'I have hope': Most refugees now waiting 16 months to have claims heard
Refugee board backlog has grown by about 1,400 cases a month since January
They survived a dangerous trek through Colombia and Panama and dodged human smugglers in Nicaragua, and now Guled Abdi Omar and Abdikadir Ahmed Omar are navigating the uncertainty and backlog in the bureaucratic jungles of Canada's refugee system.
Like the majority of people hoping to call Canada home, the two Somali asylum seekers — who walked across the Canada-U.S. border near Gretna, Man., in July — have no idea when they will get their opportunity to argue their claim in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
"It is something that you must have that faith in, you must have that patience," Ahmed Omar said.
The average wait time before people can go in front of the board has grown to 16 months, but officials say it could become even longer.
"The math is clear — unless you put more resources to this problem, then it takes longer time to schedule, so there will be longer wait times," said Shereen Benzvy Miller, the head of the board's refugee protection division, during a House of Commons immigration committee hearing on Oct. 3.
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A flood of asylum seekers walking over the border into Quebec over the summer has created long delays for refugee board hearings for thousands of refugee claimants in other parts of the country.
More than 8,000 people have crossed into Quebec from New York since July, most of them Haitians worried they'll be deported if the United States lifts their temporary protected status. Many have based their decision to flee on misleading or false information posted online and in messenger groups.
In August, the IRB set up a dedicated team of 17 members to hear asylum claims solely from those border crossers. It hopes to clear 1,500 cases by the end of November.
These are being prioritized partly because many claimants are being held in temporary housing, including tents, and winter is on the way, Benzvy Miller said.
But that's just a drop in the bucket of claims that were already waiting.
'Exceeding the IRB's operational capacity'
As of Aug. 31, the backlog of claims for refugee protection is about 29,000 cases. There are also 5,000 legacy claims from before 2012 — when there was an overhaul of the country's refugee system — that are being processed by a separate task force.
Since January, that backlog has been growing by about 1,400 cases per month, and it's expected to have increased over the summer.
Legislation, including the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, sets timelines for people to go before the board — 30, 45 or 60 days, depending on how they entered the country.
In 2013, 75 per cent of people went before the board on time, but by the start of this summer, it was fewer than half. Now, it's almost none.
"The current intake of claims for refugee protection is exceeding the IRB's operational capacity, which is causing a growing inventory of pending cases. As a result, many cases must wait before they can be heard by an independent decision-maker," said IRB spokesperson Anna Pape in an email to CBC News.
The IRB normally can hear about 20,000 claims per year, based on its current funding. When the surge of refugee claims started, the board increased its capacity internally to about 24,000 claims per year, after receiving a small amount of funding in anticipation of asylum claims from Mexico when visa requirements were lifted for the country.
However, the latest projection from the IRB is that at least 48,000 refugee claims will need to be heard in 2017.
'I want to present my case'
When Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar came to Canada, their journeys had already spanned 400 days, involved crossing 15 borders on three continents and cost them nearly $40,000.
CBC News first met the two men in Mexico City in February, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugee admissions to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.
Once in Manitoba, they filed their refugee claim paperwork and did what was needed for security checks. Then they waited.
Abdi Omar got connected with a local flooring company in Winnipeg and started volunteering to gain experience for when he could legally work. Ahmed Omar also tried to find places to volunteer and regularly chatted online with his family at home, who were relieved he was finally somewhere safe.
Fifteen days before Abdi Omar was set to go before the board, he got a call from his lawyer. His hearing had been delayed.
That left Ahmed Omar nervous but not surprised. Each time he had been to his immigration lawyer's office, he heard stories from other people who had their hearings before the refugee board delayed.
But as his hearing date came closer, he had hope that maybe he would actually get the answer that had brought him on a trek across the globe.
Three days before the date scheduled for the hearing, he also got a call from his immigration lawyer. His hearing had also been delayed.
"It was a big deal for anyone, especially me it was a big deal, because I want to present my case ... so that I can get my status as a refugee in Canada," he said.
