Asylum seekers sleeping on the streets of Toronto: “It is a failure of all three levels of government”

The Big Story Podcast

Sharry Aiken, Chair of the FCJ Refugee Centre’s Board of Directors, and Associate Professor specializing in immigration and refugee law at Queen’s University, participated as a guest on an episode of the CityNews podcast The Big Story about the shelter crisis impacting refugee claimants and migrants in Toronto. “It is a failure of all three levels of government,” Aiken said.

Asylum seekers come to Canada for safety and a better life, but instead a group of them ended up sleeping on the streets of the country’s biggest city. The Peter Street shelter intake office was thrust into the national spotlight after the city–dealing with an overwhelmed shelter system–started to refer asylum seekers to federally run programs. But when people in need showed up to Peter Street site they were met with long waits, forcing them to stay on the street out front for weeks with no other place to go.

Sharry Aiken, Chair of the FCJ Refugee Centre’s Board of Directors

Community leaders have taken matters into their own hands, helping move the unhoused people to GTA churches. Hours after they stepped up, the federal government announced more than $200 million nationally to fund interim housing for asylum seekers, with about half going to Toronto.

“The numbers of people who’ve been forced to flee are at an all time high,” Sharry Aiken said. “At the end of just last year, there were over 35 million refugees around the world and 5.4 million asylum seekers. Those numbers are unprecedented. So it shouldn’t be surprising, in light of that, that Canada is actually experiencing a surge of refugee claimants right now in relation to what’s going on in the world,” she added.

Aiken noted that “indeed, the vast majority of people who are fleeing persecution right now come from just three countries, and they’re all countries that have been repeatedly in the news over the last few years. It’s Syria. It’s Ukraine. And it’s Afghanistan. Those are the top three sources of asylum seekers right now. And we can throw Sudan into the mix and understand that we’re dealing with an unprecedented crisis right now and one that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.”

“But having said that, it’s important to realize that Canada shares only a tiny fraction of responsibility for this population. Indeed, some 76% of asylum seekers remain in so called transit countries or neighboring countries, generally low to middle income countries, very far from Canada. So the biggest host countries for asylum seekers right now are Turkey, Iran, Colombia, Germany, and Pakistan. Canada, by virtue of its geography, is a hard place to reach,” Aiken said.

“So we’re not getting millions of people at our doorstep. We’re getting thousands. And in terms of Toronto’s share, we’re getting hundreds. And the problem is that it’s in numbers that are greater than the shelter system that has traditionally served this population can absorb. But this should have been planned for, right? It’s not as though these numbers surged all of a sudden, unexpectedly, in June. The numbers have been rising steadily for the past couple of years, and certainly in the last year, the budget, as accounted for at the municipal level, was simply not enough to serve the needs,” she added.

“And what should have happened was emergency resolutions and emergency measures taken to absorb the population of asylum seekers that arrived in Toronto. That didn’t happen. In fact, the exact opposite happened. The City of Toronto shut its doors in June, threw up its hands, and said, ‘it’s not our problem.’ And I think, frankly, that’s unconscionable,” Aiken said.

“People are shocked as they should be. I think it’s important to recognize that at least here in Toronto, a coalition of black led community organizations have banded together and actually just last night stepped in to offer short term emergency shelter in two local churches. And busloads of people were transported to a warm bed and a warm shower. But that’s community groups stepping up, and certainly, as has been reported, they don’t have the resources or the capacity to be playing this role over the medium to long term. They need governments to step in, and specifically the City”, stressed Aiken.

“The City has the capacity to open up emergency beds. We’ve done it in the past when there have been housing crisis. Now is the time to act and certainly find the money. And it’s up to absolutely the Federal government to step in with more funding. But that’s not an excuse to do nothing or to allow people to sleep on the streets in the meantime,” she said.

Listen to the whole interview »

Read also: “This is a shame”: Advocates demand urgent response to Toronto shelter crisis impacting refugee claimants and migrants »