As thousands of asylum seekers continue to arrive at Canada’s border, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada associate deputy minister Scott Harris says the government is committed to working with communities such as Niagara Falls, where almost 5,000 refugees have been placed in rented hotel rooms since last June.

Harris said IRCC has 1,500 rooms for asylum seekers at several Niagara Falls hotels, clarifying earlier reports that said as many as 2,000 hotel rooms were being used to house them.

Meanwhile, the influx of asylum seekers has stretched the resources of Niagara’s agencies — forcing Niagara Region to request nearly $6 million in emergency provincial funding to address the increase in social assistance applications. As of Tuesday, the Region had yet to receive a response from the province regarding the funding request.

Harris said the federal government is “actively engaged with both the province and the local municipalities to have a good understanding of what the requirements are and what the impacts are — including financial impacts for the municipalities.”

In the meantime, he said, Niagara Falls hotels will be used for the foreseeable future as IRCC continues to see “fairly high levels of people arriving at the border seeking protection.”

IRCC, however, does not anticipate further expanding the number of asylum seekers being housed in Niagara Falls, and is instead looking for accommodations in other communities across the country, including a recent focus on Atlantic provinces.

“Niagara has been a wonderfully receptive community. We have got some great partnerships with local officials there, but we recognize that this does create pressure on the local system and we want to make sure we are taking into account the impacts that it is having locally,” Harris said in a Monday interview.

He said IRCC is aware of concerns that the tourist season may have an impact on the use of those hotels to house asylum seekers, “and we’re going to continue to engage with local officials on some of those issues.”

By expanding the program to other provinces, Harris hopes to “reduce our presence in any given community or even potentially transition to other alternatives, so we can restore the hotel capacity for other purposes and certainly in Niagara that clearly relates to the tourism that happens there.”

Harris said Canada has seen “record high numbers” of asylum seekers in recent years. About 93,000 arrived in Canada last year, including 39,000 who crossed into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing from New York state into Quebec.

He called it “a reflection of the patterns that are being seen globally,” adding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 4.5 million people have been displaced from their home countries and are seeking protection somewhere in the world.

Harris said the majority of asylum seekers now arriving in Canada are from Venezuela, Turkey and Haiti for “a variety of reasons … that would be easy to speculate about.”

“We do certainly recognize that global situations are continuing to create instability in various arts of the world and that leads people to seek protection in Canada,” he said.

“The Government of Canada has a long history of respecting our international obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers and I think … that creates a certain expectation from those who need protection that they can find safety here in Canada. We continue to take those legal obligations and international obligations extraordinarily seriously.”

Although Niagara immigration officials have raised concerns about racism targeting newcomers, Harris said “Canada has been an incredibly welcoming country, not just the Government of Canada and the local and provincial governments, but communities at large have really responded well to asylum seekers and others who have come to Canada seeking protection.”

He said there continues to be “isolated incidents from time to time and we take those incidents very seriously,” but “asylum seekers that I’ve spoken with, and through channels of information reporting to me, say the majority have had a very positive experience in a very disruptive period in their lives.”

“It obviously takes a fair amount of courage to face the fears that lead you to seek protection in another country and then the journey to get to that protection can be quite perilous. So, I think people have been warmly received by Canadians and I would certainly want to encourage that to continue.”

The refugees also have a great deal to offer Canada, he added.

“Among the many people who seek asylum in Canada there’s a diversity of pre-existing skill levels that people bring with them, including … some very skilled people, people who were previously medical practitioners, engineers and other skilled trades people in their country of origin,” Harris said, adding the federal and provincial governments are working to ensure “people are provided an opportunity to integrate into the workplace as early as is practical.”


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