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A group of asylum seekers arrive at the temporary housing facilities at the border crossing Wednesday May 9, 2018 in St. Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. An independent review of the Immigration and Refugee Board has found Canada spends an average of $216-million every year on asylum seekers, however long-standing, systemic problems persist and will require a major shift at the top.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Refugee advocates are sounding the alarm over a proposal to scrap Canada’s current independent refugee determination process and replace it with an agency that reports directly to the Immigration minister.

In a long-awaited review of the federal Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) Tuesday, a third-party assessment said Canada’s backlogged refugee determination system is at a crossroads and in urgent need of reform.

The review, headed up by Neil Yeates, former deputy minister of the Immigration department, presented two system reform options. The first – and most controversial – would move the process of determining whether an asylum claimant has a legitimate refugee claim from the independent, quasi-judicial IRB to a new “Refugee Protection Agency” that reports directly to the Immigration Minister.

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The Canadian Council for Refugees urged Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to reject the proposal and preserve Canada’s internationally-regarded tribunal model for refugee determination.

“People’s lives hang on decisions in the refugee determination system,” said Claire Roque, president of the council.

“We are not talking about traffic violations, we are talking about a decision that may determine whether a person lives or dies. When we make such important decisions, we need to guarantee due process and the basic protections of an expert and independent tribunal.”

Amnesty International Canada echoed those concerns and said it will be taking a closer look at the suggested move away from the independent nature of the IRB, which it called “a crucial safeguard of fairness.” It also criticized the report’s focus on “efficiencies and productivity,” rather than issues around fairness and human-rights standards for asylum seekers.

The current Canadian determination system was created in the wake of a 1985 Supreme Court decision, which found that refugee claimants are entitled to a just refugee determination process, including an oral hearing, under the Charter. The decision led to the creation of the IRB.

The second reform option outlined in Tuesday’s report would largely maintain the current asylum system’s structure through three primary federal organizations – the IRB, immigration department and Canada Border Services Agency – but add a new oversight body called the Asylum System Management Board. The board, which would operate at the deputy-minister level, would co-ordinate a systemwide annual asylum plan.

The report also recommended the government implement an “aggressive approach” to eliminate the massive asylum case backlog by April, 2020 – something the Canadian Council for Refugees welcomed. The IRB was faced with more than 57,000 pending asylum claims as of May, 2018, according to board spokeswoman Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff.

Mr. Hussen’s spokesman Mathieu Genest said the findings in Tuesday’s report will inform the government’s review of its asylum system, which will continue over the course of summer.

“It is premature to speculate on any changes that may be considered,” Mr. Genest said.