migrants who entered Canada through Manitoba and Quebec are gravitating to the country’s largest city, straining the emergency housing system
by Tavia Grant, Toronto / With files from Les Perraux in Montreal
Published June 20, 2018 / Updated June 22, 2018
Photo: Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail
He could take the threatening phone calls, intimidation attempts, a home break-in by a military officer, and several arrests. But when his family was threatened, Freddie Makaka-Mugerwa realized that the best way to keep them safe was for him to leave Uganda.
He’s now living alone at a shelter in Toronto, and can’t sleep at night because he worries about his family, who have gone into hiding.
“Canada has been on record as being welcoming, and that is crucial for anyone making a decision” on where to go, he says, adding that he ruled out the United States due to higher risks of being forcibly returned home.
Canada’s approach to asylum seekers has been markedly different from the United States, sparking an influx of recent arrivals. Some refugee claimants are arriving at airports, while more than 9,000 have crossed from the U.S. border into Quebec (and, to a much lesser extent, B.C. and Manitoba) this year. And that has added to a crowding crunch, pushing shelters over capacity and driving up costs.
After Montreal said in April that it would not accept more refugee claimants into its shelters, and because many are from Nigeria, and speak English, a wave of asylum seekers has descended onto Canada’s largest city.
Many of them are families. All are in need of housing, adding pressure to Toronto’s already-strained shelter system in a high-priced city with limited affordable housing. To deal with the pressure, the city asked two colleges to open their student dorms to refugee claimants for the summer and there are plans to erect four tents in the city to serve as extra shelter space later this year.
The treatment of asylum seekers has leapt into the spotlight in recent weeks. In the United States, the forced separation of more than 2,300 children, including toddlers, from their parents at the Mexican border has sparked a national and international outcry. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order to end the practice, although children already separated from their parents will not be immediately reunited with their families.
In Canada, which doesn’t have a policy of prosecuting all adult migrants who unlawfully enter the country, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale last November issued a directive to border services to “as much as humanly possible, keep children out of detention and keep families together.”
Around the world, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced as of the end of 2017, of which a record 25.4 million are refugees, according to data released this week by the United Nations refugee agency. Canada was the ninth-largest recipient of asylum claims in the world last year.
“Globally, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of displaced people – and now we’re just experiencing an impact that Europe has already experienced,” says Debbie Hill-Corrigan, executive director of Sojourn House, which runs emergency shelter and transitional housing services for refugees in Toronto. She doesn’t see this increase in Toronto as a short-term blip.
In Canada, an influx in claimants has caused backlogs to balloon; as of April, there were 55,360 pending claims. Last year, the number of refugee claims received by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada doubled year-earlier levels, hitting the highest level since record-keeping began in 1989.
The waiting time for decisions has stretched to a projected 20 months, from 16 months last September.
“We are at the beginning of this new normal, the very beginning,” says Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, who expects more arrivals from Central and South America – people fleeing violence who no longer see the United States as an option.
With pressures likely to grow, “we have to get ready,” he said, by adjusting long-term planning and viewing this shift with a global perspective.
In Toronto, which last year reaffirmed its status as a sanctuary city, all residents receive full access to city services, regardless of their documentation status. Children can attend school, families can access health care or social assistance and people can apply for work permits while waiting for decisions on their claims.
It’s a difficult balance, however, between remaining a welcoming, inclusive place where all newcomers are treated with dignity – and coping with a surge of asylum seekers, knocking at the door.
Toronto has seen a spike in refugee claimants in shelters this year, with average nightly numbers climbing to 3,191 this month – more than six times the level of two years ago. Toronto Mayor John Tory has issued increasingly urgent calls for additional funding from federal and provincial governments. He says 41 per cent of those in the city’s already-strained shelter system are now refugee claimants; by November, this share is projected to hit 54 per cent. As a result, for the first time, the city is temporarily housing people in student residences at two community colleges, spaces that are filling up fast.
Many recent asylum seekers are from Nigeria, fleeing violence, conflict and political strife at home. And while a common image may be of single young men, a growing share of recent claimants are families with children. This wave is such that Canada’s Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has been meeting with U.S. officials, and last month travelled to Nigeria to ask officials there to spread a “deterrence” message.
"Globally, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of displaced people – and now we’re just experiencing an impact that Europe has already experienced."
- Debbie Hill-Corrigan, executive director of Sojourn House
They’re also still coming from other parts of the world, service providers say: Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Iraq. The reasons for leaving range from domestic or family violence and the threat of female genital mutilation to religious or minority group persecution, threats to LGBTQ people, corrupt political regimes and civil war.
Not all claims will be accepted; many from Haiti and Nigeria have been rejected this year. In the first quarter of the year, 471 Haitian claims were rejected and 105 accepted; 359 Nigerian claims were rejected versus 178 acceptances (the backlog of Nigerian cases numbers nearly 8,000).
The #WelcomeToCanada message of early last year has since been tempered; a federal government tweet this month notes “Canada’s refugee system isn’t for those seeking a better economic life; it provides protection to refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Toronto has experienced waves of refugee claimants before, in 2001 and 2007. Several factors make this time different: The United States has all but closed its doors to refugees, causing many asylum seekers to set their sights on Canada. And these pressures come as housing costs in the city have skyrocketed, sparking urgent questions about how to shelter new arrivals – particularly families – with limited means.
Rent in Toronto has jumped 16 per cent in the past year alone; house prices have soared almost 60 per cent in the past five years. Housing affordability in Toronto, relative to income, is now among the worst in the world, according to the consultancy Demographia.
