Canada Struggles to House New Refugees


This is Everybody’s Problem

A recent study conducted by Employment and Social Development Canada shows more and more people seeking refuge in Canada are winding up with no safe place to live. While this is occurring in Canada, it has global implications for a number of reasons. The most pressing one is as follows: we are facing a refugee crisis and a housing crisis at the same time. While wars rage on and hate crimes sweep the globe, the number of forcibly displaced individuals recently escalated to record highs.

To put things into perspective, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of forcibly displaced individuals peaked at 70.8 million in 2018. It’s important to note that forcible displacement (which is defined as violence, conflict, and/or persecution) has increased by an astounding 50% over the course of the past decade; meaning that today’s generalized violence statistics are higher than they have ever been in recorded history. As if that wasn’t enough, disaster-induced displacement (which is caused by natural events like hurricanes, floods, typhoons, and climate change) has created three times more incidents of displacement than general violence. This is a storm that has been brewing. Today its clouds weigh heavy over the country.

Did you know? Canada currently has 74,000 asylum claims on hold, with many applicants on a two-year long wait list.

The Leading Cause of Homelessness Among Refugees, Immigrants, and Other Newcomers Might Surprise You

Canadian “newcomers” hail from all walks of life. They have endured storms both literally and figuratively. Not all newcomers are categorized as refugees. Many wait for refugee status approval. Even refugees fall into different classifications. Some are government-sponsored. Others are privately sponsored. Aid is distributed differently depending upon which category a newcomer fits into upon arrival.

Here is a brief list of some of the most common types of newcomers that cross the border:

Asylum seekers (more specifically referred to as refugee claimants).

Claimants/asylum seekers flee their countries of origin for a wide variety of reasons, but they do not qualify for any sort of government aid until after they’ve been awarded refugee status. This entails a lengthy process for which there are no guarantees. In fact, applicants are considered ineligible for refugee status if any of the following circumstances apply:

  • Already hold refugee status in a different country
  • Placed a previous claim that was rejected
  • Were deemed a risk to security
  • Entered Canada from the United States (This one is important and will be discussed in detail later on)

Privately sponsored refugees.

Privately sponsored refugees only qualify for limited government aid in the form of healthcare and language assistance. They do not receive government-sanctioned financial aid or any other type of government assistance.

Government-sponsored refugees.

Unlike privately sponsored refugees, government-sponsored refugees receive a government-funded financial aid package that lasts for one year or until they have established income of their own

After carefully reviewing the above list, it’s easy to see how wide and varied the list of possible causes of homelessness among newcomers may be. However, the leading cause of homelessness remains consistent with the rest of Canada’s population. It’s lack of affordable housing. That’s right. This shortage of affordable places to live is impacting everyone equally, regardless of status or country of origin. It is only in the details that things for refugees get a bit more complicated.

Unique Problems Refugees and Asylum Seekers Face Upon Arrival:

One can only imagine how terrifying the journey of seeking asylum might be. Whether a newcomer narrowly escaped the violence of war or the path of a merciless storm, leaving their home country behind and venturing uncertainly into the vast unknown is not for the faint of heart. At the borders of the Great White North, new obstacles lie in wake. Some of the most common problems posed include:

Unemployment. Many refugees are permitted into the country but then they experience work permit delays, which means they cannot afford housing because they are unemployed.

No education for children. Refugee children without a permanent address cannot attend public school.

Refugee status rejection. If, for any reason, a claimant is denied refugee status they are then asked to leave the country immediately, even if they have nowhere else to go.

Many Newcomers Wind Up in Canadian Shelters, but the Shelters Face Unique Obstacles, Too

The number of Canadian refugees living in shelters has doubled in just under two years.

As of late, approximately 10-15% of Canada’s shelter population is comprised of either immigrants or refugees. Sadly, these shelters are not equipped to deal with the cultural and linguistic barriers so often brought forth through immigration. Canada’s newest members fall between the cracks before they even get a crack at rebuilding their lives.

The Eerie Legacy of Roxham Road

There is another reason why Canada is having trouble sheltering people who cross its border. In a nutshell, this problem has to do with the declining reputation of the United States of America, particularly how the country is viewed as treating immigrants. As the United States continues to develop a reputation of undesirability, the borders of Canada flood with new faces. The housing shortage further complicates the situation.


In 2017, approximately 40,000 asylum seekers from all across the world walked the narrow path that is Roxham Road in search of an entry into Canada, skipping over the United States entirely. Ordinarily, entering Canada through the United States of America automatically disqualifies you for refugee status as per regulations that fall under the US-Canada Safe 3rd Country Agreement. However, the perilous unofficial entry point known as Roxham Road falls just below the radar. Many see this strip between upstate New York and Quebec as a pathway to freedom. Sadly, some will find it only leads them to another place that isn’t home.

Building More Affordable Housing Is Still the Answer

Immigration is a complex issue that impacts the nation and more importantly, the world. One of the best things we can do to make the road to asylum less rough is to build affordable houses for everybody. Talk to your local representatives about the housing crisis and ask how they plan to implement positive change.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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