Mexican tourist Borris Frias photographs travel partners Noe Montano, left, and Erick Ruiz on Parliament Hill in July. Canada imposed new visa requirements on Mexican and Czech citizens in the summer to stem a surge in refugee claims by people from those countries. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

The backlog of people waiting to have their refugee claims heard has tripled since the Conservatives came to power, statistics show.

The wait times have increased despite the government's criticism that delays open the door for so-called bogus refugees to stay in the country.


Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he has filled most of the vacant positions on the Immigration and Refugee Board and expects to have a full complement by Christmas. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

When the Conservatives came to power in January 2006, the backlog of people waiting for their claims to be heard by members of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) was slightly less than 20,000. Since then, the number of people on the waiting list has grown to 62,000.

As the backlog increased, the number of board members available to hear cases decreased. As a result, the average time refugees wait to have their cases heard has increased by 44 per cent since 2006, and critics predict that percentage might continue to climb.

"It's hypocritical," said Peter Showler, a former chairman of the IRB who teaches refugee law at the University of Ottawa, "because [the Conservative government], to a significant degree, is the author of the increased backlog and the delays."

When the Conservatives took power, the IRB had 164 members to hear cases. By March 31, 2008, that number dipped to 106.

IRB members are appointed by the government, and Showler and other critics say the Conservatives have politicized that appointment process, taking too long to fill vacancies while the backlog continues to grow.

Claims of partisan appointments predate Tories

Advocates for a more efficient refugee determination system have blamed governments for playing politics with the board ever since its creation in 1989.

Former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien faced criticism that they used the board as a cushy landing place for the people to whom they wanted to give partisan patronage appointments. Some of those people were ill-equipped to make life-and-death decisions about who got to stay in Canada the critics alleged.

When the Liberals were still in power earlier this decade, they made changes to the IRB, reducing the number of board members hearing cases from two to one and promising to create an appeal board. The aim of the appeal body would be to catch the inevitable mistakes that would happen with only one person presiding over the original hearings.


A refugee from Sudan waves Saskatchewan and Canadian flags during a Governor General's visit to Regina. The number of people waiting for their refugee claims to be heard has grown to 62,000. ((Troy Fleece/Canadian Press))

Politicians from all parties also vowed to take the politics out of the appointment process.

But advocates are still waiting for an appeal board, and they're still complaining about an appointment process dominated by politics.

Even the auditor general criticized the Conservatives for dithering instead of appointing board members quickly. In her report  last spring, Sheila Fraser said that in some instances, board members didn't find out they were being re-appointed until the day their term ended.

"In our view, these individuals should be treated in a more respectful manner," Fraser wrote in her report.

This week, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that he has filled most of the vacant board positions and expects to have a full complement by Christmas.

A more complete board will help reduce the backlog, which was created in part by an influx of refugee claimants from Mexico and the Czech Republic. In the summer, the government imposed visa restrictions on individuals from those countries.

Still, critics don't expect the backlog to go away and say it could even increase. That's because many of the board members the government has appointed are new and lack experience. The auditor general noted that from January 2006 to March 2008, the Conservatives only re-appointed 43 out of the 99 candidates the IRB suggested should be kept.

Showler says it takes about a year to train a new board member. So newer members can't always work as efficiently and quickly as individuals who have been around longer.

"We're talking about deciding whether someone is or is not sent back to persecution," he said.

Provinces bear brunt of backlog

As for the people who must wait and endure the backlogs, their lives can be frustrating.

Alexandra Mendes, the Liberal MP from the Quebec riding of Brossard–La Prairie, hears many of their concerns about the long waits and the uncertainty of life in Canada. These concerns prompted her to ask the immigration minister to provide details about the average time it takes the IRB to hear claims.

In a formal, written response, the minister sent Mendes a breakdown of wait times from 2005 to the end of August 2009. In 2006, the average wait was 11.7 months while by the end of August 2009, it was 17.7 months. Since then, the average wait time has climbed to 18 months.

The refugee claim is only the beginning of the process of gaining refugee status. Traditionally, the board has rejected about half of all claims. If the initial claim is rejected, the applicant can ask the federal court to review the case. "Leave to appeal," as the process is called in legal jargon, is only granted in about 10 per cent of cases, according to Showler.

If the claimant is one of the majority of people whose request has failed, the individual can apply to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration for what's called  a "pre-removal" hearing. But here, too, the backlog can push the wait to two years. Finally, there is the option of appealing to the minister to stay in Canada based on humanitarian grounds.

Showler says in many cases, the person is able to stay, but the precise numbers are unknown because the department withholds that information. While refugee claimants wait for the process to unfold, they qualify for health care, education and legal aid — all costs borne by the lower levels of government, especially the provinces. There is some evidence that provincial and municipal authorities are growing weary of having to pay for these services.

In a letter to the immigration minister sent in May, the Quebec government complained about the backlog, claiming that its costs had doubled since the Conservatives have been in power.

David McKie is an Ottawa-based producer with the CBC's Investigative Content Unit. If you want to contact him about this story or any other, he can be reached at