Canada’s asylum system unable to respond to spikes in claims, auditor finds

With the current backlog of more than 75,000 claims, asylum-seekers might wait up to five years

An asylum seeker is confronted by an RCMP officer as he crosses the border into Canada from the United States Monday, August 21, 2017 near Champlain, N.Y. Acting auditor general Sylvain Richard has found Canada’s refugee system is plagued with a backlog of asylum claims that is worse now than it has ever been, caused in part by systemic inefficiencies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Canada’s refugee system is plagued with a backlog of asylum claims that is worse now than it has ever been, caused in part by systemic inefficiencies, according to findings from acting auditor general Sylvain Ricard.

As part of five audits of government activities released Tuesday, Ricard’s office looked at how quickly and efficiently the three government agencies involved in reviewing and processing refugee claims are doing their work.

The audit found Canada’s refugee system is not able to respond quickly to surges in asylum claims, which has led to a two-year backlog as new claims have rushed in over the past two years.

“We found that Canada’s refugee system is unable to process claims within the two-month target set by the government. In fact, backlogs and wait times are worse now than when the system was last reformed in 2012, to address these very same issues,” the audit report says.

READ MORE: Trudeau defends changes to asylum laws that have refugee workers alarmed

An influx of asylum-seekers to Canada that began in early 2017, including more than 42,000 “irregular” migrants who have entered Canada away from official border checkpoints, has outstripped the government’s ability to process them.

With the current backlog of more than 75,000 claims, asylum-seekers might wait up to five years to learn whether they can remain in Canada.

“Fairness and speed are key principles of Canada’s refugee determination system,” Ricard says in the report. “The system must be able to respond quickly to changes in the volume of asylum claims to avoid backlogs and delays in refugee protection decisions.”

The auditor general points to several factors that have led to the current backlogs, including funding for the three agencies involved in processing claims: the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Immigration Department.

The number of claims filed each year fluctuates, yet the system receives a fixed amount of funding to process them. That’s why when there is a spike in the number of claims — as has happened over the last two years — volumes of unresolved cases grow and wait times increase.

Ricard’s office also identified a number of internal problems in the way the agencies process claims. They all use different information systems to collect and share information and those systems don’t work well together.

Also, many hearings for refugee claimants get postponed, which adds months of delays to each file. Most of these postponements were caused not by the asylum-seekers but by IRB members who were unavailable for hearings.

Duplicated work and a heavy reliance on paper files have also contributed to delays.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said this year’s federal budget promised $208 million in new money for the IRB to tackle refugee claims. This money is partly to be used to hire 130 new staff, including 85 new decision-makers.

The money is aimed at getting the board to the point where it can process 50,000 claims a year.

But Carol McCalla, the principal auditor behind the report, told reporters Tuesday that money alone will not fix the concerns identified in the audit.

“In 2012, the government set firm time requirements for a hearing for an asylum claim of two months, and we note that it’s now reached two years. Without efficiency improvements, just throwing more money to increase the capacity — more needs to be done.”

Hussen disagreed that the government is simply throwing money at the problem, pointing to several new processes that have been implemented since the auditor general completed this report last June, including a new asylum management board and an expanded pilot program that streamlines files for judges’ review.

“You can talk about throwing more money at the problem, but really if you don’t have a system that is funded for the volume it receives, you’re setting it up for failure,” he said.

Hussen laid part of the blame on “half-baked reforms” embarked upon by the former Conservative government in 2012, which the auditor report says did contribute to a backlog of older, “legacy” cases. That legacy backlog is on the verge of being cleared.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel fired back at Hussen, rejecting any notion the problems in Canada’s refugee system were caused by Conservatives.

“I cannot believe with six weeks left in Parliament after four years, they’re coming out here and saying its Stephen Harper’s fault. That’s just patently ridiculous,” Rempel said. “This government should be taking responsibility for that issue.”

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan accused both the Liberals and the Tories of mismanaging the file, objecting to the impact on the refugee claimants’ lives.

“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,” Kwan said.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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