On Friday, July 14, a coalition of African Canadian groups and organizations working with refugees and people experiencing homelessness in Toronto held a news conference to demand action from all levels of government to address the growing number of refugee claimants who are being refused shelter and left to sleep on the city’s streets. The news conference took place on the sidewalk in front of Toronto’s shelter intake office at 129 Peter Street, where an increasing number of unhoused refugee claimants have been sleeping rough.
Since June 1, the city of Toronto has been turning away refugees from its at-capacity shelter system, referring them to federal programs. The city has claimed that the federal government owes them more funds. On the other side of the table, the federal government has said that it has already given some $215 million to the city of Toronto to support refugee housing.
Kizito Musabimana of the Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre said advocates working with asylum seekers are tired of different levels of government not taking accountability, and that they should instead be working together to solve the bed shortage crisis in Toronto’s shelter system.
“The federal government is pointing fingers, the city is pointing fingers and saying they need help, and the provincial government is sometimes not at the table,” he said. “We want everyone to get at the table and answer to everybody here.”
Community worker and homelessness advocate Diana Chan McNally said that unhoused refugees are being utilized as political leverage by elected representatives who refuse to view the harmful impacts of their policymaking.
“While the city must be held accountable for rescinding shelter for refugees, jurisdiction for their support and care ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of the federal government,” said McNally.
This is a crisis: we need action now
According to Loly Rico, of the FCJ Refugee Centre, “In more than 30 years of working with refugees, we have never seen this level of shelter needs or homelessness. It is a crisis.”
Rico stated that the government of Canada should be ashamed that refugee claimants in this country are sleeping on the street.
“[Prime Minister Trudeau] has been saying around the world that Canada welcomes refugees; well, stop talking, stop saying words, take action, and provide shelter to refugee claimants now,” she said.
Mr. Asuman, a refugee claimant from Uganda, also appealed directly to the Prime Minister: “Justin Trudeau, we need your help. We have come to Canada to seek refuge and have been told we will be welcomed, but now we have nowhere safe to go. Justin Trudeau, as Prime Minister, we are turning to you to help us”.
Forced migration is on the rise globally due to various factors such as war, economic hardships, and environmental disasters. People will continue to flee to Canada and Toronto in search of safety, and we must be able to accept and treat them with dignity.
Racism in Canada’s refugee and immigration system
An overwhelming proportion of refugee claimants who are currently living outside 129 Peter Street are of African origin. Some have been living there for over a month, through extreme heat and pouring rain.
Representatives of African community groups in Toronto expressed their concern over the government’s apparent inaction to address the housing crisis faced by African and racialized refugee claimants. Amanuel Melles, Executive Director of the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities, highlighted the historical lack of funding from the government for Black-led organizations that provide shelter, housing, and culturally appropriate support services for refugee claimants. Melles urged all three levels of government to take action, invest in Black communities, and address their disproportionate disadvantages.
The Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), Debbie Douglas, asserted that it is not surprising that a significant number of people seeking refuge in Canada are from Africa. Around 30 million internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum-seekers live in Africa, representing almost one-third of the world’s refugee population. The fact is, the majority of refugees are being forced to stay in the Global South. This is because the Global North has intensified policies and measures to keep those seeking safety and protection out of their borders. An example of such measures is the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States, which was expanded this year to cover the entire US-Canada border.
Douglas stated, “Just over a year ago, we applauded as Canadians and Torontonians opened up our doors and welcomed Ukrainian displaced people. We should be proud of that. But all people who need protection should receive the same response from our government. All people, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender, must receive equitable treatment from the Canadian government.”
There are over half a million people living without immigration status in Canada, including denied refugee claimants. A large number of them fled their homes as a result of war, natural disasters, and economic hardships caused by global capitalist interests. However, when they arrived here, they were denied immigration status. Without immigration status, they are forced to live in fear and uncertainty, unable to access basic services and healthcare. For that reason, the coalition is urging the federal government to implement a regularization program that will enable people with precarious immigration status to obtain permanent residence in Canada.
This is a housing crisis, not a refugee crisis
Lorraine Lam, who has been working with the unhoused refugees, said that we have to call this crisis a housing crisis and not a refugee crisis. The crisis is not that there are refugees here; rather, it is the lack of available housing. Toronto has been experiencing a worsening housing crisis for more than a decade.
“The problem that we are seeing with the refugees here on 129 Peter Street is similar to what we see with the other homeless encampments around the city. What we need to do is go upstream and address the housing crisis and the fact that the social assistance rate is unlivable”.
The term “refugee crisis,” she added, opens the door to a lot of racism and xenophobia, which are the last things we need.
Urgent action now
Community groups are making the following calls to action:
- To Toronto’s new mayor Olivia Chow
- Receive refugee claimants arriving in Toronto
- Provide emergency shelter in Toronto with support to transition to long-term housing
- Provide support services
- To the federal and provincial governments
- Ensure refugee claimants at Toronto Pearson Airport and other international airports are received appropriately
- Resource municipalities to provide emergency shelter in Toronto with support to transition to long-term housing
- Resource community-based organizations to provide shelter and housing, and support services
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