As asylum seekers continue to stream into Canada in record numbers, dozens of refugee claimant cases in Ottawa are being delayed or cancelled with very little notice, say local advocates.
The revelation comes as hundreds of people, most of whom are originally from Haiti, have been crossing illegally into Canada from the U.S. each day near the border crossing in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que.
"This is a new phenomenon this year," said Arghavan Gerami, an Ottawa immigration lawyer who spoke with CBC News about the situation facing her clients.
Gerami said more than two-thirds of her clients' cases have been cancelled without yet being rescheduled.
"I've been practicing for a number of years, and this would rarely happen. We would have cancellations, but they would be rescheduled right away."
Growing national backlog
Earlier this year, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board issued a memo obtained by the Canadian Press suggesting that asylum claims had spiked so quickly in 2017 that the board was being overwhelmed by a growing backlog of applications.
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The memo projected that the number of asylum claims would hit 36,000 this year — and could continue to increase after that. There were 16,115 claims in 2015, and in 2016 there were 23,895.
The backlog is posing particular challenges for asylum claimants in Ottawa, since the local Immigration and Refugee Board office closed in 2014.
Claimants now have to travel to Montreal for hearings — and when they're unexpectedly cancelled, they have to bear the financial burden themselves, said Kailee Brennan, who has been working with asylum seekers at one Ottawa shelter.
"People are purchasing that bus ticket ... and then as hearings began to be cancelled, we can't refund their bus tickets, unless we know a new date for them," Gerami said.
"So they've lost that 50 or 60 dollars, which for people that are in that type of situation — that's a lot of money."
'Very high stress'
"It's very high stress, very high stakes," Brennan added. "To work through that process for two months and learn that your hearing is cancelled — it's devastating for people."
Gerami called the current uncertainty "anxiety-provoking" for asylum claimants — but she felt Immigration and Refugee Board was taking the problem seriously.
She also hoped the delays wouldn't become a long-term issue.
"In terms of a strategy of exactly how it's going to be dealt with, we don't know yet. But for sure, it's not something that's being neglected," Gerami said.
"It's a reality in terms of the sheer number of claims that have come through. And you know, it's understandable."