Canada's backlog of refugee claims is growing by almost 1,000 cases a month as the Harper government continues to dawdle on filling vacancies at the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The government has appointed more than a dozen adjudicators in the past month and increased the number of positions on the board by eight.
But despite that flurry of recent activity, there are still 45 vacancies in the IRB's 127-member refugee protection division.
The backlog of claims, meanwhile, has climbed to about 8,000, according to IRB records. Board spokesman Charles Hawkins said the number of pending cases is rising by about 900 a month, with each claim taking an average of 12.5 months to process.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper took power 16 months ago, there were only five vacancies on the board, which at that time had 119 members. Moreover, the backlog of claims had been effectively reduced to zero for the first time in a decade.
The delay in filling vacancies appears to stem from the government's decision to commission an independent review of IRB appointments and the resultant recommendations for reform issued last January.
Among other things, the reforms include requiring applicants to pass a written exam and giving the immigration minister more say in the selection of adjudicators. The latter recommendation sparked fears that the appointment process will be politicized.
In the past, Immigration Minister Diane Finley's office has suggested the delay in filling vacancies was because of the transition to the new appointment process.
But Bill Siksay, the New Democrat's immigration critic, said the Tories have now had six months to implement those reforms and yet the foot-dragging continues.
"It's entirely a problem that's been manufactured by the Conservative government. We had a board that was working efficiently and effectively ... and then the Conservatives decided to muck around with the appointments process," Mr. Siksay said in an interview.
"I just think it's utterly outrageous. This is mucking around with a process that's absolutely crucial for justice and fairness. It's life and death for many people."
A spokesman for Ms. Finley said the government has appointed 55 members to the board since taking office and in the past month has taken steps to increase both appointments and the number of positions on the board.
"Resources have been provided for more positions than have been filled up to this point," the spokesman acknowledged.
However, he suggested that the delay should be rectified shortly, now that a new chairman of the IRB, Brian Goodman, has been appointed.
"We made a commitment to implement all nine recommendations of the (appointment review) report. The newly appointed chairperson of the IRB will be moving forward to implement those recommendations."
This appeared to be news to the IRB, which seemed to be awaiting word on whether the minister has actually accepted the reform recommendations. Moreover, Mr. Hawkins suggested that only some aspects of the recommendations would be up to the board to implement in any event.
"Whatever aspects of the recommendations that concern the IRB or that we have the authority or the ability to implement, we would implement them once the minister has announced that the recommendations are being accepted," he said.
"The board obviously does have a role in screening and selection of candidates but only the minister can make recommendations for appointment and the appointments are the prerogative of the governor in council (federal cabinet)."
Backlog statistics are drawn from the IRB's data on pending claims. Currently, there are about 28,000 such claims at various stages of the refugee determination process.
However, not all pending claims can be considered backlogged. The board estimates that for optimal efficiency it needs 15,000 to 20,000 claims wending their way through the system at any given time. Only those claims above 20,000 can therefore be deemed backlogged.