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The city of Toronto is standing by its statistics showing almost 40 per cent of people in shelters are refugee claimants – a number challenged as false by federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen in a continuing spat with his provincial counterpart.

Amid growing tension between Ottawa and the provincial government, Mr. Hussen last week accused Ontario Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, who is responsible for the immigration file, of “fear-mongering” and using the issue of asylum seekers to “demonize people.” He was responding to her criticism of the federal government’s lack of plan for dealing with the influx of people crossing the U.S. border into Canada. In a critical statement, she cited the percentage of refugees occupying shelter spaces in Toronto.

“The status of people seeking access to the shelter system in Toronto is unknown," Mr. Hussen said during a CBC Power and Politics interview. “Therefore, to put a number on that is simply not factual.”

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But an official with Toronto’s shelter services said the number accurately reflects how people staying in shelters describe themselves.

The city doesn’t track where clients are in the immigration process, but they are asked at intake why they need shelter services, said Patricia Anderson, a manager with the city’s shelter, support and housing administration.

As of Oct. 29, some 2,523 people – or 37.3 per cent of shelter occupants – self-identified as refugees, she said, adding that about 70 per cent were in temporary refugee shelters, and the rest were in the permanent shelter system.

It is unknown if any of those self-identifying as refugees might be asylum-seekers who have crossed the Canadian border at an unofficial entry point.

“The number the City reports as being refugee claimants are those who have self-identified as refugees when asked their reason for needing service,” Ms. Anderson said in an e-mail.

She said people are not required to give any answer when asked their reason for needing shelter, but those staying in shelters work with a counsellor to create a plan for permanent housing.

“During this work, staff will identify specific services needed by that household to reach that goal,” Ms. Anderson said. “For refugee claimants, there are specialized services that may be required, so it’s important for case workers to know this in order to provide appropriate services.”

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Mr. Hussen’s office said he stands by his statement, accusing Ms. MacLeod of conflating the issue of refugees with asylum-seekers who cross the border into Canada at unofficial entry points. Those cases are later heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board to determine if the asylum-seekers are eligible to stay in Canada.

“Toronto primarily relies on self-reported statistics, which does not differentiate between asylum seekers and refugees,” spokesman Mathieu Genest said. “Those already determined to be refugees have access to a number of settlement and integration services, which our government funds every year.”

A spokesman for Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city is dealing with an “unprecedented demand for shelter from asylum seekers and refugee claimants,” and the data has been shared with both the federal and provincial governments.

“We expect the federal government will continue to honour its commitment to helping the City of Toronto address this issue,” spokesman Don Peat said.

Ms. MacLeod’s office declined to comment. But in response to reporting from CBC about the statistics over the weekend, Ms. MacLeod tweeted that Mr. Hussen was “not factual.”

“You said you couldn’t verify numbers…oops,” she wrote. “I won’t hold my breath for an apology.”

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