The mayor of Niagara Falls says the increasing number of asylum claimants arriving in the city after crossing the Roxham Road border in Quebec is putting a strain on their resources, but advocates are firing back saying the refugees aren’t causing the problem.
“There’s only so much the people here can handle. We’re a community of less than a hundred thousand people and we’ve got several thousand people living in our community,” says Mayor Jim Diodati.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says due to limited bed capacity in the Quebec shelter system, the Canadian government began transferring asylum claimants to Ontario in June 2022, including 2,841 people to Niagara Falls as of Feb. 13.
“When securing short-term accommodations in Ontario municipalities, factors taken into consideration include the availability of hotel rooms, cost, transportation and ease of access to support services,” IRCC says in a statement.
But Diodati says Niagara Falls does not have the capacity to adequately provide those support services and providers are being stretched to their limits, having to rely on community initiatives.
“These people come here — many of them speak no English, they don’t have identification, they don’t have coats and boots and gloves. So our church groups and community groups have been great stepping up to give them what they need,” he says.
“They’ve had to put classrooms temporarily in the gymnasium and the libraries so that they could accommodate all of the asylum seekers. Our food banks are feeling the stress. There’s been a surge in Ontario works through the social assistance applications. They’ve had to bring on extra staff, extra resources, extra money. So financially it’s had an impact.”
Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says the strain on resources pre-dates the latest arrivals.
“This is using refugees to distract from the real crisis of cuts to social services,” he says.
“Even as the casinos are growing in the region and there’s big money coming in, there’s not been any investment in social services, and that has been an issue far prior to this moment.”
Diodati says while they’re currently in the shoulder season for tourism, one of his main concerns is the potential impact on the industry come season time.
“We’ve got 40,000 thousand people counting on tourism to feed their families. We need to make sure that the goose that lays the golden eggs is really healthy,” he says, adding that the federal government is paying for 2,000 hotel rooms from the city’s inventory of 16,000 to house asylum claimants.
“When the tourists come back, I can tell you the hotel operators are going to rent out to the tourists because they will buy in the restaurants and the attractions … also the mom-and-pop operations, the T-shirt places, the fudge stores, the restaurants — they all benefit when the hotels are full of tourists who come here from other places. Not so with the asylum seekers.”
Hussan feels a few thousand people living in hotel rooms that he says the government is paying above market rate for is not going to make a dent in the Niagara Falls tourism machine.
“This is anti-refugee xenophobia by another name. The idea that these people aren’t contributing, but other people are, the fact that they’re taking up spaces, they’re taking up services — that’s just nonsense,” he says.
“In the last year, there were over half a million Ukrainian refugees who’ve been brought into this country and resettled. in that same period, people crossing over the Quebec border on foot are about 37,000. Way more Ukrainians have settled in Niagara in the last year than these few thousand we’re talking about now. Why is it that these are primarily Haitian, Nigerian, Ugandan Black people coming across the border, in very few numbers and we are suddenly hearing about a rush on services?”
Both sides agree that the federal government needs to come up with a better long-term plan.
“The federal government should coordinate with community organizations and provide settlement services and legal services to these places. These people now have 15 to 45 days to file refugee documents. Where is the support coming from there?” says Hussan.
“What we need the federal government to do is to ensure permanent resident status for all undocumented people. It needs to create more systematic supports for refugees and it needs to tell the provinces to actually step up and fund education and health care.”
Diodati says he recently spoke with Immigration Minister Sean Fraser about the number of people being sent to Niagara Falls and was told that the government is going to take a “Team Canada” approach to the situation and is looking to other jurisdictions in the country to step up and help out.
“The minister said, we expect this to peak in the next week or two. It should level off and then we’re hoping that it recedes. But we need to have a better strategy than hope, that’s for sure. We need to know exactly what the plan is and how we’re gonna address the asylum seekers in our community.”