Border Security Minister Bill Blair says money set aside in this year’s federal budget to hire 64 new adjudicators for the refugee system will reduce the 20-month wait for a hearing, but the independent tribunal that oversees the process says the extra staff will at most slow the growth of the queue.
Mr. Blair told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday he believes the waits for asylum claims to be heard will start to decline as the federal government invests the budgeted $72-million in the Immigration and Refugee Board, which oversees the refugee determination system. The wait for a hearing in Canada increased more than 40 per cent over past two years as more than 30,000 asylum seekers began arriving through the Canada-U.S. land border.
“I am confident in the coming months we’ll see an improvement on clearing that backlog and dealing with these matters in a more timely manner,” Mr. Blair said on the sidelines of the Liberal caucus retreat in Saskatoon on Wednesday.
However, the IRB said waits are not expected to decrease, even with the addition of 64 IRB decision-makers.
“Because intake continues to outpace finalizations, even with the addition of new capacity, projected wait times are not expected to decrease from the current 20 months, although any added capacity will slow the growth of the inventory,” IRB spokeswoman Melissa Anderson said in a statement.
Asked to respond to the IRB, Mr. Blair’s office said the minister stands by his assertion that the wait times will fall. Spokesperson Radey Barrack said the minister’s conclusion is based on the fact that the new money will help the IRB finalize an additional 17,000 asylum claims over the two-year funding period.
The IRB said it has hired only 28 of the 64 new adjudicators – 13 in Montreal and 15 in Toronto. In Vancouver, six new staff will start training at the end of September. Ms. Anderson said the rest will be hired or appointed by March 31, 2019. The IRB’s refugee protection section currently has 126 decision-makers, and the refugee appeals division has 50.
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have flooded across the Canada-U.S. border since last year, mostly through an unauthorized port of entry near St. Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. The surge has resulted in a growing queue for all asylum seekers.
According to the IRB, the projected wait for a refugee claim hearing is now 20 months, up from 16 in September, 2017, and 14 in September, 2016 – just before the influx of asylum seekers began.
Overwhelmed by the numbers, the IRB has managed to finalize only 15 per cent of the 27,674 asylum claims made by people who illegally entered Quebec between February, 2017, and June, 2018. Data from the IRB show that less than half of those whose claims were completed – 1,885 – were accepted as legitimate refugees.
Separate data from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) show that the government has removed just 157 people who entered Quebec through unofficial crossings since April, 2017 – about one in every 200. Canada-wide, the CBSA said it has deported 398 who crossed into Canada illegally in the same time period.
Mr. Blair said he is working with the CBSA to improve the agency’s ability to deport rejected asylum seekers in a timely way.
Under a 1985 Supreme Court decision, all refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing.
Many of the first unofficial border crossers were Haitians who had been living in the United States and were fleeing President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.
The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States requires the two countries to refuse entry to asylum seekers who arrive at official crossings on the border, as both are considered safe for refugees. However, the agreement applies only at official points of entry, so asylum seekers can avoid being turned away by entering between official border crossings.
This year brought a new wave of asylum seekers to St. Bernard-de-Lacolle: Nigerians travelling on U.S. visas. Many arrived in the United States and then headed to the Quebec border to cross into Canada and apply for asylum.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the long waits for refugee claim hearings are a consequence of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s failure to manage the situation at the border, and are unfair to people coming from overseas who want to seek asylum in Canada.
“Those who are facing danger … people in refugee camps fleeing war-torn countries, now have to wait longer. The applications of refugees of who are trying to come through the process legally are now going to take longer,” Mr. Scheer told CTV’s Power Play on Wednesday.
With a report from Bill Curry