The Case For Refugee Reception Centres

Asylum seekers are arriving in Canada in record numbers, sleeping in shelters, churches and sometimes on the street. Reception centres are a more humane approach. 
By Loly Rico Illustration by Pete Ryan

May 1, 2024

In 1990, I was living with my family in El Salvador, against the backdrop of the civil war. Back then, you’d get in trouble just for talking about human rights, and my husband, Francisco, was a lawyer who dealt with political detainees. I worked with children with disabilities. The army saw both of us as threats and, after soldiers came to our house looking for our kids, we knew we had to leave. I was five months pregnant with our third child when we boarded a plane to Toronto. 

At the time, Canada had a special permit set up for Salvadoran refugees, similar to the current emergency temporary residence authorization for Ukrainians. Our family was guaranteed all kinds of government assistance: health coverage, work permits and a year’s worth of monthly stipends for rent and food. The night we arrived at our settlement centre— a now-shuttered hotel on Jarvis Street in Toronto—there was someone to help us access health cards and English classes. The four of us were huddled in one room, but we were safe. We thought all refugees were treated the same way.   

Soon, Francisco got a job providing housing counsel, and we moved into a transitional home owned by the Faithful Companions of Jesus Sisters. It wasn’t until I began volunteering with the group’s resettlement effort that I understood how different life was for refugees who weren’t government-assisted—like those who arrive at ports of entry, such as Pearson Airport and the Peace Bridge. When they weren’t in shelters, they were living in homes they found themselves and preparing welfare and refugee claims with limited knowledge of English. To help them, in 1991, Francisco, the Sisters and I co-founded the FCJ Refugee Centre out of two bedrooms in the house the Sisters gave us. Today, we serve refugee claimants in four houses across Toronto, helping them navigate the immigration process. 

Refugees have always received an inadequate introduction to the country: after they make a claim, Border Services agents interview them, give them the number for the Red Cross’s intake office and basically send them off with a “good luck.” If the Red Cross is closed, people sleep at the airport. If it’s open, they take transit there. If it doesn’t have beds, people sleep in shelters. The problem is, in 2024, shelters don’t have beds either. An explosion in global conflicts—in Ukraine, Yemen, Haiti, the Middle East and Africa—has brought a record number of claimants to Canada. In 2023, for the first time, the number of refugees we admitted exceeded 140,000, and half were processed through ports of entry. 

It’s often said that Canada is in the middle of a refugee crisis; I’d argue it’s more of a resource crisis, provoked by the federal government underfunding social housing for decades and not preparing for waves of refugees it should have known were coming. I am now seeing things I have never witnessed in my 34 years of advocacy: I can’t seem to refill the free bread in the FCJ lobby fast enough. I’ve heard of refugees being detained for arriving without proper identification and saying they’d rather stay in detention because their only other option  is the street. People are saying, “I’d rather go back to my country and die quickly than die slowly here.” Last year, a refugee from Nigeria died while sleeping outside a shelter in Mississauga, Ontario, waiting for a bed.

To rectify this, in February, the federal government pledged $362 million to the provinces to house refugees. But money alone is not enough. Refugee claimants on temporary permits are ineligible for federal settlement services, which means they rely on provinces, municipalities, non-profits and public generosity from the moment they arrive on Canadian soil. Instead, they should immediately be directed to reception centres, centralized spaces with warm beds, food and wraparound supports to help them begin building their lives. 

Right now, a Montreal-based organization called PRAIDA is one example of a government-funded reception centre. There, refugees are permitted stays of just 15 days. Ideally, there would be a reception centre in every major city in the country, as well as border cities like Niagara Falls and Windsor, to assist the thousands of refugees who make claims inland. There is no magic number for how long they should stay. In my experience, individual claimants may need three days before moving on to a shelter or another city, whereas a single mom with two kids might need six months. Centres that offer shorter stays could have capacity for up to 500 people; for longer-term centres, 100 beds is reasonable. The smaller the community, the easier the integration process.

In addition to providing a place to sleep, the centres would have a team of on-site case workers to address the most immediate needs of refugees: legal aid to prepare them for their hearings with the Immigration and Refugee Board, or IRB; an employment counsellor to help them find job opportunities and migrate any skills from their home country; an education worker to set up language classes and schooling for any dependent children; and, most importantly, a housing worker. Many families can’t afford a home or apartment just for themselves and, in Toronto, the wait to get into subsidized housing can be years-long. A housing expert could match them with other people with whom they could split spaces and costs and connect them with reputable landlords in the area. 

A reception centre should also have a full-time nurse and physician to address health concerns and provide referrals to family doctors and psychologists for further care. Refugees are often fleeing domestic violence or conflict zones, so many arrive with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The process of rehashing their past with lawyers and IRB members can open old wounds. 

With all the focus on paperwork and hearings, it’s easy to forget that refugees need time for relaxation and hobbies. FCJ offers regular workshops on painting, entrepreneurship and essay-writing—fun and educational sessions to break up the admin work. Our MusicBox program teaches music to kids who aren’t yet enrolled in school; it’s a good way to learn English. We even offer facial-massage workshops for women, which encourage self-care and relaxation—two things that easily fall by the wayside. Reception centres could create these programs, too.

Over the past few months, a coalition of transitional houses from around the GTA helped to create a proposal for the construction of a reception centre in Toronto. Soon, thanks to a recent $7-million federal funding boost, one is set to open close by—in Peel Region, where the Nigerian refugee lost his life. I’m hoping this new centre will prevent further tragedies and be a safe haven for the refugees arriving at Pearson Airport.

Canada, which prides itself on being a rich, multicultural tapestry, doesn’t just have a responsibility to take care of claimants because it signed onto a UN convention. Of the thousands of refugees who arrive every year, roughly 89 per cent will become citizens. It’s important that they feel welcomed from the start. The work I do is my way of thanking Canada for keeping me alive. Whether or not their claim is accepted, a proper reception will help all refugees to remember: I was treated like a human being. 

Loly Rico is the founder of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.