Canada needs a national strategy for homeless refugee claimants

One year after the federal government closed Roxham Road, refugee claims in Canada continue to increase: there were 143,785 in 2023 compared to 91,730 in 2022.

The surprise announcement in March 2023 to modify Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States was touted as a way to “better manage access to the refugee system.”

Instead, the past year has seen deaths at irregular crossings, increased asylum claims at airports (not covered by the modified agreement) and soaring refugee claimant homelessness across Canada.

Gaps in housing for refugee claimants

People fleeing persecution have the right to claim asylum in Canada. Resettled refugees arriving through government assisted or private sponsorship routes receive housing, orientation and settlement support.

In contrast, federal, provincial and municipal governments do not have a systematic way to welcome refugee claimants. There is no co-ordinated, funded national plan.

Consequently, a disproportionate number of refugee claimants end up in emergency shelters. The City of Toronto recorded a 500 per cent increase in refugee claimants in shelters from 2021 to 2023. The City of Ottawa has recently opened up three temporary emergency shelters and the Ottawa Mission reports record numbers of newcomers accessing its services.

Shelters run by non-profit organizations across Vancouver indicate that 60 to 85 per cent of their beds were occupied by refugee claimants.

When these shelters are full, refugee claimants are pushed onto the streets. The sharp increase in homelessness of refugee claimants across the country highlights the pressing need for a more sustainable system to protect refugee claimants’ rights to asylum and housing.

The recent death of Kenyan asylum-seeker Delphine Ngigi while waiting for a shelter spot underscores the tragic human costs of current policy failures.

Promising approaches

Some non-governmental organizations across Canada provide transitional housing and wrap-around settlement support to newly arrived refugee claimants.

Our research, in collaboration with scholars Delphine Nakache and Azar Masoumi, has mapped out a patchwork of these organizations across the country, mostly in large urban centres.

In response to our survey, most of these organizations reported funding their services primarily through private donations and grants. Volunteers across the country give their time to subsidize a chronically underfunded system. Landlords, faith organizations and small businesses provide in-kind support, including below-market rent for many of the homes where these organizations operate their programs.

Such initiatives are important, but currently insufficient to respond to the increased demand. These successes need to be leveraged and scaled up to provide more comprehensive and systematic support to people seeking asylum in Canada.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow writes down notes while a community member voices their concerns during a news conference at a North York church where refugees and asylum-seekers received emergency shelter in July 2023.

Three recommendations

As we look ahead to Refugee Rights Day on April 4, we propose three key ways that municipal, provincial and federal governments can work together to ensure refugee claimants’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

  1. A national reception system for refugee claimants needs to be established. When a refugee claimant first arrives in Canada there must be a clear path to accessing shelter, orientation on the asylum process, and support tailored to their needs.

  2. Effective programs that combine transitional housing and wrap-around support for homeless refugee claimants should be systematically funded, scaled up and replicated. Many of these organizations have decades of experience and expertise. Our preliminary findings suggest that the cost per bed in these programs is significantly less than alternatives currently being used by municipal and federal governments, including homeless shelters and hotel rooms. Furthermore, refugee claimants coming through these programs are diverted from homelessness, working and living independently sooner.

  3. Instead of arguing over jurisdiction, municipal, provincial and federal governments must work together. Immigration is a shared federal-provincial responsibility. Housing involves all levels of government. The federal government should take a lead role in convening key stakeholders to develop a national strategy.

Refugee claimants arriving in Canada have both a right to claim asylum and the right to housing.

Growing homelessness across the country is a manifestation of our failure to uphold these rights. A national plan to welcome and support newly arrived refugee claimants would build on the experience, expertise and models of organizations that have been working for decades to welcome refugee claimants.

We know how to reduce homelessness and uphold our responsibilities to those seeking asylum and protection. Now all we need is the political will.

Allan Reesor-McDowell, executive director of Matthew House in Ottawa, co-authored this article.

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