'Impossible to close the gap': Immigration board boss says more resources needed to process legacy refugees

Faced with a swelling backlog and a promise to resolve five-year-old asylum claims, the chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada admits he needs more funding and more people.

About 5,500 people have been waiting since 2012 to have their asylum claims heard

Mario Dion, chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, says it's 'essentially impossible' to clear the backlog of refugee claimants using existing resources. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Faced with a swelling backlog and a promise to resolve five-year-old asylum claims, the chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada admits he needs more funding and more people.

Mario Dion insists the IRB has become more efficient in dealing with cases, but it's not enough.

"I am afraid the way things are at this point we will need additional resources ... because there is a limit to how much you can stretch one person's time," Dion said in an interview with CBC News.

He said it's "essentially impossible to close the gap using existing resources."

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen recently announced a review of the asylum system, but he's offered no guarantee of additional funding.

The bulk of the backlog is made up of Canada's so-called legacy refugees.

They are a group of about 5,500 people who have yet to have their asylum claims heard. That's because they arrived in Canada in 2012, just before the federal government passed a law that requires new refugee clams to be heard within 60 days. Since the IRB had to comply with the law, it put thousands of existing files to the side — where they've stayed ever since.

'They have been put on the backburner'

Anoosha, who asked that her real name not be published to protect her family back in Afghanistan, is one of those refugees still waiting for a hearing. She says she fled to Canada in 2012 after being threatened by the Taliban.

A prominent human rights activist back in Afghanistan, she now finds herself struggling to get by working at menial jobs in Toronto.

"I never worked in the kinds of jobs I work at here, and it is really difficult for me," she said. "I cannot move on. I'm stuck."

Immigration lawyer Elyse Korman has been working with an Afghan refugee who's been waiting for a hearing since 2012. (CBC)

Anoosha's lawyer, Elyse Korman, says her case shows the kind of turmoil legacy refugees face, "not knowing what the future holds, living in a state of limbo and facing all sorts of obstacles in terms of education, employment and health care."

She says the government's message to the legacy refugees is loud and clear: "They have been put on the backburner."

In her client's case, it has meant a cruel twist of fate.

Anoosha managed to study in Afghanistan during the years the Taliban was in power and prohibited girls from going to school.

Now, she says she finds herself unable to go to school in Canada because colleges and universities consider her a foreign student and she can't afford the higher tuition and fees.

The Corredor family in Peterborough, Ont., has experienced similar frustration since fleeing Colombia in 2012.

Humberto Corredor was politically active in his native Colombia, running as a candidate for the ruling party. He says he was kidnapped three times by FARC guerrillas. (CBC)

Humberto Corredor, a veterinarian who ran as a candidate for the ruling party, said he was kidnapped on three occasions by FARC guerrillas. He says he now sees a psychologist to deal with the traumatic memories of his captivity.

But what actually pushed the family to leave Colombia, he says, were threats against his children.

"When the problem is only yours, you can live with that," Humberto said. "But when the problem is your son's, your grandson's, OK. No more. It stops."

'The government forgot us'

Humberto wants to practise as a veterinarian in Canada but he doesn't qualify for Canadian training because he's not classified as a permanent resident. His wife, Martha, a psychologist, is in the same situation. She's recovering from treatment for breast cancer. 

"Canadian people are so kind. We receive a lot of support," she said. "But we feel like the government forgot us." 

Their son, Mateo, is working three jobs to help support the family. Unlike Anoosha, Mateo received a special exception to enrol at Trent University as a Canadian student.

Mateo Corredor received a special exception from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., to enrol as a domestic student even though he has no Canadian status. It was his dream to attend university, and he works three jobs to help pay for tuition. (CBC)

He worries about his parents more than himself.

"I see them stress, I see them worry about me and that breaks my heart because I do not want them to worry about me," he said. "And I do not want the government to make them feel like they are being persecuted, like they were in Colombia."

In 2015 and 2016, the Corredors and many other legacy refugees watched as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadians welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada. Within weeks, the newcomers sped through the process and became permanent residents.

The Corredors say they are happy for those who made it here, but Martha betrays a hint of bitterness when she claims the politicians are only interested in good media coverage.

"I am sorry to say it, but they want to publish and they want to be in the media because they are bringing 25,000 people from another country," she said. "But the house is not clean. Why don't they clean the house first?"

Martha Corredor was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She tried to obtain a visa for her daughter to visit from Colombia, but it was denied by the federal government. (CBC)

Before Dion's call for more funding, the IRB promised to clear the legacy claims this fall by redirecting resources and staff.

Lawyer Elyse Korman questions whether it's even possible to have a fair hearing after so much time has passed. Claimants are expected to provide precise details about what happened to them, she says, but after five years, memories fade. 

"That is particularly true for refugee claimants who have experienced trauma."


Laura Lynch


CBC Radio correspondent Laura Lynch has reported from many parts of the world, most recently Europe and the Middle East. She has also worked as the CBC's Washington correspondent and as a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. She is based in Vancouver.