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Thousands of refugee claims from asylum seekers remain unprocessed: federal immigration officials

The Immigration and Refugee Board is under 'enormous strain' and hasn't received extra resources, according to a high-ranking official.

Representatives from the federal Immigration and Refugee Board revealed in testimony to House Immigration Committee members that there are tens of thousands of refugee claimants backlogged in the system. The board falls under the under the purview of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen, pictured earlier this year in Centre Block. The Hill Times file photograph

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 4:54 PM

Only 300 refugee claims filed by the thousands of asylum seekers flowing across the Canadian border in Quebec in recent months have been processed by the federal tribunal that decides who gets refugee status, officials told the House Immigration and Citizenship Committee on Tuesday.

Only half of those 300 asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, representatives from the federal Immigration and Refugee Board revealed in testimony to the committee.

The surge in asylum seekers crossing into Canada slowed in the first half of September; IRB officials told the committee that from Sept. 1-17 about 2,000 asylum claims were filed from those who illegally entered Canada, a drop from the more than 8,000 claims made in July and August.

Asylum seekers who illegally entered Canada have filed roughly 13,000 refugee claims this year, according to officials from the IRB, which is responsible for assessing the validity of refugee claims.

  

In response to a question about why it had only processed 300 of the claims so far, IRB spokesperson Anna Pape wrote in a written statement to The Hill Times that it was “based on the readiness of the claims to proceed to a hearing and our capacity to hear them.”

“Although the [Refugee Protection Division] makes every effort to be as efficient as possible in it’s scheduling it can sometimes be faced with cases that cannot proceed for reasons outside of its control,” Ms. Pape wrote, referring to the division of IRB tasked with handling the refugee claimants.

Many of the recent asylum seekers have crossed the southern Quebec border, leaving the United States to avoid a possible deportation from there to another country, including 1,928 Haitians this year, according to the IRB.

President Donald Trump announced an extension in May to the temporary protection status given to Haitian nationals in the U.S. after the island nation’s horrific 2010 earthquake, but only until January 2018.

  

A large number of refugees arriving in Quebec are also from Colombia and Burundi, while many were born in the United States, according to the IRB. Around 60 per cent of Quebec border crossers were male, and 20 per cent were children, with a sizeable number of families arriving together.

In response to the influx of refugee claims coming from individuals who arrived through the Quebec-U.S. border, a spokesperson from the office of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen (York South—Weston) said the federal government “swiftly mobilized key agencies to manage the spike in asylum seekers over the summer.”

“We continue to take a whole-of-government approach and work hand-in-hand with the government of Quebec and all our partners,” said Hursh Jaswal, special assistant to Mr. Hussen. Mr. Jaswal said questions regarding the 300 claims heard so far were best answered by the IRB.

Mr. Hussen and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina—Wascana) are expected to appear before the committee at its next meeting on Oct. 5.

  

 

‘Enormous’ strain on IRB

The IRB set up a 17-person special response team last month to oversee claims from individuals who entered Canada seeking asylum via an illegal border crossing at St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. Officials told the committee that the special team currently has 373 more hearings scheduled, but expects to have completed hearings on 1,500 cases altogether by the end of November. 

Shereen Benzvy Miller, deputy chairperson of the refugee protection division of the IRB, which handles refugee claims made from inside Canada, said her department can hear about 24,000 cases each year, with its current resources. 

“The strain on the organization to handle this many people is enormous, as our capacity to hear this many cases this fiscal year, following a plan of action for efficiency and internal reallocation of funds, is roughly 2,000 per month,” Ms. Miller told the committee.

She projected that Canada will receive more than 40,000 refugee claims altogether in 2017, the highest annual total since 2001. Currently, about 40,000 asylum cases are backlogged, awaiting processing before the IRB.

IRB officials also told the committee that the wait time for refugee claims to be heard was 16 months before the surge of asylum seekers this past summer. Claimants often receive work permits or social assistance from the different levels of government while awaiting their hearing.

At the meeting, NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.), the committee’s vice-chair and her party’s immigration critic, pressed immigration officials on whether the IRB was provided additional funding and resources in order to clear the claimant backlog. 

Ms. Miller said the IRB wasn’t provided additional funding and that an internal efficiency review of IRB “will help somewhat” in finding more resources within the tribunal. However, she was unsure about how many additional resources the review would produce.

Ms. Kwan said the absence of additional resources would only worsen the backlog of cases.

“I get that there’s a review, but you know what, there needs to be action,” she said.

“If there’s no additional action with respect to that, we’re jeopardizing the integrity of our system and that’s what I’m most worried about.”

When asked by Ms. Kwan if there was a specific dollar amount of additional funds needed by the tribunal to clear the backlog, Ms. Miller said there was no specific value, but mathematically speaking, without more funding, the IRB claimant backlog will increase.

“I think it is fair to say that the more cases we get without an increase in our capacity, the longer the wait time is going to be, absolutely,” she explained.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.), her party’s shadow minister for immigration and the other committee vice-chair, questioned immigration officials at the meeting on the level of social assistance given to asylum seekers, and the pace at which claims are heard before a board, compared to the faster speed at which claims have been processed and then referred to the IRB by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada.

Immigration officials also told the committee that 946 asylum claims were made by Mexican nationals this year, a rise from 250 claims in 2016, a change Ms. Rempel attributed in a Tweet to the Liberal government’s lifting of a visa requirement for Mexican travellers, which was done last year without a formal review process. 

 

jlim@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times