Refugees left in limbo by delays
Strict timelines meaningless without enough resources to meet them, advocates say
Hafiz Fiaz Ahmad left behind his family and fled repeated threats from religious extremists in Pakistan to seek asylum in Canada in March.
The 37-year-old native of Lahore was quickly scheduled for a refugee hearing on June 21. However, a week before the proceedings, he received a letter from the Immigration and Refugee Board informing him that his hearing was cancelled because his security clearance by border officials was still pending.
“I was prepared. My lawyer was prepared. I couldn’t wait to tell my story to a refugee judge,” said Ahmad, who said he was targeted by religious fanatics for his secular views.
“My wife, two boys and daughter are still back home. I’m safe here but they are not. I just feel depressed not knowing even when I will have my day (of hearing).”
Despite a law that requires all refugee hearings to be heard within 60 days once a claim is initially deemed eligible by an immigration officer, more and more asylum hearings like Ahmad’s have been suspended indefinitely because of delays at the Canada Border Services Agency in issuing clearances of what is known as frontend security screening.
According to the refugee board, only 46 per cent of asylum claims were heard within the statutory timeline in April, far below the 84 per cent mark recorded two years ago.
Failures to observe the scheduling timelines are caused by delays in security clearances, operational limitations or unavailability of interpreters or counsel.
However, the proportion of hearing cancellations due to delays in obtaining a security clearance has ballooned from just 6 per cent two years ago to a peak of 55 per cent in December, meaning more than half of cancelled hearings were due to border officials’ inability to meet timelines for assessing if a claimant poses threats to Canada due to criminal or security concerns.
Although cancellations due to a pending security clearance were down to just 13 per cent in April, cases cancelled due to so-called operational limitations such as unavailability of refugee judges was up to 32 per cent from 8 per cent in 2015 and 13 per cent in 2016.
In the first four months of this year, 1,769 refugee hearings were cancelled because claimants’ security clearances were not ready. The border agency performed 12,997 security checks for refugees in 2015 and 19,449 last year.
“The (former) Conservative government has put in place a system with strict timelines without the re- sources to meet the timelines,” said Ahmad’s lawyer, Max Berger.
“Lots of claimants are devastated. They are psyched to tell their stories and have their date in (refugee) courts. The hidden cost is the delays in their family reunification.”
The refugee board said the border agency is responsible for informing it that security screening has been completed. The board doesn’t receive the actual security screening report but only a confirmation if a hearing can go ahead.
“Security screening is done to ensure that individuals who might pose a risk to Canada would not be granted protection and could not use the refugee determination process to gain admittance to Canada,” said Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff, a spokesperson for the board.
“In those cases where confirmation of security screening has not been received in time for the initially scheduled hearing, the (refugee board) will remove the hearing from the schedule and set a new date and time for the hearing as soon as feasible upon confirmation of the security screening.”
It is not known how long it takes to schedule a new hearing but claimants often are given a “target” date six months later.
“Front-end security screening for an individual refugee claimant may take time depending on complexity or requirements for additional research,” border agency spokesperson Patrizia Giolti said.
“While there is no one specific factor that may impact the (security clearance) processing workload and timelines, 2016 has seen a significant increase over the previous yearin the number of asylum claims.”
The agency has started to give the refugee board two weeks’ notice if a screening is expected to be completed in time for a hearing and has brought in additional staff to work over the summer to perform security screening to address the backlog, said Giolti.
Calling the situation a “nightmare,” lawyer Raoul Boulakia said he has had a case where a refugee judge felt there was compelling reasons to grant asylum to a persecuted Afghan journalist and was ready to proceed with a hearing. However, the case was held up without a completed security clearance.
Recently, the refugee board has introduced a “50/50” policy by postponing 50 per cent of all new asylum cases to deal with what are known as legacy cases, which were put on the back-burner after December 2012, when the then Tory government overhauled the system to impose the statutory timeline to expedite the processing of refugee claims.
By delaying the hearings without injecting more resources, Boulakia said the problem is simply snowballing and gets worse down the road.
Essey Berhane Debesay fled Eritrea’s oppressive regime in 2008 and arrived in Canada last August after travelling for nine years across Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and the United States seeking asylum.
When he was released from a prison in Florida after a 15-month immigration detention, the refugee clandestinely crossed through Emerson, Man., on foot full of hope that someone would finally hear his story and let him settle here.
The former Eritrean high school teacher was excited and ready for his scheduled asylum hearing on October 13, only to be told by the refugee board that morning that the hearing was cancelled because the border agency had failed to complete his security screening in time.
“I just collapsed,” said Debesay, 35. “I felt so beaten up. I just want to tell my story to a refugee judge. I have waited all these years to tell my story. We are human beings. It is a lot of pain.”
In a letter about the cancellation of Debesay’s hearing, the refugee board said it aimed to hear his case in early February. Debesay and his lawyer said they have been calling and writing to the board for a hearing date, but were told to stop contacting them and wait.
From January to May, Canada received asylum claims from 15,170 people, including 5,620 who came via the U.S.
Hafiz Fiaz Ahmad had to leave his family behind when he fled Pakistan. “I’m safe here, but they are not,” he says.
Lawyer Max Berger has had a number of clients who have had their hearings cancelled.