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On Asylum Seeker and Migrant Deaths in Canada: An Interview with Kizito Musabimana

Updated: Apr 2

Interview by Wardah Malik | April 2, 2024 | Global Rights Defenders

After waiting hours in the cold to get into a Mississauga shelter space, Delphina Ngigi, a Kenyan asylum seeker, died. Her death adds to a disturbing trend of asylum seekers and migrants denied appropriate care and housing while in Canada; a situation which has prompted community members and advocates to question whether support services available to displaced people are sufficient. With Ngigi being the second migrant to die in Peel Region, many argue that protections are not in place. As more people make asylum claims, it is time to develop a robust system that provides basic care and prevents unnecessary, tragic deaths.

Kizito Musabimana founder of the Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre spoke with Wardah Malik, Global Rights Defenders’ Research Advisor, about what can be done to help asylum seekers and how to think more critically about issues affecting them.

Can you explain a bit more about your work and the current situation of asylum seekers in Canada?

Across Toronto’s Homelessness Initiatives and Prevention Services at 129 Peter St, is our [Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre] office. We witnessed the group of homeless people on the street grow and we were taken aback once African migrants became part of it. I got in contact with the mayoral campaign to question what they were doing about the issue. Once Olivia Chow was elected [as Mayor of Toronto], many funded and unfunded shelters were invited to discuss the asylum seeker case. Since then we have been advocating tirelessly and while we have garnered some wins (getting working permits for asylum seekers, opening warming shelters etc.), the work remains unfinished. People are still struggling and suffering, within months we have lost two people in Mississauga. 

The current situation is complex and asylum seekers are caught in the middle of it. That is, they are between the federal government, the province, and several municipalities with each entity not willing to take responsibility. Basically, it is a situation of inaction and moving the issue around to avoid meaningfully solving it. This makes living conditions for asylum seekers terrible and has exhausted many community advocates fighting for this issue to get recognition.

Why is Canada an attractive place for asylum seekers?

Canada is perceived to be a safe, protective country where many opportunities are possible. Also, in comparison to other Western countries, Canada has a positive, peaceful reputation internationally. There is a famous saying from people, whether it be in Asia, Africa or South America, that Canada is the land of milk and honey. Now, because of how we have treated our asylum seekers and migrants that image has changed for the worse. 

From my own experience, when I arrived as a refugee in 2000, staying at youth shelters was the most beautiful experience. I was able to build my resume, find employment, and move into an apartment within months. This is not possible now.

What realities are asylum seekers met with when they arrive in Canada?

Firstly, it is important to recognize that each asylum seeker comes to Canada for a different reason whether it is to escape discriminatory policies like the anti-LGBTQ bill in Uganda or to flee war and political persecution. Asylum has many forms but it is always people leaving their homes in search of stability and safety. This search is permanent and people cannot go back so they come here well-prepared with suitcases and life savings. Regardless of the reason they came, it is important to support these vulnerable people. 

Right now, I don’t think we are doing enough and it is because the government wants this issue to disappear; with this mindset, there is no plan or procedure to integrate asylum seekers. Instead, they are referred to shelters once they arrive at the airport or temporarily placed at IRCC hotels outside the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where they are isolated from their communities. The constant relocation of these people has retraumatized them and worsened their health concerns. Asylum seekers are shocked by how they are being treated by the Canadian brand they have come to know.

How has the government (regional, provincial, federal) responded to overcrowding at shelters?

The response has been removed. At every level, the government response has been scattered and insufficient to solve this issue. The money pumped into Toronto from the federal government is used for traditional services so there are no specific funds dedicated to support or care for asylum seekers. 

All of our Members of Parliament, especially in the GTA, have avoided visiting shelters. We have invited them to come to the churches and shelters that house nearly 200 people but the reply has been lukewarm and evasive. Government representatives are staying away from this issue and any advocacy they might be doing in the background is not producing the results we want. This silence means that organizations, like Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre, have to step in and fill in the gap for services not provided. This situation has made me realize that the work we do is important for protecting these vulnerable people.

