Refugees left in limbo by de­lays

Strict time­lines mean­ing­less with­out enough re­sources to meet them, ad­vo­cates say

Toronto Star - - NEWS - NI­CHOLAS KEUNG IM­MI­GRA­TION RE­PORTER

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.

RICK MADONIK PHO­TOS/TORONTO STAR

Hafiz Fiaz Ah­mad had to leave his fam­ily be­hind when he fled Pak­istan. “I’m safe here, but they are not,” he says.

RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR

Lawyer Max Berger has had a num­ber of clients who have had their hear­ings can­celled.

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