Asylum seekers uncertain of future after being bused to Ontario

Mohammed, left, tells CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis how he fled Chad and crossed at Roxham Road in mid-February. He has been staying at a hotel in Niagara Falls, Ont. (Ousama Farag/CBC - image credit)
Mohammed, left, tells CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis how he fled Chad and crossed at Roxham Road in mid-February. He has been staying at a hotel in Niagara Falls, Ont. (Ousama Farag/CBC - image credit)

His name is Mohammed and we meet him walking along a boulevard lined with hotels off the tourist strip in Niagara Falls, Ont.

The February wind is biting and he shivers in a jacket more suited for warmer weather.

Mohammed says he is too scared to disclose more details about himself other than he had to flee Chad, in central Africa, fearful for his life.

He is one of the thousands of asylum seekers bused here shortly after arriving in Quebec from New York at an irregular border crossing called Roxham Road.

Mohammed was hoping to stay in Quebec because he doesn't speak English, but says he wasn't given a choice when he was boarded onto a bus heading here.

WATCH | What is Roxham Rd.

Then he said, speaking in French, "I don't speak any English and here in Niagara it's very difficult for me to communicate."

Mohammed is living in one of the nearly 2,000 hotel rooms reserved in Niagara Falls by Immigration Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to provide temporary housing to migrants arriving via Roxham Road and who are now being redirected out of the province.

It's left him in a strange limbo, he said, adding in French, "I sleep, I wake, I eat."

Ousama Farag/CBC
Ousama Farag/CBC

He says in the two weeks he's been here, no one has told him what to expect next.

Mohammed's story reflects the scramble to move people like him out of Quebec since the province sounded the alarm saying it could not absorb any more asylum seekers.

'You can't just drop them off'

Roughly 39,000 people seeking protection arrived in Quebec from Roxham Road in 2022 alone. According to the latest federal government statistics, another 4,875 people crossed at Roxham Road this past January.

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati says he's been taken aback by the number of hotel rooms the federal government has been steadily reserving for asylum seekers.

"We went from 87 rooms to 300 rooms, then it went to 687 rooms," said Diodati. "Then it went to 1,500 rooms, then they said 1,700 and 2,000 is next. So we said well where are we going with this. I mean how big is this gonna get?"

According to IRCC, most migrants are staying in federally funded hotel rooms on average 60 days and are provided with meals as well while they are assessed for work permits.

The work permit process has been expedited, says the IRCC, to allow migrants to enter Canada's labour market sooner and provide for themselves while they await a decision on their asylum claim.

However, administering the social services asylum seekers are entitled to while they try to settle has largely fallen on the city at a cost of roughly $5 million, Diodati says, money the city wants the federal government to compensate it for.

Brenda Witmer/CBC
Brenda Witmer/CBC

In a statement provided to the CBC, the IRCC says the hotels asylum seekers are filling are temporary until claimants are "able to transition to longer-term housing within the community."

But Diodati says more affordable housing in the city does not exist.

Niagara Falls recently declared a state of emergency because of its homelessness and opioid crisis and Diodati says when the tourism season begins, hotel rooms will be in demand, as will the much-needed revenue they generate for the city.

And he says he's not sure where asylum seekers will go then.

"We're saying we need to be part of this discussion. You can't just drop them off and leave it for us to deal with and and and we have to deal with the impact," said Diodati. "We've got our own community issues, this exacerbates the problems that already existed."

Calls for more federal support

The city is demanding the federal government provide more support, a call for help echoed by community leaders in the area.

Sarah Ludberg is senior director of people and programs at Big Brothers, Big Sisters (BBBS) of Niagara.  She says newcomer or refugee status is just one of many adversities young people are facing and why the group is trying to do outreach to assess the needs of the new arrivals.

Ludberg says she wants to provide one-on-one mentoring to the hundreds more young people now in the community, but already has a 300-person wait list.

She says federal support would go a long way.

"We're already struggling post-pandemic recovery," she said.

"Agencies like ours that fundraise have not returned to their pre-pandemic levels. So to now add in an influx of newcomers who we also want to support, it does worry us as an organization because we want to provide a mentor for every child and youth who's looking for one."