Many in the immigration system are focused on getting fewer people to apply for asylum to avoid long Immigration and Refugee Board cases and easen the pressure on Canada? Is this the right approach?

No, this is not the right approach. Canada should not disincentivize asylum seekers by making the entry process more tough or rigorous. The process should remain thorough and each person should go through it, however, more people need to enter Canada. With my community work on affordable housing, I learned for a fact that Canada needs more skilled workers and a constant supply of young people to support its aging population. 

There is a popular misconception in Canadian society that we’re bringing in so many people and that the country can't take care of them - but the opposite is true. Asylum seekers and migrants are a strength as they eventually bring their families to build the numbers to support Canada's infrastructure and healthy communities. This is what we should be focusing on: building and training the next generation of Canadian skilled labor force and society. Many prefer not to include African migrants in this society and there is a pick and choose strategy on who gets assimilated. This strategy is hypocritical because it doesn't meet the inclusive, social justice, equitable, multicultural face of Canada. 

Are there concerns over anti-migrant/refugee sentiment?

Anti-migrant or anti-refugee sentiment is the result of the government or political parties failing to inform their supporters on how important migrants are to Canada’s survival. I think at the higher level, structural racism can explain why this is happening with a pick and choose approach to deciding who is welcome. When it comes to public opinion on hosting refugees there has been a sharp decline since the pandemic, inflation, and worsening housing conditions. Every once in a while on social media the backlash becomes really intense. When I posted about Delphina, I had people accuse her of coming to Canada sick so that she could use the healthcare system.

The fear that asylum seekers are taking advantage of our system is a global phenomenon. Anytime you have a wave of migration into a country you tend to have pushback from those who are experiencing hardship, economic or otherwise. It becomes a competition of who gets help or support from the system -  an experience shaped by collective trauma and neglect of certain communities. It’s not fair to blame the migrants, instead, we must hold the governments they are entering into accountable for failing to provide.

How do we correct negative public opinion and restore a humanitarian stance?

I think Canada's leadership can easily make the decision to adopt a humanitarian stance and support people that are in our care. It's disheartening that they don't and the way we mistreat asylum seekers and migrants says alot about our society. 

We need to get to a place where we are talking to one another regardless of political affiliation. Advancing our future and societies depends on meaningful conversations where ideology takes a back seat to humanity. If we can come together and talk to one another rather than at each other or in a bubble, this issue can be resolved quicker. The current polarization in society is a disease that stops us from developing communities that take care of each other. 

Let’s also reflect on why this is happening. Why are millions of people risking their lives to cross borders? What sort of international policies have we implemented that cause these migration crises to occur? Canada needs to use its influence to push a humanitarian stance on the world stage as well as at home, one that prioritizes the dignity and rights of vulnerable people fleeing war and inhumane conditions. 

Will funding be enough to fix this issue?

No, because what's happening is deeper and has its roots in policies and practices overseas that trigger refugee flows. Still, as Canadians looking to support displaced peoples, money has a role to play in building capacity for nonprofits that support asylum seekers and migrants. Bringing in more investment from the government and the private sector will alleviate the pressure on organizations who are often dependent on grants. It's also how the money comes in: grants are insufficient (in that they can only be used to provide services) while crowdfunding and procurement are better options for more permanent solutions. Using the money to provide more culturally-relevant resources is important. Moving forward, we are asking the government to support the work of advocates who are experts in understanding what the community needs in order to build and heal.

How you can #HelpFromHome:

  • Donate to refugee charities across Canada, for a full list see here. 

  • Write to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to urge that the government address overcrowding at shelters and provide funding options for organizations that arrange essential supports for asylum seekers and migrants.  Please address letter to:

The Honourable Ahmed D. Hussen M.P.

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship 

Citizenship and Immigration Canada

365 Laurier Ave West

Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 1L1

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