Asylum with Dignity: Advocates Urge National Plan to Better Protect Refugee Claimants

Left to right, Jenny Jeanes, Allan Reesor McDowell, Loly Rico, and Gauri Sreenivasan. Photo: @GauriSreenivas1 / X

The Canadian Council for Refugees called today on the federal government to create a national plan that addresses the growing number of refugee claimants and ensures the right to asylum.

The proposal was presented by Gauri Sreenivasan (co-executive director, Canadian Council for Refugees), Loly Rico (founder, FCJ Refugee Centre), Allan Reesor McDowell (executive director, Matthew House Ottawa), and Jenny Jeanes (detention program coordinator, Action Réfugiés Montréal and vice-president, Canadian Council for Refugees), during a news conference in Ottawa to mark National Refugee Rights Day, April 4.

“Today, April 4th, marks Refugee Rights Day, a day set aside in Canada to honour the 1985 Supreme Court decision which confirmed that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the fundamental rights of refugee claimants in Canada, guaranteeing them a fair hearing,” said Gauri Sreenivasan.

“Refugee claimants,” she added, “are those who are seeking protection after arriving on Canadian soil, as opposed to those receiving refugee status overseas. They have often survived perilous journeys to seek safety here, and the vast majority, almost three out of four last year, are found to be refugees needing protection.”

“But this special day rings hollow. Forty years after the landmark Supreme Court decision, the rights of refugee claimants in Canada are still not being respected. In a country that prides itself on its leadership and know how in welcoming and settling refugees from abroad, shockingly, there is no system in place to deal with claimants who arrive at our shores,” Sreenivasan denounced.

False narratives

“Instead, we are seeing a false narrative bandied about by political leaders that unfairly labels refugee claimants as a crisis, and an approach that is focused either on futile and dangerous attempts to stop refugees from seeking safety here, or costly short term emergency responses that serve neither the public nor refugees,” Gauri Sreenivasan said.

“Far too many claimants are ending up homeless or bused to isolated hotels, lost in a confusing system without supports or legal counsel. In the past six months alone, two unhoused refugee claimants have died in the Greater Toronto Area for lack of adequate supports. Canadians are rightly appalle,” she stated.

“It is time to change both the conversation and the approach to refugee claimants in Canada. The good news is that this country is more than capable. I’m here with leading representatives from the membership of the Canadian Council for Refugees, who know firsthand that with some key adjustments to the infrastructure already in place, and a proactive mindset, we can redirect wasteful expenses,” Sreenivasan explained.

“We can replicate what we know works so that those fleeing persecution are treated fairly, and can live and contribute to our country in safety. Today, the CCR is calling for a coordinated, national approach to ensure the right to asylum with dignity. This requires contributions from federal, provincial, municipal governments and civil society, but federal leadership will be key, and it is time for Ottawa to step up,” she added.

Five key areas

Sreenivasan listed five “key areas” that require action: “First, establish reception centres to orient arrivals and coordinate services; second, fund and replicate successful transitional housing models; third, make claimants eligible for the support services that are already offered to all other newcomers; ensure legal aid is available across the country; and lastly, streamline the application and determination process.”

Elaborating on the first two recommendations, Alan Reeser McDowell, executive director, Matthew House Ottawa, said: “In collaboration with provincial and municipal governments, as well as civil society, ee recommend that the federal government established reception centres to provide emergency shelter, triage, orientation and referral services. For newly arrived refugee claimants in major cities across the country, having a centre to receive expert guidance upon arrival will help refugee claimants get and stay on track with their claims and settlement process.”

“A centre responsible for coordination can also play a critical role in ensuring services are appropriate and complimentary. Leading to better outcomes for refugees and very likely with significant cost savings for governments. The work underway to establish a reception centre for the Peel region with federal funding is a positive sign and should be replicated,” he added.

Transitional housing

“We also recommend that the federal government provides sustained funding for transitional housing for refugee claimants, scaling up existing successful models, which will complement the reception centres over the last three decades. Civil society has, on its own initiative, developed a network of at least 35 organizations across the country that offer short term and transitional housing for refugee claimants,” Alan Reeser McDowell explained.

“Initial findings indicates that these programs operate at a fraction of the cost of hotels or homeless shelters. For example, at Matthew House, Ottawa, where I work, average cost per bed is less than 35 a day. Yet programs like ours often respond far better to the needs of refugee claimants who are newly arrived,” he said.

“These programs typically provide food, connections to a lawyer, getting help with a work permit and finding a job. Perhaps most importantly, they provide community of support that is critical to well being and mental health. Residents are also supported in securing longer term housing, leading to shorter stays in transitional housing, and easing pressures on emergency shelters and related services. With predictable long term government funding, successful models for refugee claimant transitional housing can be scaled up and replicated with immediate benefits,” he said.