They haven't had another hearing scheduled, but both men said the refugee board has told them it could be anywhere from six to 12 months away.
'The lawyer has to crash their hopes'
Winnipeg immigration lawyer Bashir Khan says it doesn't make sense anymore for the IRB to give hearing dates when people file their refugee claims, because deadlines are just not being met.
"Why are we giving hearing dates to people when they enter Canada?" he asked.
"Then the lawyer has to crash their hopes and say, 'No, I don't think your hearing is going to happen on time and you need to accept that.'"
Khan said he believes all of the IRB resources are being focused on the refugee claims in Quebec, leaving the rest of Canada waiting.
The number of people making illegal border crossings — meaning they've crossed somewhere other than an official port of entry — into Manitoba has dropped over the summer since earlier in the year, from 146 in April to just 80 in August.
But Khan said the wait for his clients to go before the refugee board has grown, adding at least 80 per cent of his clients are seeing their hearings delayed.
"We, in Western Canada, are unnecessarily suffering," he said.
Khan said the IRB has a full capacity of board members in Western Canada and the hearing rooms are available in Winnipeg, but "they are sitting empty."
For his clients, that means they can't move on with their lives.
"I have to basically explain that it is an administrative postponement, it is not [their] fault, it doesn't go to the merit of [their] claim," Khan said.
"Of course [they] have to live with the uncertainty and it shocks [them] every day, and other clients, not knowing what is going to happen to [their] future."
'Backlog will continue until funding is offered'
People aren't being forgotten, Benzvy Miller said. The cases are still on the docket but the IRB just doesn't have enough people to hear the claims, she said.
"It's about how much person power we have to have members in a hearing room to hear these claims and the number of claims that come in."
The dedicated team in Quebec is a temporary measure until the end of November to avoid a tent city filled with asylum seekers stuck outside, she added. People going through that team are much more likely to go before the board within 60 days.
The response-team members are primarily from the eastern region, but there are some members from the western regional office.
Benzvy Miller said the intent was always to replace the members by recruiting former members of the IRB so as to avoid slowing down the process across the country, but they haven't been able to backfill all of the positions.
The astonishing summer numbers of asylum seekers have put the IRB in a difficult position, with every claimant entitled to an individual hearing, she said.
That also means funding is required — each hearing needs a member to hear the claim, infrastructure support and staff support to manage the processes around the hearing.
Since the IRB only has funding for 24,000 claims per year and expects about 48,000 this year, there's a big funding gap, Benzvy Miller said. The federal government is aware of the demands placed on the system — there is an independent review taking place — but money hasn't started to flow.
"The backlog will continue until funding is offered because that gap is an actual gap," she said.
While Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale assured the House of Commons immigration committee hearing last Thursday that the government was taking steps — including an intergovernmental task force and co-ordinating outreach to targeted communities through Canada and the U.S., discouraging people from coming — there has been no commitment to more financial resources to the refugee board.
Under an agreement with the United States, Canada generally does not allow refugee claims from within the U.S., designating that country a "safe third country."
However, Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 Convention on Refugees, which protects a migrant from prosecution for illegally crossing an international border to make a refugee claim.
Once inside the country, a migrant has the right to make a refugee claim in Canada, provided they pass security checks.
In Winnipeg, Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar finally received their work permits last week.
"It's been a long three months, a lot of stress, depression thing," Ahmed Omar said.
"Thanks to God, that's the only thing I can say. I'm very happy Canadian immigration has helped us and give us a work permit."
As they cook up a meal in their small apartment, they talk about how they will build a resumé and where they'd like to work.
While uncertainty about whether their refugee claims will be accepted weighs heavy in the room, both said they know it's just another part of the very long journey they've been on — one they hope will end in safety and stability.
Until the day they finally get to argue their case, Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar said they are taking every opportunity to make Winnipeg and Canada home.
"I hope one day, at one time, I will be out of this transition thing," Ahmed Omar said.
"I have hope, always. I never lost hope."