So far in 2024, Quebec is seeing a jump in the number of requests for social assistance, according to preliminary data by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity for the first six working days of January — a spike it attributes to an increase in asylum seekers arriving in the province.
According to the ministry, it receives about 700 requests for social assistance a day. It said that it received more requests at the start of 2024 compared to the same period of the previous year — an increase of 30.5 per cent. There has also been a 27 per cent increase in requests made by asylum seekers.
Ministry data shows that requests for social assistance by asylum seekers have grown in recent years, from 27,099 in Oct. 2022 to 43, 174 in Oct. 2023.
More generally, the ministry says it received 80,151 requests for social assistance between March 22 and Nov. 21, 2023, compared to 72,221 for the same period in 2022. The jump in the number of households receiving social assistance is the largest in 25 years.
"The significant arrival of asylum seekers since 2022 has led to a significant increase in the number of social assistance recipients," said Chantal Rouleau, the minister responsible for social solidarity and community action.
The monthly average of asylum seekers more than doubled from 2022 to 2023, going from 19,455 adults to just over 40,000.
"Our capacity to receive has now been reached," Rouleau told Radio-Canada in a statement. "Our community organizations are experiencing very strong pressure due to the increase in the number of asylum seekers in Quebec."
But the minister also said it's still too soon to say if the social assistance figures for early January represent a real trend.
Catherine Tragnée, a community organizer at Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec, an organization that advocates for a basic income for Quebecers living in poverty, says there have been similar waves of requests in the past.
She says that even if the trend continues, the people seeking asylum won't necessarily stay on social assistance for the medium or long term.
"Their goal is to contribute to their host community," Tragnée said.
Scapegoating & housing costs
Eva-Gracia Turgeon, general director of Foyer du monde, an organization that provides temporary housing for asylum seekers, says that a short time ago, it was possible for new arrivals to find housing at affordable rental prices, a situation that is no longer the case.
"Two years ago, it was possible for people to find an apartment between $500 and $700. Now, it's $1,000, $1,200, $1300, $1,400. It's impossible for a person who just arrived to have that kind of money," she said, adding that those who have to look after children will have an even harder time working, even if they have work permits.
Tanja Maleska, co-executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says she isn't concerned by the early January numbers but instead by the "recent increase in scapegoating of refugees and newcomers, including this latest attempt to blame refugee claimants for increased claims for social assistance in Quebec."
In a statement to CBC Maleska said that "refugee claimants did not create the cost of living crisis, nor are they contributing to it in any significant way, but blaming them seems to be the distraction of choice for those responsible for it."
Frantz André, a Montreal-based advocate whose organization, the Action Committee for People Without Status, says Quebec needs to give community groups that work with asylum seekers more funding to get them into the workforce more quickly. (Sara Eldabaa/CBC)
Work permit, asylum claim delays
Frantz André, a spokesperson for Action Committee for People Without Status, says that while community organizations might be overwhelmed by demand at the moment, those groups could, with more funding from Quebec, help get asylum seekers into the workforce more quickly.
"No one wants to stay on welfare for long periods of time because it doesn't permit them to live with dignity and survive," he said, adding that many actually end up working multiple jobs.
André said the province needs to make it easier for asylum seekers to get their claims processed and get work permits, and that many asylum seekers arrive with money but end up needing financial aid because of those delays.
Rouleau says asylum seekers don't come to Canada to receive social assistance but spend an average of 11 months on it while waiting for the federal government to issue a work permit.
The increase in demand for social assistance raises concerns about potential delays in processing times more generally.
"Deadlines are not always respected," says Tragnée, adding that some users who depend on social assistance to pay their bills may feel the impact if their requests aren't processed on time.
The ministry said it takes five working days to make a decision in 85 per cent of cases on whether or not it will grant the aid, but there is currently a delay in 87 per cent of cases. It also says it is possible that the timeline will be extended in certain cases.
Per month, adults without temporary work constraints can receive a total of $807 in social assistance while adults with temporary constraints may get a total of $968 dollars in benefits.
Earlier this week, Quebec Premier François Legault sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking Ottawa to curb the influx of asylum seekers entering his province, which he described as nearing a "breaking point."
Legault asked Ottawa to reimburse Quebec the $470 million it spent on taking in asylum seekers in 2021 and 2022, and to do the same for subsequent years.
The Quebec premier had previously called for the closure of Roxham Road. The irregular border crossing closed last March, but its closing has failed to stop asylum seekers from arriving in Canada.