Over-burdened refugee tribunal ditches legislated timelines for hearings

The Immigration and Refugee Board is giving up on following regulations that say refugee claims must be heard within certain time limits.
Refugee claimants from Eritrea cross the border from New York into Canada Thursday, March 2, 2017 in Hemmingford, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Grappling with a historic level of asylum claims, the Immigration and Refugee Board appears to be officially giving up on following regulations dictating they must hold refugee hearings within a certain time.

Meeting the legislated time frame to hear claims has increasingly posed a challenge for the independent tribunal as the number of asylum seekers has risen steadily since 2014.

But after running out of internal solutions, a statement from the board Tuesday suggested it is simply out of options in the face of a backlog that grows larger by the day.

Instead, they will hear claims primarily in the order in which they were received.

"Many refugee claimants have been waiting a long time for their hearing," said Shereen Benzvy Miller, deputy chairperson of the board's refugee protection division.

"Given the current situation, focusing on hearing our claims in the order in which they were referred, while making room for efficiencies, is the right thing to do."

Asylum claims surged in 2017

Over 47,000 new claims for asylum were referred to the IRB in 2017, a record-setting number, due in part to a surge of asylum seekers at the Canada-U.S. border. Over 18,000 people crossed illegally into Canada last year to claim asylum, according to statistics from the board.

As of the end of December, there were 43,000 cases awaiting a decision, and as of Feb. 1, the projected wait time for claims was 20 months.

Rising numbers of new claims have a domino effect, the board said Tuesday. With the increase comes an increase in the number of people appealing decisions. If they win those appeals, their claims must be reheard.

"With the significant increase in new refugee protection claims, the waiting time for other matters such as older claims and returns from the Refugee Appeal Division and the Federal Court that must be reheard has also increased," the board said.

"In order to be able to hear all these other matters in a reasonable period, the (refugee protection division) must remove new referrals from its current schedule at this time due to operational limitations."

Regulations laying out time limits to hear asylum claims came into force in 2012 as part of the previous Conservative government's overhaul of the refugee determination system.

Time limits introduced to speed up system

The government was trying to address lengthy delays in the refugee determination process, which at the time included waits ranging from 20 to 24 months and a backlog of about 32,000 cases.

The new system was known as the designated country of origin program and divided claimants into categories, depending on where they were from. In turn, time limits were attached for refugee hearings — between 30 to 60 days depending on where the claim was filed and where the claimant was from.

At first, internal audits of the program have suggested, the time limits weren't a major issue, but as the number of asylum seekers began to rise beginning in 2014, the board started to struggle to meet the deadlines and a backlog began to grow. The issue has been flagged by the board in nearly all of its reports to government since.

The Liberal government has promised to overhaul the country of origin regime, but has yet to introduce any changes.