Refugees crossing U.S. border heading to Toronto, agencies say

Many of the asylum seekers crossing the Canadian border in places like Manitoba and Quebec will wind up in Toronto, say those who care for refugees.

Doctor says would-be refugees arrive with 'tremendous anxiety' after tense journey

Asylum seekers who crossed the border into Canada in Manitoba, like this man who claimed to be from Sudan, often wind up in Toronto due to this city's social networks and services. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Many of the asylum seekers crossing the Canadian border in places like Manitoba and Quebec will wind up in Toronto, say those who care for refugees.

Those who run shelters or provide medical care for newcomers say they're keeping a close eye on the situation, as more and more people leave the U.S. for Canada. The City of Toronto said it's already seen a sharp increase in the number of would-be refugees winding up in its shelter system at the beginning of 2017.

Maya Roy, the executive director of Newcomer Women's Services Toronto, which helps refugees learn English while also connecting them with employment opportunities and healthcare, blames the Trump administration's immigration policies as well as its perceived instability.

"This is people responding to a president making policy via Twitter," Roy told CBC Toronto.

Roy said she expects the rising tide of asylum seekers to subside, but she also anticipates those arriving in small towns like Emerson, Man., to come to this city, where there are bigger social networks and more services available to them. Those who arrive in southern Ontario border towns, she said, often spend several days in the area in small motels before making a connection in this city and making their way here.

Maya Roy, right, told CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond that many asylum seekers are afraid of what U.S. President Donald Trump will do next when it comes to immigration. (John Rieti/CBC)

Some refugees have confirmed to CBC Manitoba they're heading to Toronto as soon as they can.

Bernnitta Hawkins, the Red Door Family Shelter's executive director, said her organization hasn't seen an increase in the number of refugees yet, but warned the city's family shelters are already running at 100 per cent capacity.

Hawkins said she hopes that doesn't stop Toronto from welcoming newcomers to the city, saying her organization still feels a strong responsibility to help those in need.

"You're not going to walk across snow because you're happy where you are — things are dire," she said.

For many of the asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Canada border in Manitoba, Toronto will be the final destination. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Refugees who make their way to Red Door get help "regularizing" their immigration paperwork, while also getting a roof over their head. Hawkins said her organization has helped people from Somalia and other war-torn countries, but also closer places like Mexico, although the organization doesn't focus on the country the person is coming from.

Would be refugees arrive with 'tremendous anxiety,' doctor says

Dr. Meb Rashid, who works at two clinics that care for newcomers, said he also doesn't ask his patients about where they're coming from unless it's relevant to their health.

Rashid said the refugees he sees have "tremendous anxiety" about their futures.

Many are also dealing with the scars — physical, emotional or both — of fleeing their homeland.

"When you're a refugee you've often had to endure a very tortuous journey," Rashid said, adding many who make it to Toronto tend to be the most resourceful and resilient.

Refugees using city shelters

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. That's an 80 per cent increase from January 2016.

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 also going up.

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.


John Rieti

Senior producer

John started with CBC News in 2008 as a Peter Gzowski intern in Newfoundland, and holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University. As a reporter, John has covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. He now leads a CBC Toronto digital team that has won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards for overall excellence in online reporting. You can reach him at

With files from Alexandra Sienkiewicz