Dignity from the beginning

Loly Rico, FCJ Refugee Centre’s Founder, to spoke about the CCR recommendation around services. She explained that the federal government, through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, provide wraparound settlement services to newcomers, “but refugee claimants are not eligible for that services, and that impact on the beginning of their lives [in Canada]”.

“We have seen right now, with the case of Ukrainians, that they were providing settlement services to them, with the purpose that they can start integrating into the Canadian society,” she said. “Vast majority of refugee claimants, they become the future Canadians, and what we are asking is that the federal government give eligible refugee claimants access to the settlement services, so they can have a dignified life at the beginning, when they come to Canada. That’s what we are asking,” she added.

“At he FCJ Refugee Centre we havea few refugee houses where we provide minimum or basic services to them, and they have been successful at the end, when they become Canadians,” Rico said. “What we are asking is to have wraparound services, so we won’t see situations where they end up homeless, or on the street, or even losing their life because they come and they don’t have access to these services,” she added.

Effective legal representation

Jenny Jeanes, vice-president of Canadian Council for Refugees, pointed out that “effective legal representation is essential for fair and effective refugee determination, and for coordination of all of these systems. Many people don’t realize the complexity of refugee claims. Things like, are you eligible for state protection? Is there an internal flight alternative? These are notions that would be complicated for Canadians, let alone refugee claimants who’ve just arrived here seeking protection.”

“Currently, there is a severe shortage of legal aid across the country, and in provinces where it exists, it’s underfunded, and many people don’t have access to effective legal representation. In some provinces, like Saskatchewan, for example, it simply does not exist,” Jeanes said.

“To be able to ensure that people can promptly and correctly present their refugee claim and have access to a fair hearing, fair refugee determination down the line, it’s essential that they have legal representation. We’re calling on the federal government to ensure that funding for legal aid. Multi-year funding that’s stable, predictable, linked to the number of claims and reflects the actual cost of determining refugee statu,” she added.

Following is the brief with the proposed measures for a National Plan, as published by the Canadian Council for Refugees.

A National Plan for Asylum with Dignity: Five Key Pillars

Canada is a global leader in resettling refugees approved by the UN prior to their arrival in Canada. Our extensive national welcome system, while not perfect, sets such refugees up for success by providing information, services and logistical support so they can find housing, work and community.

Unfortunately, no similar system exists for refugee claimants arriving without pre-approval—who numbered more than 140,000 last year, a fifty percent increase over 2022. The right to claim asylum in another country is protected under international human rights covenants to which Canada is a signatory. The vast majority of those seeking refugee status in Canada after their arrival (over 70 percent in 2023) are ultimately determined to be refugees fleeing persecution. However, they must navigate a bureaucratic maze for two years or more, often without legal counsel, making their way with no orientation and little assistance. To find short and long-term housing, employment, a lawyer, even to register their children in school, they are left on their own, turning an already disorienting first days, months or years in Canada into a nightmare.

Despite sizable yet sporadic injections of short-term federal funding for temporary housing in hotels or homeless shelters, despite efforts by municipal and provincial governments, and despite the work of nongovernmental and community organizations, too many refugee claimants—people who have survived often perilous journeys to seek safety in Canada—are falling through the cracks.

Failing to plan is planning for failure—everybody loses

Canada’s approach to refugee claims has several fundamental strengths, notably the refugee determination process, which is admired throughout the world, as well as access to work permits and the provision of health care through the Interim Federal Health Program. However, the rising numbers of people driven from their homes around the world to our doorstep demands more than stopgap measures. Spending hundreds of millions on hotel rooms, which is what the federal government is currently doing, may keep this problem out of sight for a while, but it serves neither claimants nor the public. The lack of a coordinated response from all three levels of government fails those who have a right to asylum, puts local governments and community groups in short-term reaction mode, and leaves Canadians shocked and upset that so many claimants end up homeless in a country that prides itself on its openness to refugees.

People in Canada are increasingly being told that refugee claimants are causing a “crisis”— a situation Canada is unable to handle. This is simply not the case. Our country has the infrastructure, the know-how and the resources. With some key adjustments to the infrastructure in place and a proactive mindset, governments together with civil society can repurpose what already exists, redirect wasteful expenses, and replicate what we know works, so that those fleeing persecution are treated fairly and can live in safety.

Five key areas for federal action

The measures we propose will set refugees up for success in Canadian society, at a fraction of the cost that is currently spent on emergency measures.

#1 Establish reception centres in cities with large numbers of claimants to orient arrivals and coordinate services, in collaboration with provincial and municipal governments and civil society.

