Asylum seekers lodged in hotels and motels across the Greater Toronto Area will be staying two to four weeks longer than expected, as federal and municipal officials scramble for a new plan.
The hotels were meant to be a temporary solution, crafted under pressure to get asylum seekers out from the local college residences where they were placed for the summer. The federal government originally paid for the hotel rooms until Sept. 30. Now, their bill will extend through at least the first half of October, if not the whole month.
When asked what options the government has to house asylum seekers, after the extra two-to-four weeks run out, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said they “do not have additional information to provide at this point.”
Canada’s refugee system is in a tightly squeezed state, with more than 34,000 people entering the country through unauthorized points since early 2017. Only 398 have since been removed, with others somewhere within the increasingly backlogged system that processes refugee claims. Toronto’s already strained shelter system has been worn down by newcomers coming through Quebec, especially after Montreal declared in April that it would no longer accept asylum seekers into its own shelters.
And the City of Toronto says it has continually requested that the provincial and federal governments facilitate a co-ordinated response, to manage the increase of refugee claimants arriving in the city and redirect new arrivals to locations outside its shelter system. Some municipalities have answered the call – like Chatham-Kent in Southwestern Ontario, where 20 newcomers from five families were redirected this month after crossing the Quebec border, under a new pilot project aimed at taking the heat off of Toronto. But while Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it’s working with Toronto on a response to the asylum-seeker influx, it made no mention of collaboration with the province.
Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, and others who are helping the asylum seekers, have been working without information regarding what happens after Sept. 30. The government’s response plans so far, from the residences to the hotels, have been "band-aid solutions,” says Lucy Chaimiti, executive director of the Toronto-based refugee home Adam House.
Just five days before the federal government was set to cease payments to the hotels, Ms. Chaimiti, her colleagues at Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre, immigrant-services organization COSTI, members of Ms. Douglas’s Ontario-wide council, and numerous others living in the hotels or working in the field of refugee resettlement, were still in the dark about where asylum seekers would go next.
Ms. Chaimiti says it’s likely been "a very destabilizing process” for asylum seekers, refugee claimants and their families, who are waiting for answers on where they’ll live next.
In the last week of September, Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, was at the Toronto Plaza Hotel, where some of the newcomers have been housed, and said the scene was "depressive.” Many asylum seekers and refugee claimants were unaware that their days at the hotel may be nearing an end. They waited in limbo, hanging about the hotel lobby or smoking outside the building, as children clamoured. They were anxious about a lack of information, Mr. Rico-Martinez said – even those with lawyers to handle their claims.
In Toronto especially, a lack of available affordable housing is a "major issue,” COSTI executive director Mario Calla told The Globe and Mail in June. The province currently estimates that around 40 per cent of shelter occupants in Toronto are refugees, and Mayor John Tory has said they project that share to hit 54 per cent by November.
The Ontario government withdrew its support for the resettlement of asylum seekers in July, with Premier Doug Ford saying the issue was created by the federal government and was theirs to bear. The provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services echoed Mr. Ford’s message this week, saying the federal government has "sole jurisdiction” over border management and refugee and asylum programs.
The ministry says it asked the federal government in July to compensate Ontario and municipalities for the full costs associated with people who are crossing the border at irregular points, "estimated at about $200-million and counting.” It has also asked that refugee hearings are conducted within "the statutory 60 days instead of the current two years,” to integrate them into the province more quickly, spokesperson Matt Gloyd wrote in an e-mail.
All refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing, per the Supreme Court’s landmark 1985 Singh decision. The wait time for a refugee-claim hearing in Canada has increased more than a third over the past two years, to 20 months, under pressure from the more than 30,000 asylum seekers arriving via unauthorized border crossings.