More resources needed to hear refugee claims in Winnipeg, lawyer says
Most hearings currently held through video conferencing with adjudicators in Calgary, Vancouver
A Winnipeg-based immigration lawyer is calling on the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to boost its presence in the city to address an increase in the number of people filing refugee claims after crossing the U.S. border into Manitoba.
In a letter to the refugee board sent earlier this month, Alastair Clarke said the increases are leading to scheduling issues and more resources, including a permanent board member in the city, are needed.
"Many more people have been crossing into Canada as a result of the administration in the United States and we're getting groups who, in the past, did not consider Manitoba to be a destination where they wanted to come," Clarke said Wednesday.
"I've talked to the tribunal here in Winnipeg so they know the numbers — they're aware of the situation."
Occasionally, a travelling refugee board adjudicator will spend a week hearing cases in the city in person, but for the most part board members in Calgary and Vancouver conduct the meetings through teleconferencing and video conferencing with applicants in Winnipeg hearing rooms.
Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada statistics show the number of hearings in Winnipeg rose from 157 between January and June 2017 to 235 over the same period this year.
"The purpose of my letter [to the board] was to give them more ammunition to be able to go to the powers that be and be able to say, 'We've told you the numbers in Winnipeg are steadily increasing and by the way, there's a lawyer in Winnipeg who is confirming what we already know,'" Clarke said.
The adjudication hearings were at one time done in person in Winnipeg but that changed when the new system was set up in the mid-1990s, according to an IRB spokesperson.
'We just need somebody here'
In his letter, Clarke said two of his recent cases highlight his issues with the current system.
In one case from late August, he said his client was left scrambling to take time off work after the IRB adjudicator needed to reschedule the date of a video conference.
In another case, Clarke said technical issues in one of the hearing rooms made it difficult for adjudicators to hear what people in Winnipeg were saying.
He'd like to either see a permanent adjudicator hired to hear cases in person in Winnipeg, or a staff member brought in to help co-ordinate meetings and fix any technical issues that might arise during hearings.
Only a commissionaire is required to be in the Winnipeg hearing rooms currently, said Clarke.
"The commissionaires, who are basically security guards, are doing much of the work of IRB staff at the office," he said.
"We just need somebody here, basically."
Numbers up across the country
An IRB spokesperson said while the board is aware of the increased number of hearings in Winnipeg, the city's hearings make up only a small amount — about two per cent — of the cases across Canada.
Melissa Anderson said with a current national backlog of nearly 60,000 cases waiting to be heard, and wait times projected at around 20 months, board resources need to be allocated to parts of the country where the need is higher — most notably Quebec, where the majority of refugee claimants are crossing over.
"Winnipeg has had an increase, but so has everyone in Canada," she said.
She said the IRB has no plans to bring a permanent adjudicator into Winnipeg or hire a staff member to work out of the city, but is working to get the technical kinks out of the system.
"We're always looking at ways to increase efficiency but we do not have plans to hire members in Winnipeg."
Numbers from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada show RCMP intercepted 39 asylum seekers in Manitoba in August of this year. In total, 309 asylum seekers crossed into the province between January and August this year.
By comparison, 1,666 asylum seekers were intercepted in Quebec in August, and 13,479 crossed into that province between January and August.