Sanctuary cities

June 1, 2017

Canada and the Global Forced Displacement Crisis

We are in the midst of a global crisis in forced migration and displacement. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. At least 65.3 million people have been forced from their homes. In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 24 people were forced out of their homes every minute of every day. Nearly half are children.

There are an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 non-status migrants in Canada. 

Non-status migrants may include, but are not limited to, people who have had their status revoked, been coerced by traffickers, or had their refugee claim denied. Many have experienced conflict, violence, persecution, and human rights violations.

Non-status migrants are seeking asylum in Canadian municipalities and municipalities can and must respond.

Non-status Migrants in Canadian Municipalities 

In Canada, non-status migrants live and work in profound and constant fear.

If they are detected, detained, and deported by immigration officers, their lives and families would be uprooted and their chance to be part of our communities and country destroyed. Social isolation and ever-present fear of detection and deportation makes them an “invisible” population in our communities and can take a very heavy toll on their physical and mental health.

Non-status migrants’ precarious immigration status makes them vulnerable in their daily lives in the community, as well as in their employment. Non-status migrant women who are also racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and/or a person with a disability, are most vulnerable.

Migrants also experience increased insecurity and violence as a result of the rise of racism, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Having sanctuary city designations in municipalities from coast to coast to coast will not only place Canada on the map with respect to responding to a global crisis, it will also mean that Canadian municipalities are taking an active stand against racism and xenophobia. 

Many municipalities are taking great strides towards being more inclusive and barrier-free communities. Becoming a sanctuary with adequate support for non-status migrants can be a part of that approach.

Municipalities can choose not to ask for information about immigration status and not share such information unless directed by law. While immigration is regulated federally, municipalities can help protect migrants and their families.

Sanctuary City Designation

Canadian municipalities can protect migrants through a sanctuary city designation, accompanied by comprehensive training and implementation of best practices to support individuals and families with precarious immigration status. 

A sanctuary city provides access to municipal services without fear of detection, detention or deportation, for residents without full immigration status and/or without full status documents from the federal government. The sanctuary city designation is effective and meaningful only when accompanied with strong municipal policy implementation, training for municipal management and staff, as well as a public education campaign. 

To date, Toronto, Hamilton, London and Montreal have sanctuary city designations. Vancouver has adopted a policy, Access to City Services Without Fear for Residents With Uncertain or No Immigration Status, taking their action to support non-status migrants beyond the standard designation. 

A Sanctuary City Serves All Residents

Sanctuary policies are consistent with Charter protected rights to equality and security of the person, and are also in accordance with international human rights obligations under the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Like other residents, non-status migrants and their families’ lives involve municipal services such as recreational programs, libraries, child care, emergency shelters, public health, food banks, transportation, and police services. Sanctuary policies provide protection and safety to non-status migrants with “don’t ask, don’t tell” or “access without fear” practices by the city service providers, police, and transit enforcement. 

Municipalities benefit from being a sanctuary for migrants. Non-status migrants pay property taxes through their rent, they pay GST/HST on goods and services, and boost economic growth through their employment.

Non-status migrants can only access services at municipal level — not from the provincial or federal levels. Refugees, designated by the UNHCR are not non-status migrants. In Canada, refugees have access to services and support. 

Being a sanctuary city benefits all residents; it makes a city healthy, strong, vibrant and prosperous. 

Next steps

  1. Pass a sanctuary city policy and designation as a sanctuary city at City Council.
  2. Implement an awareness raising and public education campaign internal to the City, including City transit, about being a sanctuary city and the “access without fear” or “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies and practices.
  3. Implement a community-wide awareness and public education campaign about being a sanctuary city that will educate residents and affirm to non-status migrants that they can access municipal services without fear of detection, detention or deportation.
  4. Develop a monitoring and evaluation plan that will report to City Council each year on the progress of implementation of the sanctuary policies.
  5. The City to advocate the Provincial government to provide provincially-funded programs and services to non-status migrants.
  6. The City to call on the federal government to provide pathways to permanent residency for non-status migrants.
  7. Work with municipal governments across Canada to advocate and implement sanctuary city policies in their jurisdictions.

Community actions

  1. Gather like-minded individuals, community allies and labour councils to form a coalition to advocate for sanctuary city designation and policies
  2. Write to your City Councillor and Mayor to let them know of your support for making your city a sanctuary city.
  3. Create and sign an e-petition that calls on City Council to pass a motion designating your city a sanctuary city.
  4. Visit your City Councillor and Mayor to advocate in-person for a sanctuary city policies.
  5. Fund raise to support community efforts toward becoming a sanctuary city.
  6. Do public education in your community to raise awareness of the need and positive impact of becoming a sanctuary city.
  7. Organize and join community events where you can raise awareness and build support to become a sanctuary city.
  8. If you live in a sanctuary city, advocate for effective implementation of the sanctuary policies by:
  9. contacting your City Councillor
  10. contacting your Mayor
  11. working together with like-minded individuals, groups and labour councils to keep the issues present in the community and at City Council
  12. asking for transparency and accountability from City Council, and from the police.
  13. Make your support for becoming or being a sanctuary city a municipal election issue.