October 8, 2017 – Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is scheduled to hear near 8000 refugee claims against a growing backlog of 40,000. About half of asylum claims heard so far from those who have crossed the Canada-U.S. border in 2017 have been refused.
A total of 40,000 cases are also expected to be received in 2017, with current processing capacity at the IRB around 24,000 a year. The waiting time for a hearing is currently 16 months, a number that is only set to rise, according to officials.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the IRB was currently the subject of a third-party review, when he was questioned on the backlog during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on Thursday, October 5.
He said the backlog issues were not just about pumping more money in the organisation, but also about overhauling its structure and modernising the way the system is administered.
IRB officials say 50 per cent of the illegal border crossing cases heard so far have been rejected. But only 240 cases had been finalized as of Tuesday, October 4, with a further 373 scheduled.
A dedicated team of 17 IRB officials set up to hear the illegal border crossing cases is aiming to hear 1,500 cases by the end of November 2017. After that, the cases will be absorbed into the normal workflow of the board.
Minister Hussen was grilled on the government’s response to the surge in Haitian asylum seekers crossing the border illegally from New York to Quebec during the Standing Committee hearing.
Numbers spiked to 300 a day during July and August, from the normal 20 to 30, but Hussen was adamant “it was not a crisis”.
“It was an unusual increase, but we were able to respond professionally,” the minister told the Standing Committee hearing.
“There was planning,” he added. “The Lacolle facility was procured before the major influx began.
“I saw first hand the humane way people were being treated, but also rigorously screened.”
Extra capacity at Lacolle, Montreal and Cornwall, Ontario centres and the redeployment of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada staff allowed the number of initial hearings to be increased from 32 to 200 per day.
Hussen said the processing times for initial asylum claims dropped from five to seven months to five to seven days to cope with the influx. Those claiming asylum were also given fast-tracked work permits in 30 days so they could support themselves while waiting for an IRB hearing.
The minister also detailed how Canada has gone about correcting the false information that resulted in so many Haitian asylum seekers arriving at the border.
“Two colleagues travelled to the U.S. to deliver information to local diaspora,” he said.
Hussen himself attended a meeting in New York and found that some major refugee and immigration organisations needed to be brought up to date on Canadian policy on asylum seekers.
Goodale Faces Questions on Security
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale also attended the Standing Committee hearing, facing questions on whether security had been compromised as a result of reduced initial processing times.
It was put to him that with initial interview times dropping from eight to two hours, the thoroughness of checks had to have been compromised. He firmly rejected this.
“The implication that border security and safety has been compromised is absolutely wrong,” Goodale said.
Goodale said the degree of difficulty of the cases faced was small, in terms of border crossers deemed a risk to the health and safety of Canadians.
The less than 1 per cent of cases where serious criminality was discovered rendered the border crosser ineligible to begin the process of claiming asylum.
Non-governmental organizations and UN Refugee Agency officials made regular checks and were very positive on how the situations was being dealt with, Goodale reported.
Stream Reduced to A Trickle
The stream of asylum crossing the Quebec border has reduced to a trickle in September, with under 50 per day now arriving after numbers peaked in the several hundreds during July and August.
The government information campaign combined with the start of the school year, is believed to be behind the dramatic reduction in numbers. Parents, no matter what their background, are always reluctant to move their children during the school year. It will also support the argument that the majority of current asylum seekers are in fact economic queue jumpers, seeking a faster entry into Canada.
Government numbers show nearly 7,000 people crossed the Quebec border in July and early August, with 2,700 of them under 18.
Several temporary shelters were set up for newcomers, including one in Cornwall, Ontario, near the Quebec border. Others included Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, an old hospital and a school. A makeshift border camp was also set up by the Canadian army to act as an initial processing centre.
A federal-provincial taskforce was formed in response to the situation, including federal Immigration Minister Hussen, Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weill and Ralph Goodale, federal Minister of Public Safety.
Safe Third Country Agreement
There have been several calls for Canada to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., which says an asylum seeker must make their claim in the first country to which they arrive. The agreement is the reason why those coming from the U.S. are electing to cross the border at remote locations, with the aim of getting arrested and entering the Canadian immigration system. Such individuals would otherwise not qualify to submit a claim as the Safe Third Country Agreement would prevent them from doing so.
However, with negotiations currently ongoing for the renegotiation of NAFTA, Canada will not want to do anything to harm its bargaining position with the USA.
Although the numbers show a marked increase, they are low when compared to the migrant crisis facing Europe. Italy received nearly 11,500 asylum seekers in July, down from more than 23,500 in June. Meanwhile, Germany has 250,000 asylum cases pending compared to 21,000 in Canada. Spain and its territories have received nearly 13,000 asylum seekers so far in 2017.
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