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A new report from the Auditor-General found that the system was not flexible enough to properly respond to the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers between official points of entry along the Canada-U.S. land border since 2017.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Canada’s refugee system is ill-equipped to deal with a surge in asylum seekers arriving through unauthorized border crossings, leading to a growing backlog of refugees and months-long wait times for hearings, says a report from the Auditor-General.

The report, tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday, found that the government has struggled to keep up with the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers between official points of entry along the Canada-U.S. land border since 2017.

The Auditor-General said the wait time for a decision on a refugee claim rose to 24 months by the end of 2018 – with 71,000 claimants in the queue – up from 16 months in 2017. And the A-G is warning that the wait time for a decision will rise to five years by 2024 if changes aren’t made to the process and the number of new asylum claimants stays at 50,000 a year.

Despite Ottawa’s pledge of hundreds of millions of dollars to hire more staff and expedite the refugee process, there remains a significant backlog of refugee claimants. By mid-April, the wait time had declined to 21 months. However, the number of claimants waiting in the queue has continued to grow, reaching 74,000 in April.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the report is “unfortunately a snapshot in time" that doesn’t reflect the 2019 budget’s $208-million in new funds for the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to help it process 50,000 asylum claims annually.

“The system was never funded for the volumes that it received," Mr. Hussen said. “We are finally funding the asylum system for the volumes that it is experiencing."

Mr. Hussen’s office said the backlog has grown this year because the government’s new spending will take time to make a dent on the outstanding cases.

Inefficiencies, such as a reliance on paper instead of electronic files, contributed to the long wait time and large backlog, the report said.

More than 42,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada through unauthorized points of entry over the past two years.

The report, led by interim Auditor-General Sylvain Ricard, examined whether the three main federal organizations involved in the asylum process – the IRB as well as Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) – processed asylum claims in an efficient and timely way.

Most asylum seekers have been able to remain in Canada through a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires Canada and the United States to refuse entry to most asylum seekers who arrive at official points of entry along the shared border, as both countries are considered safe for refugees. Since the agreement applies only to those who arrive at official points of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being immediately turned away by crossing between border posts, requiring Canada to process most of their claims.

The increase in asylum claims had ignited an intense political debate across Canada. While the Liberal government is working with the United States to revamp the border agreement so Canada can turn away more asylum seekers, the Conservatives say Ottawa must act immediately to stop them from crossing.

“We need to reduce the demand on the system," Tory immigration critic Michelle Rempel said on Tuesday. “We have to close the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement.”

Reforms to the refugee system in 2012 set new mandatory timelines for processing asylum claims, with most refugee-claim hearings having to be scheduled within 60 days. However, the report found that only 20 per cent of claimants received a hearing within the required time period after the 2017 spike in asylum seekers.

In February, 2018, the IRB announced that it would set aside the 60-day timeline – something it is allowed to do under immigration regulations – as it continually failed to meet the requirement.

The report found that most hearing postponements were due to problems within the government’s control, such as the unavailability of an IRB adjudicator for a hearing. Mr. Hussen said the government has since hired 70 new IRB adjudicators to help process more cases. His office said the government will hire another 130 IRB decision-makers this year.

In some asylum cases, the IRB may make a decision based on a file review, a process that should be faster than a full hearing. But the report found that the board only expedited a quarter of eligible claims and, when it did, the claims took about the same amount of time as those with access to full hearings.

The IRB did, however, prioritize protection decisions for 628 unaccompanied minors who made claims from January, 2015, to June, 2018, with most having hearings within the required 60 days. The report recommended the IRB make better use of the expediting processes at its disposal.

The Auditor-General identified several inefficiencies in the CBSA, IRCC and IRB systems. For instance, different systems are used to track and store asylum claims, meaning information, such as changes to hearing dates, was often not shared between organizations.

The report also found that 400 asylum claims were not subject to required biometric checks, such as fingerprinting upon entry to Canada, for criminality or identity.

Finally, the report said the government continued to use paper files to process asylum claims, even when information was available electronically. The Auditor-General recommended the CBSA, IRCC and IRB find a way to share information securely, accurately and efficiently by moving from paper to digital processing of asylum claims.​

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan accused the government of putting Canada’s asylum system in jeopardy.

“Asylum seekers continue to not be able to have their claims processed, their lives are stuck in limbo and all in the meanwhile, the government is still trying to figure out what to do," Ms. Kwan said.

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