Ousama Farag/CBC
Ousama Farag/CBC

Beyond mentoring, BBBS is trying to make connections with all newcomers Ludberg said.

"If they were struggling with food security, we would connect them with the local food bank. If they are struggling with mental health challenges, we may make a referral."

Ludberg says the local Salvation Army is also providing asylum seekers with vouchers to shop free of charge at a thrift store run by BBBS. The store is brimming with donations, including parkas and warm pyjamas, the necessities many newcomers need to cope with a harsh Canadian winter. The vouchers are meant to give people a sense of autonomy and dignity, Ludberg says.

But communicating that is still a challenge.

Mohammed says he hasn't heard of any of the community support offered. Other than applying for social assistance with a city official who visited a hotel near him, he says no one has told him where else he can turn and finding out on his own is hard because he doesn't speak the language.

'This wasn't planned, but it's good for me'

Arriving in Ontario was daunting at first for Espérantine Désardouin, too. She and her family of five were bused to Cornwall after crossing at Roxham Road last August.

Désardouin says they had to flee the violence in Haiti. "It was very hard to leave my country to abandon it. All my life, my job and my family friends," she said. "But we need to stay alive.... So you need to take a decision and the best one was to leave the country and come to Canada."

Brenda Witmer/CBC
Brenda Witmer/CBC

The family was hoping to start a new life among Quebec's large Haitian community but being sent to Cornwall has worked out better than Désardouin could imagine. She has been improving her English and Cornwall's francophone community has embraced her.  Désardouin, who worked as an aid worker in Haiti, has also found work with a local community group that is helping newcomers settle. Her husband was also hired and they're building their life here.

She says she's grateful she's working, especially at a job that involves helping people just like her.

"This is very important for me because I received a lot from the community. I have to give back. I can say that when I come here, this wasn't planned, but it's good for me. We feel we have a good life."

Brenda Witmer/CBC
Brenda Witmer/CBC

The community group Désardouin is working for, L'Association des communautés francophones de l'Ontario (ACFO) has been helping connect hundreds of newcomer families enrol kids in schools, open bank accounts and navigate paperwork for work permits.

It's also trying to match newcomers to local employers, says Sonia Behilil, director of operation for ACFO. It's a hyper-local approach she says and it's essential to avoid newcomers from languishing.

"I think it's essential to have a community component, a community agency has the perspective needed to provide help and support where needed," she said, adding she's worried about being able to help everyone.  "We know that resources are limited."

Brenda Witmer/CBC
Brenda Witmer/CBC

Lack of preparedness

The lack of preparedness and the lack of notice has been overwhelming, says Cornwal's mayor Justin Towndale.

"We're not aware of when buses are arriving, we're not sure what country these individuals are from, what languages they speak," said Towndale.

Since Quebec started turning the vast majority away, 1,400 asylum seekers have come through the eastern Ontario city of Cornwall. Eight hundred asylum seekers are still at two hotels reserved by the federal government.

"It adds another layer of unpredictability. There's a lot of agencies that want to help, but they don't know how to help yet," said Towndale. "And they're getting caught off guard by people showing up on their doors."

The city and community groups recently met with federal immigration officials demanding better communication and support going forward.

"Cornwall wants to help. We are a very generous community," said Towndale. "If our resources are tapped out and we just can't contribute any further, it's the asylum claimants that suffer at the end."

Brenda Witmer/CBC
Brenda Witmer/CBC

In its statement provided to CBC, IRCC says to ease the pressure in any one city, "a pan-Canadian approach is essential," and says it "is actively working with other provinces and municipalities" to find temporary accommodations, training and settlement programs.

Halifax has received a small group of asylum claimants, IRCC said, adding that "Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland officials expressed an interest in helping."

Désardouin hopes more like her will find their place in Canada.

Six months after being bused to Cornwall from Roxham Road, she and her family are now able to rent a townhouse filled with donations from the community.

As she stands in her living room, the walls lined with family photos, Désardouin fights back tears as she tells us for the first time in a long time, the future feels safer and brighter.

"I feel very, very good, I feel peace in my heart. I thank the community. I thank Canada because now I'm at peace."

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