Maura Forest, National Post, November 22, 2018
The federal government has paid nearly $2.3 million to house asylum seekers in Toronto hotels from August to the end of October, after the city complained earlier this year that its shelter system was overflowing from the influx of refugee claimants.
Ottawa will continue to rent some hotel rooms until Jan. 4 for asylum seekers for whom longer-term housing hasn’t yet been found, despite an initial plan to pay for accommodations only until the end of September. However, the number of refugee claimants on the federal government’s tab is far lower than it was in August, when Ottawa said it would rent rooms for about 450 irregular asylum seekers who had been staying in two college dormitories.
According to numbers tabled in the House of Commons this week, the immigration department extended reservations for 64 hotel rooms from Sept. 30 to Oct. 15, and for 37 rooms until Oct. 29. A spokesperson for Border Security Minister Bill Blair told the Post that only 10 rooms remain occupied as of Nov. 21. “There has been a decrease of over 90 per cent in the number of irregular migrants living in hotels being financed by the federal government,” Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux told the Post in an email.
The federal government paid just over $2 million for Toronto-area hotel rooms from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, according to the numbers tabled in answer to a question from the Conservatives, and another $203,000 in October. Cadieux said the final costs will be known in early 2019.
The City of Toronto also houses asylum seekers in hotels through its hotel and motel shelter program, and currently estimates that 1,752 refugee claimants are occupying 471 hotel rooms paid for by the city, out of the roughly 2,500 asylum seekers in the city’s shelter system overall. Twenty-seven asylum seekers are in one hotel funded by the federal government, according to city spokesperson Natasha Hinds Fitzsimmins.
In April, Mayor John Tory called for help from the federal and provincial governments, claiming that asylum seekers made up nearly 40 per cent of the people in the city’s shelter system, which was nearing capacity. The issue came to a head in August, when hundreds of asylum seekers temporarily housed in college dorm rooms had to move out to make way for incoming students. That’s when Ottawa stepped in to pay for hotel rooms.
Despite the federal support, the city still says asylum seekers make up nearly 38 per cent of people in the shelter system, which receives 15 to 20 new refugee claimants every day. “While the number of refugee/asylum claimants accessing the city’s shelter system fell off a bit during September and October, pressure on the city’s shelter system has remained,” Fitzsimmins told the Post by email. She said the city’s shelter occupancy is currently at 93 per cent.
The influx of refugee claimants, who are mostly entering Canada through an unofficial border crossing in Quebec, is also a source of growing tension between provincial and federal governments. In July, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his Progressive Conservative government would no longer cooperate with Ottawa on resettling asylum seekers. His government has demanded $200 million from the federal government to cover all costs associated with the refugee claimants.
In June, Ottawa announced $50 million to be divided between Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba to help with temporary housing costs. Since then, $11 million has been paid directly to Toronto, bypassing the provincial government, while Manitoba has received $3 million. But the government has yet to pay out the remaining $36 million to Quebec, as former premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government had asked for $146 million to cover its costs. Mathieu Genest, spokesperson for federal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen, said “those conversations are ongoing.”
The federal government also promised to put in place a triage system that would divert asylum seekers from Montreal and Toronto to smaller communities with more capacity. But in fact, only five families have moved to Chatham-Kent from the Quebec border crossing as part of a pilot program. “The lessons learned from this initial pilot project would inform the implementation of a similar triage system, if needed, in the future,” Cadieux said.
In total, 1,394 refugee claimants crossed the border illegally in October, down from the peak of nearly 6,000 in August 2017. In total, just over 17,000 irregular asylum seekers have come to Canada so far this year, compared to 20,593 last year.