A demonstrator holds a sign welcoming refugees to North America during a protest rally on 13 November 2016 in Toronto, Canada.

Canada’s broken asylum system


Canada’s asylum system, fraught with significant flaws, underscores the challenges refugees encounter, including systemic issues, extensive delays, and inadequate support. It only prompts questions about Ottawa’s commitment to humanitarian values. Although federal funding initiatives aim to alleviate immediate and short-term pressures, the implementation of long-term sustainable policies frequently experiences delays.

The closure of Roxham Road – a rural dirt road used by thousands of asylum seekers to enter Canada from the United States, in 2023 was an attempt to regulate refugee access from Hemmingford, Quebec, to Plattsburgh, New York. The decision further aimed to amend a long-standing loophole in Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the US, under which asylum seekers had to apply for refugee status in the first of the two countries they entered.

However, it failed to stem the tide as refugee claims soared from 91,730 in 2022 to a staggering 143,785 in 2023 with more people continuing to flee persecution in their home countries on the grounds of race, religion, political opinion, and armed conflict. This surge resulted in fatalities, increased asylum demands, and a rise in refugee homelessness across Canada. While resettled refugees benefit from comprehensive support, there is no cohesive national plan to assist refugee claimants, leaving them in a vulnerable situation amidst the growing crisis.

“The complete closing of the border, including Roxham Road, to name just one, is a death sentence, a failure to recognize the humanity of tens of thousands of people,” remarked France-Isabelle Langlois, Executive Director of Amnistie Internationale Canada francophone. “It is time for Canada to put human rights at the center of its immigration and refugee-protection system, to welcome people fleeing violence and persecution with dignity.”

Soaring Refugee Influx

Experts suggest that this influx is due to a multitude of factors, including a backlog of asylum applications, but emphasize a common issue: the escalation of the global conflicts and crises inevitably drives people from conflict and climate-affected countries like Bangladesh, Syria, Sudan, and more to seek asylum wherever they can find it.

Azadeh Tamjeedi, a senior legal officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Canada, noted the inability to resolve root causes, like (devastating flooding in Pakistan, violent conflicts in Sudan, Israel’s war on Gaza, fleeing the Taliban), of displacement has resulted in a growing number of people worldwide needing to relocate for safety. Despite the notable increase in overall refugee claims, Canada receives only a small fraction of asylum claims globally (merely two percent of the claims).

The struggle is worse for those who have sought refuge in Canada, as they continue to endure hardships even after escaping a crisis in their home countries. 

“Traditionally, most asylum seekers do not get to come to Canada, having to go through a crisis back in their home countries, Canada makes it even worse for them,” said Kizito Musabimana, Founder and Executive Director of a Toronto-based non-profit, Rwandan Canadian Healing Center. “Where the country needs to focus in terms of influx is — affordable housing. People think migration is the issue, but the real issue is the poor economy and shelter system.”

The Quebec government, faced with an ever-increasing number of asylum seekers, warns of a looming humanitarian crisis due to the strain on essential services such as health and education, estimating costs of over $1 billion over three years.

Shelter Crisis

The shortage of shelter beds has led to tragic outcomes, exemplified by the deaths of asylum seekers. In February, Delphina Negi, a second African asylum seeker died in Mississauga, Ontario while waiting for a shelter spot in harsh winter conditions. The first instance happened just three months ago when the other asylum seeker – a Nigerian man died while camped outside the same shelter in November 2023.

Community leaders and advocates echo these concerns, urging for a sound national response to the crisis. Jumba, pastor at the Milliken Wesleyan Methodist Church asked, “When is this going to be a priority? This is not just an issue of Mississauga, York Region, or Toronto. This is a national issue and it should be responded to as such.”

In response, the federal government has allocated funds to address the housing and shelter needs of asylum claimants. Minister Marc Miller announced additional funding of $362.4 million for the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), supplementing the $212 million announced last year. However, challenges persist due to inadequate policies and shelter standards, with advocates emphasizing the need for systemic reform. “What we see is not lack of resources, it’s because of lack of policies and standards of shelters operating on,” Kizito seconds it.

The stain on shelters is evident nationwide, with Ottawa’s homeless shelters struggling to cope with the influx of newcomers, the city seeks government assistance to build and operate a new center to support refugees and asylum seekers. “The system is so overwhelmed right now, people are all just working in shelters, just trying to keep people alive,” Katie Burkholder Harris, Executive Director of the Alliance to End Homelessness told CBC.

Similarly, Toronto witnesses a drastic increase in refugee claimants in shelters, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. The local municipality recorded a 500 percent increase in refugee claimants in the shelters from 2021 to 2023. The city has been promised $162 million of a $362 million top-up to the IHAP, which the city said still falls short of what it requires.

The spike in homelessness among refugee claimants stresses the need for a sustainable system to uphold their rights to asylum and housing. Only through collective efforts such as providing affordable housing, accessible healthcare, etc can Canada adequately address the challenges posed by the ongoing refugee crisis and uphold its commitment to humanitarian values.

Aparajita Ghosh

Aparajita is a freelance journalist based in Canada. She focuses on climate, labor and human rights.

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