TORONTO — At the front door of the FCJ Refugee Centre, staffers are greeting an average of 60 people a day looking for help.
“Every day we see families coming,” said Loly Rico, executive director of the center run by the Sisters, Faithful Companions of Jesus. Rico said the families typically need housing, English classes and legal help with their asylum claims. All are in short supply.
“We need more lawyers. With the pandemic, many of them closed their offices,” said Rico. “We have a big housing crisis.”
“Our numbers have increased very highly,” Rico told The Catholic Register.
As one of a handful of organizations that serves asylum-seekers in Toronto, Rico is seeing a significant slice of 61,890 asylum claims processed in Canada the first eight months of this year — already more than twice the 24,930 asylum claims processed in 2021. As COVID-19 travel restrictions eased this spring, it was not just vacationers on the move. The eight-month total of asylum claims for 2022 is 97 percent of the total for 2019, the last full year before the pandemic and the all-time record.
With funding from the City of Toronto, the center and the other refugee shelters have found housing for more than 800 people so far this year — in a program originally designed to house 600. Rico worries that the program’s funding will run out in December. Any extension will depend on more money from the federal government and a new city council to approve it.
The FCJ center’s creativity in finding Airbnb accommodations, hotel rooms and even permanent housing is keeping refugees out of the shelter system, for the most part.
At Good Shepherd Ministries, executive director Aklilu Wendaferew reports there are currently seven or eight refugees in the men’s shelter.
“That has not really increased significantly in the last little while,” he said. “During COVID, there were almost no refugees, because everything was locked. But in the last few months, we have begun to receive refugees — but not the number we saw in 2017 and ’18.”
It’s a similar story at Toronto’s major shelter for homeless youth.
“Over the last five fiscal years, the number of youth who were refugees has increased from 8.6 percent in 2017-18 to 15.5 percent in 2019-20, and decreased to 10.6 percent in 2020-21, during the pandemic,” said Michael Sheiner, Covenant House spokesman.
Having learned from earlier waves of asylum-seekers, Unity Health finds itself in a better position to deal with uninsured refugee patients this time around. The corporation that runs St. Michael’s, St. Joseph’s and Providence hospitals in Toronto considers itself “a system leader in caring for uninsured patients,” said a Unity Health spokesman. An Ontario government program established in March 2020 funds medically necessary services in hospitals or in doctors’ offices to people not covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.
“Health care is a human right, and we strive to provide the best possible care to everyone who needs it, including newcomers to Canada,” the spokesman said.
At the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, there is evidence that the system is beginning to back up again. If the IRB takes longer to decide who can stay and who must go, asylum-seekers spend longer in limbo.
During the pandemic pause at the border, the IRB slashed its inventory of old cases. It also used the revolution in online meeting technology to speed up its processes.
But while wait times for new claims came down to 15 months in August of this year, the average processing time in months for all refugee claims remains at more than two years. As of the end of June, the IRB backlog stood at more than 55,500 cases. The IRB appeals tribunal had more than 5,200 cases in its inbox.
Catholic health care, Catholic school boards and Catholic social service agencies receive regular reminders from Pope Francis of just how important it is to welcome migrants and refugees.
“The exclusion of migrants is scandalous,” Pope Francis said Oct. 9 as he canonized St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, the Italian bishop who founded the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo — the Scalabrinians who care for migrants the world over. “Actually, the exclusion of migrants is criminal.”
Wendaferew and his team at Good Shepherd agree with the pope.
“We’re always welcoming people from every walk of life. That’s what hospitality and compassion are all about,” Wendaferew said. “We’re not specifically funded for refugees, to support refugees, but they are homeless. We serve the homeless.”
Swan is associate editor of The Catholic Register, Toronto.