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PRINT EDITION
Asylum-seeker surge at Quebec border chokes refugee system
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For nearly two years, waves of refugee claimants have crossed from the U.S., sparking cost and controversy. Now, a weeks-long Globe and Mail analysis details the extent of the strains placed on Canada's immigration system
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By MICHELLE ZILIO
  
  

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018 – Page A1

OTTAWA -- The wait time for a refugee claim hearing in Canada increased more than a third over the past two years, to 19 months, as more than 30,000 asylum seekers arriving via unauthorized border crossings placed significant pressure on the system.

Overwhelmed by the number of migrants, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has only managed to finalize 15 per cent of the 27,674 asylum claims made by people who illegally entered Quebec - where the majority of the crossings took place, mostly at a single location near St. Bernardde-Lacolle - between February, 2017, and this June.

The resulting backlog has created a growing queue for any and all asylum seekers. Under the Supreme Court's landmark 1985 Singh decision, all refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing.

Asylum seekers who cross illegally at the U.S.-Canadian border eventually face the same questions as all other refugee claimants: Are they genuine refugees, fearing persecution in their home countries? Data from the IRB show that less than half of the claimants in finalized cases - 1,885 - have been accepted as legitimate refugees in Quebec, significantly lower than the proportion for all refugee cases in Canada.

But a separate data set from the Canada Border Services Agency shows that only a handful of those who have been denied refugee status have been deported. The CBSA said it had removed just 157 people who entered Quebec through unofficial border crossings since April, 2017 - about one in every 200. It said another 582 are being processed for deportation.

Canada-wide, the CBSA said it has deported 398 of the 32,173 people who crossed into Canada illegally since April, 2017. Of those, 146 were sent back to the U.S., while the rest were deported to 53 other countries, including Haiti (53), Colombia (24), Turkey (19) and Iraq (15).

Refugee lawyer Lorne Waldman said the relatively low number of deportations is simply an indicator of the system.

"It doesn't surprise me because it takes a while for cases to make their way through the system. So people who came a year ago, if the system works efficiently, they should be at the end of the system and subject to removal if their claims are rejected," he said.

But the situation at the border has put pressure on Canada's already-strained refugee determination system. The projected wait time for a refugee claim hearing is currently 19 months, up from 16 in September, 2017, and 14 in September, 2016 - just before the influx of asylum seekers.

Tens of thousands have flooded the Canada-U.S. border since last year. Initially, many of the border crossers were Haitians who had been living in the U.S. under a temporary protected status (TPS) they had been given after the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti. When the Trump administration announced its intention to end the TPS for Haitians, word spread among the community there that they could apply for refugee status in Canada if they headed north and found a way into the country.

But it wasn't as simple as showing up at the border and claiming asylum. The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S.

requires both countries to refuse entry to asylum seekers who arrive at official border crossings, as both countries are considered safe for refugees. However, since the agreement applies only to people who arrive at official points of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being turned away by entering between official border crossings - a loophole thousands have taken advantage of.

This year brought a new wave of asylum seekers in St. Bernard-de-Lacolle: Nigerians travelling on valid U.S. visas. It's not exactly clear why Nigerians choose to travel on U.S. visas instead of Canadian ones, but Mr. Waldman said the U.S. visa system is seen as more generous than Canada's.

Many of the Nigerian asylum seekers obtain visitor visas and use them to fly into the U.S. They then head north to the Quebec border, cross into Canada and apply for asylum.

Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and senior government officials travelled to Nigeria to raise their visa concerns directly with U.S. officials there.

Mr. Hussen said the Nigerian government also pledged to discourage its citizens from claiming asylum in Canada after crossing between official points of entry along the U.S. border.

The IRB has finalized just 4,181 asylum claims made by border crossers in Quebec between February, 2017, and June of this year (more current data were unavailable), of which only 45 per cent - 1,885 - were accepted. Another 1,614 claims were rejected, and 682 were abandoned or withdrawn.

That number of accepted claims is significantly lower than the Canada-wide acceptance rate for all refugee claims. As of June, the IRB had approved 7,831 of 13,687 - 57 per cent - of all processed asylum cases made since Dec. 15, 2012, including claims made by asylum seekers who crossed illegally into Canada.

Another 55,567 claims were still pending. A small number of refugee claims made before 2012, when the refugee determination system underwent significant changes, are documented separately.

As a part of the 2018 federal budget, the government invested $72-million in the IRB, which will be used to hire 64 new decision-makers in an effort to improve processing times.

Montreal refugee lawyer Mitchell Goldberg said he is optimistic processing times will start to decrease as the government dedicates more resources to the matter.

The deportation process can take even longer, especially if an asylum seeker chooses to exhaust all their appeal options - a source of concern for the Conservative opposition.

"It's completely unreasonable for our asylum system to be backlogged for years and then for us to not have a functioning system to remove people who don't have a legal reason to be in Canada," said Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel.

However, NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the former Conservative government, in which Ms. Rempel served as a cabinet minister, is also to blame for the delays at the IRB.

"There's been pressure on the system for many, many years, from the Conservatives to the Liberals. Successive governments have not resourced the IRB accordingly so that they can get the job done," Ms.

Kwan said.

Asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be heard have had to find accommodation, with thousands heading to Toronto, where the city has paid to house them in hotel rooms, dormitories and shelters for the homeless. Ottawa has pledged $50-million to defray the costs incurred by the provinces, with Quebec receiving $36-million, Ontario $11-million and Manitoba $3-million. But Toronto and Ontario have been pressing the federal government to pay much more, with the provincial Progressive Conservative government demanding a reimbursement of $200-million.

Mr. Waldman also said the government must do more to address the IRB delays, as the long wait times serve as a "magnet" for illegitimate asylum claimants who know they can potentially spend years in Canada while their cases linger in the system.

Associated Graphic

SOURCE: IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE BOARD (IRB). MICHELLE ZILIO AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A group of asylum seekers are escorted from their tent encampment to be processed by Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Que., in August, 2017.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS


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