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Canadian cities ask for delay in refugee arrivals amid housing shortage

Volunteers organize about 11,000 kilograms of items collected for Syrian refugees in Vancouver, B.C., on Dec. 3.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Refugee settlement officials in Toronto have joined those in Ottawa and Vancouver in asking the federal government to stop sending more Syrian refugees their way for a few days until they can house the large number of people who have already landed at their door.

"We have received requests to slow down arrivals in some communities. We are accommodating those requests to ensure that, in the end, the refugees are well taken care of," spokesmen for the federal Immigration Department said in an e-mail.

Refugees sponsored by groups of individual Canadians or by private organizations are not affected by the requests because their sponsors are required to provide shelter. But some government-assisted refugees are in limbo because of the backlogs.

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"At the present time, four communities, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Halifax, have asked us to delay new arrivals for a few days," the department e-mail said.

"In these cases, refugees who arrive in Canada destined to these areas can remain in hotels in Toronto/Montreal for a few extra days before they travel on to their final destination. At most, new arrivals in these situations are being delayed up to five days."

Gerry Mills, director of operations at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, said Halifax has not, in fact, asked for a pause and is expecting the arrival of 46 government-sponsored refugees on Thursday, with an additional 50 or 60 on the weekend.

"We're good right now; we are moving people through," Ms. Mills said.

But the other three cities, which are among the 36 designated across Canada to receive refugees, are having problems.

At the Toronto Plaza Hotel, where children played in the lobby on Wednesday and an already fraying "Welcome to Canada" sign hung by the pool, some of the refugees have been in temporary lodging for weeks.

Eyad Tebawi didn't want to sound ungrateful. "Government Canada very good. Good when receiving us," he said, "But here, slow, slow," he added.

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He had been at the hotel for 25 days because he has had a hard time finding an affordable home for him, his pregnant wife and their five boys.

Mr. Tebawi looked for houses in nearby Mississauga, but now realizes he might have to look beyond, as available listings cost $1,700 to $2,000 a month. So, for now, home is two hotel rooms – one for him, his wife and the five-year-old twins, the other for the remaining three boys.

The rooms at the hotel are narrow, the elevators busy, and everywhere people congregate in noisy hallways and open areas.

Still, Mr. Tebawi remained optimistic and noted that his situation is better than it was in his native land or in neighbouring Jordan. "This is our house," he said about his new surroundings. "Here, merciful country."

Leslie Emory, executive director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, said the challenges in her city are primarily being faced by the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, which is responsible for settling government-assisted refugees.

The centre found that the inflow exceeded the capacity to move the refugees from temporary to permanent homes, and it requested a five-day gap just to get caught up, she said.

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Family sizes have been bigger than anticipated, Ms. Emory said. "With a limited housing stock, that housing stock becomes even more limited when you have to place families of five, six, seven, eight and as many as 11 people into a single dwelling."

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, said his group asked Ottawa to temporarily halt the flow of refugees to the Lower Mainland because it was running out of short-term units – or hotel rooms – for them.

He said the slowdown was intended to run for only three days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, and about 70 new refugees are expected at the Vancouver airport Friday.

His organization continues to search for permanent housing for refugees and he said it has had some success of late, with three or four families moving out of temporary housing every day.

Quebec, which has been the top destination in Canada for privately sponsored refugees from Syria, has received just 100 Syrians sponsored by the government since the start of the year.

Refugee settlement groups had prepared for more but are now told that these state-sponsored newcomers – about 1,000 for the whole province – will start arriving in the next two to four weeks.

"We have the resources and the apartments. We're ready and we're waiting for these refugees," said Lida Aghasi, director of the Centre sociale d'aide aux immigrants in Montreal.

Immigration Minister John McCallum, who says the private sector needs to do more to help the refugees get settled, told reporters in Toronto on Wednesday that "it is a temporary pause and there are many, many places in Canada that are crying out for refugees."

The Liberals say they are committed to bringing 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February and another 10,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of the year. The 10,000th refugee arrived in Canada earlier this month.

Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the problem of cities being swamped with refugees may be a bit exaggerated. "The pauses are not a matter of saying, 'We can't cope any more.' They are saying, 'Could we have a few days so we can deal with this particular situation we're in right now?'"

Michelle Remple, the immigration critic for the Conservatives, said it is clear that there have been logistical problems around the refugees' arrival and the immediate aftermath. But Ms. Remple said her larger concerns centre on long-term issues, such as access to affordable housing, language training, health care and employment, and whether those things will be provided.

"What you are seeing today is a precursor to bigger questions," she said. "My disappointment is that there clearly hasn't been a lot of thought given to the long-term social infrastructure required to make this a success."

Jenny Kwan, the NDP's critic, said the requests by some cities for a temporary halt to the influx of refugees shows that the government did not plan ahead.

"The issue was raised from the get-go that housing is going to be a challenge," Ms. Kwan said, "and that the government must move forward in working with its partners – local governments as well as the provinces – to ensure that the resettlement phase is done well."

With reports from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More


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