Refugees fearful of U.S. immigration orders seek sanctuary in Toronto shelters

Toronto homeless shelters are helping increasing numbers of refugees, prompting calls for more support from health-care workers and the mayor.

Mayor John Tory says city needs federal support to welcome asylum seekers

Officials say 80 per cent more refugees used Toronto's shelter system this January than in the same month last year. (John Rieti/CBC)

Toronto homeless shelters are helping increasing numbers of refugees, prompting calls for more support from health-care workers and the mayor.

In January, some 810 people seeking refugee status, including men, women and children, used a city shelter, according to statistics from Toronto's Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA). That's an 80 per cent increase from January 2016.

Dr. Paul Caulford said the number matches what he's seeing in person, as desperate newcomers arrive in the city, sometimes hidden in the back of transport trucks, sometimes shielding young children from frostbite.

"It's been unprecedented to see this," said Caulford, who works with the Canadian Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Healthcare in east Toronto.

Many asylum seekers have told Caulford they were planning to head to the U.S. but opted to restart their lives in Canada instead, owing to concern raised by the Trump administration in the U.S.

Patricia Anderson, an SSHA manager, confirmed in an email to CBC Toronto that her staff is hearing the same thing.

"There are reports from front-line staff that they are seeing some people of West African origin who are coming to Canada having first intended to seek refugee status in the U.S.," she wrote.

But when those people get to Toronto, Caulford said, most newcomers have only two options: temporary accommodation with people from their community, or searching for a shelter.

That means the shelters have a challenge on their hands.

Mayor calls for federal help

Mayor John Tory said the city is monitoring the situation and that he expects the federal government to provide more support soon, though he declined to provide a timeline.

Tory said Toronto is a "magnet" for many would-be refugees because of the opportunities it promises and its diverse makeup. But the city needs help with the influx of newcomers, he said.

Mayor John Tory, here learning CPR from Toronto paramedics on Wednesday, says the city needs more federal help to help asylum seekers relying on Toronto shelters. (John Rieti/CBC)

"As people do arrive here … we have to make sure the resources are in place to look after them," he told reporters at city hall.

Tory recently held a news conference with more than a dozen councillors to reaffirm Toronto's place as a sanctuary city — which means people don't need to disclose their immigration status to receive services like shelter.

However, Tory said Wednesday that he still wants all newcomers to go through the proper immigration process, which he said has served this country well.  

More refugees arriving near Toronto

Canada Border Services Agency officials said the number of people making refugee claims at its crossings in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Sarnia, Ont., is going up.

Dr. Paul Caulford says asylum seekers often have complex health-care needs. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

In January, there were 433 refugee claims. If that rate continues, there would be 5,196 by the end of the year — up from 2016's total of 3,865 and 2,742 in 2015.

Meanwhile, government-sponsored Yazidi refugees, as well as more Syrian refugees, are also arriving in the city. Caulford said that, for now, they're being put up in hotels.

The doctor said his organization is currently working with the city, other health-care groups and the Central East Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) to help take care of the refugees' complex health needs.

"Those needs are quite strong right now," he said.

He was also quick to praise shelter staff, who have welcomed the newcomers.

"It's busy, they're overworked … but I don't see a sense of commotion, chaos or crisis inside," he said.

"Inside actually seems like a sanctuary."

With files from Metro Morning