Margaret Ekelemu left a painful past in Nigeria to start a new life in Canada in 2011. She became a registered practical nurse at a retirement home, joined her church choir and built a circle of close friends in Ottawa.

But more than five years on, Ekelemu still doesn't know whether she'll be allowed to stay, or deported to the country she thought she'd left behind.

'I don't want to be called tomorrow morning and be told, 'Margaret you have to go back home.' I have a life here.' - Margaret Ekelemu

Ekelemu is one of an estimated 5,600 so-called "legacy refugees," claimants who've been waiting four years or more for a hearing to find out if they can become Canadian citizens.

They came seeking a better life, but instead they're living in limbo, their futures uncertain. 

Ekelemu appealed the original decision turning down her application and was granted a second hearing, but because of a backlog she's still waiting.

"It's been a long process," she said. "It's not been an easy road for me.... I've been waiting. I don't want to be called tomorrow morning and be told, 'Margaret you have to go back home.' I have a life here."

Legacy claimants

Ekelemu is among the backlog of legacy claimants, those who sought refuge in Canada before December 2012, when the federal government put in place new deadlines.

Under the new rules all refugee hearings must take place within 60 days. With the IRB scrambling to process new cases on time, legacy claimants keep falling to the bottom of the list when it comes to scheduling hearings. 

Ekelemu's lawyer, Ronalee Carey, likens the process to dining at a fast-food restaurant.

"If I walk into McDonald's or any other fast-food restaurant and I try to place my order at the counter, priority might be going to people in the [drive-through]," Carey said. "So they've only got one person helping me at the counter, but they've got three people getting the orders ready for the people in the drive-through. So how is that fair?"

Huge backlog

There was already a backlog when the new targets came into effect in 2012 of 32,000 claims. 

The government spent $7.9 million in an attempt to get rid of the backlog, but 5,600 legacy claimants remain waiting. 

Now the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) has established a new task force to eliminate the backlog of legacy cases, with a two-year mandate to clear the list.

"The creation of a dedicated team will enable the IRB to significantly increase the rate at which it can process legacy claims while allowing the [refugee protection division] to continue to focus on new claims and current inventory," the IRB said in a news release.

The task force will be funded with existing resources, the IRB said.

Refugee council skeptical

But without any new resources, refugee claimants and their supporters worry it won't solve the problem.

The Canadian Council for Refugees is urging the government to allow legacy claimants to apply for permanent residency without a hearing.

Janet Dench

Canadian Council For Refugees executive director Janet Dench is skeptical the government's new task force can eliminate the backlog of claims without new resources.

The executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Janet Dench, said while it's good news the government is giving attention to the issue, she's skeptical the task force can make much of a difference.

"Realistically they wouldn't be able to work through the current backlog of legacy claimants for years," said Dench.

Dench said there aren't enough existing resources to push 5,600 people through hearings.

'We hear a lot about people feeling profoundly depressed, even needing treatment for these feelings. A sense of insecurity because they don't know whether they're going to be able to stay.' - Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees

"That takes a lot of time and a lot of decision-makers," said Dench. "And the board at present has not got enough decision-makers to even hear the claims of the new refugee claimants that are arriving. So it's just a simple matter of math."

For the past year Dench has been calling on the government to put in place special measures. The council, along with the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, want legacy claimants to be able to apply for permanent residence without a hearing.

Dench said the waiting and uncertainty can be "a devastating experience" for claimants who are unable to pursue higher education or travel, and who in some cases left children behind.

"We hear a lot about people feeling profoundly depressed, even needing treatment for these feelings. A sense of insecurity because they don't know whether they're going to be able to stay." said Dench. 

Eliminating the backlog would also save the government money, Dench said, because claimants granted permanent residence can get better jobs and contribute to the economy.

Hard to prove case 5 years later

Ekelemu's refugee lawyer worries it could be difficult to win her case because of the time that's elapsed. 

"How can we show that she's still at risk five years later?" said Carey. "There's no evidence anymore. Memories fade, documents go missing. It's very, very hard to establish a claim after it's been that long."

Margaret Ekelemu

'It's not been an easy road for me,' says legacy claimant Margaret Ekelemu. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

​Ekelemu hopes her story will shed light on the problems facing legacy claimants, so they can forward with their lives. 

"I want the government, if it can, [to] speed up the process," said Ekelemu. "There are so many people like me who have contributed positively and who are still contributing to the country that need to be given a stay so they can continue their work."

The new task force starts its work May 8.

Corrections

  • A previous version this story said the government spent $550 million dollars over five years in an attempt to get rid of an IRB backlog of cases logged before 2012. In fact, that money was allocated to many federal organizations and only $7.9 million of that funding was dedicated to the IRB backlog.
    May 02, 2017 9:59 AM ET