“Affordable housing is the major issue here,” says Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, which has served 1,700 claimants in Toronto in the past year. The pressures are such that a co-ordinated regional plan is needed, so people can be moved to other cities that have shelter spaces or more affordable rent.
(Toronto was already grappling with a lack of shelter spaces for its homeless population; in response, this month the city said it will establish four temporary tented structures as emergency shelters next winter, each capable of housing 100 people – a sign the city doesn’t expect these pressures to abate any time soon.)
Toronto isn’t alone in seeing a recent influx in claimants. In Hamilton, Micah House says it’s seeing more large families from Nigeria; it had to turn aside 506 requests last year owing to capacity constraints. In Waterloo, the Welcome Home Refugee House has seen an “exponential” increase in new arrivals this year, particularly families with children. Refugee claimants are coming to Waterloo due to space shortages in the shelters in Toronto and because apartments are cheaper than in the Greater Toronto Area, program director Sharon Schmidt says.
The Red Cross, which is running the shelter services and orientation at Centennial College and Humber College, until August, says most arrivals are either single mothers or two-parent families with children. In another contrast to conditions south of the border, Centennial has opened its soccer pitch for kids and has World Cup screenings; at Humber, children have access to a community pool and the local library.
At Humber, there are currently 184 refugee claimants in residence; 60 of them are under the age of 18. Centennial has 350 people staying there; about half of these residents are children.
Refugee shelters are at full capacity – to the point where in some instances, people are sleeping on a pullout couch in Karen Francis’s administrative office in the basement. She is the executive director of Matthew House, which runs four homes, two of which are dedicated to refugee youth, who are as young as 16.
They have capacity to shelter 40 people (who are currently from countries such as Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan and Mexico). They connect people with mental-health supports, English lessons and job skills training, and have expanded a program that helps refugee claimants prepare for their hearings by holding a simulation hearing so they know what to expect.
“We see that folks arrive here with a high degree of motivation, and a positive attitude and gratefulness to a country that has welcomed them,” she says, stressing that they are resilient and want to give back to society. Past residents have gone on to careers in law, medicine and teaching.
But in the near term, the influx is straining city finances. The city says it has incurred $64.5-million in additional costs of shelter for recent claimants, last year and this year, and that at this rate it expects a $25-million operating budget shortfall for 2018 – prompting the mayor to ask federal and provincial governments for funding. The federal government earlier this month pledged $50-million to Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, of which $11-million was earmarked for Ontario, to offset housing costs. Questions about further provincial assistance, sent to the office of premier-designate Doug Ford, were not answered.
It has also affected other services. Ontario Works, for example, says a growing share of people receiving social assistance are refugee claimants.
Since the late 1980s, the city has used motels, when needed, to increase the capacity of the family shelter system. That’s happening now – visits along Kingston Road in east Toronto, to places such as the Roycroft Motel and the Lido Motel, show what living in limbo looks like: Parents sit on patio chairs outside their rooms, laundry hanging up to dry on a fence. A toddler zooms on a wheeled toy car; an older boy wanders by on a narrow patch of grass.
Mr. Calla, of COSTI, says most recent refugee claimants in Toronto are from African countries, mainly families, who crossed the border from the United States into Canada. “For them to make that journey … it takes significant personal resources, research, planning and then execution. Consequently what we’re seeing is people with very high human capital,” he said, adding that 97 per cent of those from Nigeria speak English, and 73 per cent have postsecondary education. “They are highly motivated to work; they’re really anxious to get their work visas and integrate.”
To address the backlog, the federal government plans to speed up the handling of files from people who cross at unofficial ports of entry, partly by hiring dozens more Immigration and Refugee Board staff to process claims.
Quebec and Manitoba have seen waves of such crossings in the past two years, although numbers have eased more recently. The biggest single month for these crossings in recent years was last August, when 5,712 people crossed, most of them into Quebec, prompting the province to open the Olympic Stadium for temporary housing. No similar measures have been necessary so far this year.
Manitoba had growing numbers last year, but so far this year that has subsided.
The number of people crossing in Quebec – as tracked by RCMP interceptions – eased in May from April (to 57 people a day on average compared with 83 people a month earlier). Mr. Hussen said preliminary figures show the downward trend continuing in June.
As for Mr. Makaka, 43, he was a political activist leading an otherwise rooted, middle-class life before he left Uganda. He was university educated, had been an area sales manager at Barclays, and co-founded and ran a successful green-energy firm, travelling as far as China to do business.
He had protested issues such as high unemployment, and the removal of presidential term limits. It is a dangerous country in which to speak out. Uganda is ranked 151 of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index; Human Rights Watch says its government continues to violate free association, expression and assembly rights, while security officials still use excessive force, with impunity.
Now in Toronto, Mr. Makaka wants to move off social assistance and be economically self sufficient as quickly as possible. He hopes – first and foremost – to bring his family over, and eventually, to start his own business in Canada.
He pulls out his phone and shows pictures of his children; the youngest of seven is a six-month-old daughter, who is learning how to crawl.
It wasn’t his preference to leave his family, culture, career and home. He felt that he had no choice, after a printout from a Facebook photo of his wife and kids was placed on the windshield of his car, with red crosses marked on their faces. He dreams of being reunited with wife and children. He hopes his claim will be allowed, that the decision makers “understand that no person would want to leave their country. This is a situation where it would save lives.”