'More to offer than to take': As Toronto races to manage a surge of migrants, a refugee claimant speaks out

Toronto is facing an influx of migrants, many who've crossed into Quebec via the U.S. border. As the city mounts an emergency response, one refugee claimant wants to dispel the idea that she's looking for a handout.

In Uganda, it was a crime to be who she was. Now she joins a surge of migrants hoping for a new start.

Toronto is facing an influx of migrants, many of whom have crossed into Quebec via the U.S. border. (CBC)

If she wanted to stay, she would have to choose.

It was either a life spent hiding behind different identities or risking the possibility of death in prison.

That's what turned one Ugandan woman into a refugee claimant, fleeing a country where being gay is more dangerous today than ever before. CBC News has agreed not to name the woman out of fear that revealing her identity might compromise her chance at a new start in Canada, where she's been for four months awaiting a hearing date that could change her life forever.

"If things go right, I have a lot more to offer than to take," she says, all too aware of the perception that refugees have come knocking at Canada's doors looking for a free lunch.

'I really had no fighting chance'

"I don't want to be on aid the whole time I'm here," says the woman, an information technology professional. "It's not the reason why I came. I came here to be able to live my life and still be able to give back."

Her story isn't unique. Neither is the route she took: first to the U.S., then into Canada by bus via the Quebec border.
According to city officials, the number of refugee claimants in the shelter system has surged in recent months, now accounting for 40 per cent of all shelter spaces. But advocates say demand on the system is part of a bigger problem. (Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre/Facebook)

It's a crossing that 400 people could be making each day by this summer, according to Quebec government officials. It's also become a lightning rod for politicians who say Canada is facing an illegal migration crisis with would-be refugees claiming asylum here instead of the U.S., even though it's dubbed a safe third country.

"Because of the current administration, I was really demotivated to make a claim in America," the woman said. "I was informed that I would have little hopes of success, which would in the end result in me being deported.

"I really had no fighting chance while I was there."

Half a world away from Uganda, at the Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre in Toronto, the beds regularly fill up in just 30 minutes, observes drop-in manager Deborah Jules, and the majority are now occupied by refugee claimants.

Perhaps nowhere is the surge of migrants into the city over the past year being felt more urgently than in its shelters, where some 40 per cent of the population is now made up of refugee claimants, up from 11 per cent in 2016.

'A band-aid solution'

Some advocates have pointed out that the pressure on the city's shelter system, however, is part of a bigger problem, with an ongoing occupancy rate of 96 per cent and that to pin the blame on refugees is to scapegoat them.

"Many of the shelter beds have been taken by asylum seekers and refugees, but that does not paint the full picture," Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam previously told CBC News. "The system overall has been under some significant strain."

So urgent is the issue, say city officials, that Toronto has moved to open two emergency reception centres at Centennial College and Humber College to house some 800 migrants — a temporary solution because the dorms will have to be vacated for returning students. 

The overwhelming majority of migrants claiming refugee status in Canada in the first quarter of 2018 hail from Nigeria, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada's latest numbers. India, Romania, Colombia and Haiti follow as distant runners up. 

Often, says Jules, her centre has to deliver the bad news that it is too full to take in anyone else. But it never turns anyone away without making them a referral to another centre.
Protesters seen outside U.S. Consulate demonstrating against US President Donald Trump's immigration policies in January 2017. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)
And while she supports the temporary measures being taken by the city, Jules calls them a "band-aid solution," for which she says the federal government is partly responsible through all-too welcoming messaging like this: 
About a year on, that messaging has become more measured:

'Toronto doesn't have any more space'

Toronto's designation as a sanctuary city may have also played a role. Last year, city council swiftly passed a motion that would give residents full rights to city services regardless of their documentation status

But many don't realize until they arrive here that life isn't necessarily as rosy as they may have believed, observes Jules.

She recalls one man who paid someone to arrange lodging for him here. When he landed, no one came to pick him up from the airport. He spent the following nights sleeping on the steps of a church, eventually speaking with the priest who allowed him to do some cleaning until he could find a place to go.

"He was listening to the news and heard people crossing into Canada and took his chances," she said. 

Toronto's temporary measures ring in at $6.3 million, says Paul Raftis, the city's general manager of shelter support and housing. That's on top of the estimated $64.5 million it allocated in 2018 for refugee claimants already in the shelter system.

But aside from the cost, Raftis warns, "the city of Toronto doesn't have any more space."

No known date for 'triage system' 

As of Wednesday night, the city had more than 2,700 refugees in its shelter system, and an estimated 10 more migrants are arriving each day. What Toronto needs now, Raftis says, is for the province and federal government to commit to a regional strategy to help accommodate newcomers and have them settle in communities where housing is more readily available. 
Paul Raftis, Toronto's general manager of shelter support and housing, says what the city needs now is for the province and federal government to commit to a regional strategy to help newcomers settle in communities where housing is more readily available. (CBC)

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has said the federal government and province are not doing all that they can, and is pledging 65,000 more social housing units and 30,000 supportive housing units. A statement on behalf of Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford called funding for refugees primarily "a federal issue," but said Ford will sit down with the mayor to make sure the city has the funding it needs. 

Asked about what kind of federal response the city can expect, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said this week the government is working with Ontario and Quebec on a "triage system" and is looking at how it might move people away from Toronto and Montreal into neighbouring regions.

"I know that both provinces are working on that, and there's been a number of meetings to decide what to do on that issue," Hussen said. "The federal government is seized on this, and we will do what we can to work with them ... as they deal with this issue."

Asked about a timeline on such a system, he responded: "Well, it's a matter of weeks and not months ... That's how much I can tell you."

For her part, the Ugandan refugee claimant who spoke to CBC News says that even in the four months that she's been here, she's begun to feel like it's okay to be who she is.

"I feel a bit of relief being myself and expressing myself," she said. "I might have a chance in Canada… I just need to stay positive."


Shanifa Nasser is a journalist with CBC Toronto interested in national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. Her reporting on Canada's spy agency earned a 2020 Amnesty International award and an RTDNA, and her investigative work has led to two documentaries at The Fifth Estate. Reach her at:

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp, CBC News