In Search of Refuge


July 2023 / Toronto

The first note of alarm came by email through the African Solidarity Network e-list. The Network is an alliance of leaders of African descent from the continent and the diaspora.

The leadership of the Ethiopian Association, a longtime OCASI member agency, was reaching out for support from other service agencies. There were a number of refugee claimants from Ethiopia who found themselves homeless on the streets of Toronto. They were congregating along with other houseless persons of various citizenships and immigration statuses outside a downtown intake and referral centre - 129 Peter Street. Several agencies on the list responded offering advice and seeking more information about the needs of these claimants and offering services. None had what they really required in the moment- shelter from the elements.

A few hours later, another email. This time from a couple of member agencies who provide shelter and housing to refugee claimants. They were full but were receiving calls from many new arrivals to the City. They were being directed by Canada Border Services Agency to the shelters but there were no spaces available. And we were told, there was talk coming out of the Deputy Mayor’s office that a new directive will be issued to the City’s Shelter Support and Housing Division to direct refugee claimants who could not find a space in refugee designated shelters, to Service Canada. A couple of days later, this policy directive was issued, effective June 1st.

While we understand the frustrations of City leadership, and support Toronto’s call for the federal government to step up and provide resources to house these new arrivals, using claimants as pawns between the three levels of government too closely resembles the political games being played in the US with the lives of migrants. Claimants are not pawns. They are people – individuals in search of a life of safety and protection.

The Council along with a few of its members engaged in the refugee housing space and in immigrant and refugee service provision, penned open letters to all three levels of government calling on them to do better. Even with the closing of safer routes like Roxham road in Quebec after the extension of the Safe Third Country Agreement across the entirety of the Canada-USA border, the numbers of claimants have remained steady as people make their way to the country’s largest city, where there is some familiarity in terms of the diversity of cultural communities, places of worship and cuisine.

The night before the morning I wrote this, there were over a hundred people, mostly men outside the Peter street space hoping for the small miracle of finding a place to lay their heads for a night or two. Those lucky enough to have phones, sit with phones glued to their ears, hearing the same disappointing messages over and over. No shelter available. Try service Canada. Or, there’s nothing Service Canada can do for you, try Central Intake. Over and over, day after day and night after night. Some have been waiting for more than a fortnight, finding some semblance of comfort on hard sidewalk concrete or as a last resort when illness strikes, in the chairs of the emergency rooms of our downtown hospitals. This is not sustainable.  

The federal government response to a Toronto Star reporter was misleading at best. They talked about the $175M allocated annually to Toronto based immigrant services agencies. At no time do they acknowledge that these funds cannot be used to support refugee claimants or temporary workers or those who are undocumented. They also talked about the millions of dollars transferred to municipalities over the last few years, without saying that the funds barely covered (and in the case of Toronto, didn’t) the additional costs of everything during the health pandemic.

The federal government must bear responsibility for refugee claimants. The provincial government must step up to assist with emergency shelter and housing. Municipalities cannot meet these challenges on their own. They do not have the resources to do so. And Toronto needs to find a better way to address this chronic shortage of shelter space for refugee claimants without using them as political pawns. Join our call to all levels of government to show the humanitarian face we so often boast about as Canadians. Let’s provide a warm welcome and soft landing for those who have reached our shores in their search for refuge.

In Solidarity.