As pandemic eases, Toronto sees rise in asylum-seekers, need for housing

Post-pandemic, Canada is facing challenges as more refugees strive to settle in Canada. (Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register, CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – There’s a storm coming, warns FCJ Refugee Centre executive director Loly Rico.

“Our numbers have increased very highly,” Rico told The Catholic Register.

As one of a handful of organizations that serves asylum seekers in Toronto, Rico is seeing a significant slice of a staggering 61,890 asylum claims processed in Canada the first eight months of this year — already more than twice the 24,930 asylum claims processed in 2021. As COVID travel restrictions eased this spring, it wasn’t just vacationers on the move. The eight-month total of asylum claims for 2022 is 97 per cent of the total for 2019, the last full year before the pandemic and the all-time record.

At the front door, FCJ is greeting an average of 60 people a day looking for help.

“Every day we see families coming,” Rico said, and those families typically need housing, English classes and legal help with their asylum claims. All are in short supply.

“We need more lawyers. With the pandemic, many of them closed their offices,” said Rico. “We have a big housing crisis.”
With funding from the City of Toronto, FCJ and the other refugee shelters have found housing for more than 800 people so far this year — a program originally designed to house 600. Rico worries that the program’s funding will run out in December. Any extension will depend on more money from the federal government and a new city council to approve it.

FCJ’s creativity in finding Air B’n’B accommodations, hotel rooms and even permanent housing is keeping refugees out of the shelter system, for the most part. At Good Shepherd Ministries, executive director Aklilu Wendaferew reports there are currently seven or eight refugees in the men’s shelter.

“That has not really increased significantly in the last little while,” he said. “During COVID there were almost no refugees, because everything was locked. But in the last few months we have begun to receive refugees — but not the number we saw in 2017 and ’18.”
It’s a similar story at Toronto’s major shelter for homeless youth.

“Over the last five fiscal years, the number of youth who were refugees has increased from 8.6 per cent in 2017-18 to 15.5 per cent in 2019-20, and decreased to 10.6 per cent in 2020-21, during the pandemic,” said Covenant House spokesperson Michael Sheiner in an email.

Having learned from earlier waves of asylum seekers, Unity Health finds itself in a better position to deal with uninsured refugee patients this time around. The corporation that runs St. Michael’s, St. Joseph’s and Providence Hospitals in Toronto considers itself “a system leader in caring for uninsured patients,” said a Unity Health spokesperson.

An Ontario government program established in March 2020 funds medically necessary services in hospitals or in doctors’ offices to people not covered by OHIP. Unity is now recommending to Queen’s Park that the program continue beyond this year.

“Health care is a human right, and we strive to provide the best possible care to everyone who needs it, including newcomers to Canada,” Unity said in an email.

At the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada there is evidence that the system is beginning to back up again. If the IRB takes longer to decide who can stay and who must go, asylum seekers spend longer in limbo.

The good news is that the IRB used the pandemic pause at the border to slash its inventory of old cases. It also used the revolution in online meeting technology to speed up its processes.

“Canada is one of only four countries globally to have reduced refugee claim inventories during the pandemic,” said IRB spokesperson Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff in an email. “The IRB’s pivot to becoming a digital organization and holding hearings remotely during the pandemic allowed the IRB to significantly reduce wait times for new claims.”

But while wait times for new claims came down to 15 months in August of this year, the average processing time in months for all refugee claims remains stubbornly high at more than two years. As of the end of June, the IRB backlog stood at 55,501 cases. The IRB appeals tribunal had 5,258 cases in its in-box.

Catholic health care, Catholic school boards and Catholic social service agencies receive regular reminders from Pope Francis of just how important it is to welcome migrants and refugees.

“The exclusion of migrants is criminal,” the Pope said Oct. 9 as he canonized St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, the Italian bishop who founded the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo — the Scalabrinis who care for migrants the world over.

“I think of migrants. The exclusion of migrants is scandalous,” Francis said. “Actually, the exclusion of migrants is criminal.”
Wendaferew and his team at the Good Shepherd are right there with the Pope.

“We’re always welcoming people from every walk of life. That’s what hospitality and compassion are all about,” Wendaferew said. “We’re not specifically funded for refugees, to support refugees, but they are homeless. We serve the homeless.”

Rico hopes that Catholic parishioners get on board.

“They should call their MPs to have the federal government help,” she said. “They can pressure their MPs so that really they own their responsibility to provide the funding to the city (for refugee housing).”