The closing of the local office where refugee determination hearings are held would cause added hardship for prospective new Canadians, Ottawa refugee lawyers say.

The Immigration and Refugee Board informed lawyers last week that hearings will be transferred to Montreal starting early next year. 

This move comes as the federal government also decided to close immigration offices in northern Ontario and move most immigration services to Toronto and other areas.

Staffing has also been cut at a Prince Edward Island immigration office where refugee services have taken a hit.

Heather Neufeld, a lawyer with South Ottawa Community Legal Services, said her eight clients waiting for a refugee hearing could not afford the costs of travelling and staying in Montreal.

One of her clients, Manuel Ayala, fled El Salvador fearing for his life as two rival criminal gangs tried to forcibly recruit him, she added.

He has been waiting 11 months for a refugee hearing and he is now concerned about the extra cost, saying his job is barely enough to cover his bills and help out his mother in El Salvador.

Cross-provincial representation causes problems

Neufeld also said her clinic does not have the budget to travel and there are issues with Ontario lawyers representing clients in Quebec.

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Canada's immigration application backlog must go and the government won't rule out any option, Jason Kenney has said. (The Canadian Press)

"They might have a harder time finding counsel who are able to travel, as well," said Neufeld. "And yet they can't get counsel who are present in Montreal because claimants in Ontario woudn't be eligible for legal aid in Quebec."

Neufeld said the government has not indicated how Ottawa's backlog of cases would be handled once they are moved to Montreal.

The Immigration and Refugee Board said the decision to move the hearings was part of the federal budget reductions happening across the country.

"Given the small number of hearings which currently take place in Ottawa, the IRB has determined that it would be more cost effective to conduct hearings involving Ottawa residents in Montreal instead," said board spokesman Robert Gervais in an email response.