While adapted to local needs, all such centres should provide orientation and referral services to newly arrived refugee claimants—both those who need shelter and those who have found it. They triage claimants’ needs and connect them to relevant service providers. The work underway to establish a reception centre for the Peel Region with federal funding is a positive sign of collaboration that should be built upon. For example, CCR members in Ottawa are organizing with support from city officials for a similar project, and are ready to engage with the federal government.

In addition, such centres can facilitate the movement of refugee claimants within a city and to regions where the capacity to welcome and settle them exists. Finally, the centres can provide emergency shelter where needed, with access to immediate respite supports.

Having a single venue for receiving expert guidance from the outset will greatly alleviate stress for exhausted and overwhelmed refugee claimants. It will help claimants stay on track with their claims, leading to better outcomes for refugees and savings for government. And it will facilitate the work of refugee support organizations. A centre responsible for coordination can also play a critical role in ensuring services are appropriate and complementary.

#2 Provide sustained federal funding for short term and transitional housing for refugee claimants, scaling up the successful experiences of civil society, diaspora and community groups, to complement provincial and municipal efforts.

Civil society has on its own initiative, developed a network of 35 shelters across the country that offer emergency short term and transitional housing for refugee claimants. They run at a fraction of the cost of hotels or homeless shelters yet respond far better to claimants’ needs. Crucially, this network also offers food, assistance in finding a lawyer and help applying for a work permit. Perhaps most importantly it provides a community of support that is critical to wellbeing and mental health. These homes also help residents find long-term housing, leading to shorter stays in transitional housing and easing pressures on homeless shelters.

Diaspora community organizations and faith groups have also devised innovative ways to provide emergency shelter and social supports.

With predictable long-term government funding, this refugee housing network could be scaled up to serve many more claimants in need of housing and supports on arrival. Such funding would encourage provinces and municipalities to replicate this successful model for claimants, while investing in affordable housing for all.

#3 Make refugee claimants eligible for the support services offered to other newcomers under the Settlement Program run by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

A highly developed network of organizations across the country offering specialized services to new arrivals already exists, however their hands are tied as they are not allowed to serve refugee claimants. Extending IRCC’s existing successful settlement program to include refugee claimants would be a fast and cost-efficient way of providing quality services to claimants. The Program provides needs and assets assessment and referrals, information and orientation, language training, employment-related services and community connections. There is already precedent for this – in 2022, access to settlement services was exceptionally (but appropriately!) extended to Ukrainians fleeing war who would have been otherwise ineligible due to their temporary status. Refugee claimants deserve no less.

Note that the vast majority of refugee claims are ultimately approved—roughly three in four in 2023, meaning most claimants will eventually become eligible for these services anyway. The proposed approach would simply ensure that they have access to them when they are most needed. Settlement support would allow claimants to better navigate the refugee claim process and meet key deadlines, thus contributing to a fairer and more efficient refugee determination system. In 2023, IRCC’s Strategic Immigration Review recognized just such a need to “improve services to those seeking asylum to ensure a human approach”.

#4 Ensure that adequate legal aid coverage is available for refugee claimants in all parts of the country supported by multi-year funding.

Representation by qualified counsel is needed from the beginning through to the end of the refugee claim process if claims are to be initiated promptly and correctly and a fair hearing held. Multiyear federal funding of legal aid is essential to remove the serious barriers to legal representation that refugee claimants face. It would address the severe shortage of legal aid lawyers by encouraging provinces to set compensation rates that bring more professionals into the system. Federal funding should be worked out with legal aid organizations, based on cost per claim, and tied to actual numbers of claims.

Crucially the federal government should fund a diversity of organizations to ensure legal aid services are available to claimants in provinces where the provincial program does not cover refugee claims (New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island). The successful experience of the Halifax Refugee Clinic, for example, which receives federal funding to provide legal services in Nova Scotia, could be replicated in other provinces.

#5 Streamline the initial stage of the claims process and eliminate the backlog in the subsequent determination process with small but significant adjustments.

A complete solution to the long delays and unnecessary costs of the refugee claims process may require a comprehensive revision of the eligibility rules, including legislative change. However, the process could be significantly simplified with small adjustments now, especially to the initial stage. Dispensable questions could be identified and eliminated, information could be collected in the language of the claimant, and timeframes could be made more realistic.

Allowance could be made for the many claimants who lack the level of literacy and access to equipment required to utilize the online portal. (While in theory exceptions are allowed, in practice they are almost never granted.) And claimants could be given documentation identifying them as such immediately, so that they can access vital services, such as opening a bank account.

These steps to simplify the initial stage will shorten the time period during which claimants need social assistance and emergency housing. For the subsequent determination stage, adequate funding tied to the number of claims received will eliminate backlogs and safeguard our internationally respected model, while shortening the waiting period for claimants.