Refugee hearing office in Ottawa slated to reopen

Immigration lawyers in Ottawa are expressing cautious optimism after getting word the city's long-shuttered refugee hearing office will reopen.

Office was shuttered in 2014, forcing claimants to head to Montreal

Ottawa immigration lawyer Arghavan Gerami stands in her backyard on May 17, 2018. Gerami has been pressing the federal government to reopen the city's Immigration and Refugee Board office, which has been closed since 2014. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Ottawa immigration lawyers are expressing cautious optimism after getting word the city's long-shuttered refugee hearing office will reopen.

The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) hasn't had a place to hold hearings in the nation's capital since 2014, when its office was closed and all remaining hearings were transferred to Montreal.

This week, however, the IRB sent an email to "Ottawa stakeholders" indicating a two-year, $74-million funding boost in this year's federal budget to help tackle a soaring number of asylum claims would allow them to once again hear cases here.

"We are adding hearing room capacity in the [National Capital Region] to hear refugee protection claims during this two-year funding window," wrote assistant deputy chairperson John Szekula in the email, obtained by CBC News.

"However, we are still in the early planning stages."

'Surprised and elated'

The previous Conservative government closed the hearing office in 2014 because they felt there weren't enough claimants coming forward in Ottawa, said Jamie Liew, a refugee lawyer and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

Refugee lawyer Jamie Liew speaks in 2014 after the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada shuttered its Ottawa office and transferred hearings to Montreal. (CBC)

While the decision was made to save the IRB money, Liew said it simply "downshifted" costs onto both Legal Aid Ontario and the refugee claimants themselves.

The costs associated with traveling to Montreal — from finding a place to stay to arranging child care — is often onerous, Liew said, for people who are already in a financially precarious situation.

That's why, she said, that this week's email from the IRB left her "surprised and elated."

"Every claimant has their own story, and a lot of them are very heart wrenching [and] very difficult to retell," Liew said.

"If there's anything that can be done to bring that evidence to light in a better manner, that only serves the board's purpose more."

More details needed

The IRB has been dealing with a surge in the number of asylum claims as more and more people arrive in the country via the Canada-U.S. land border.

More than 47,000 new claims for asylum were referred to the IRB in 2017, a record-setting number. That's led to a serious backlog, with the average wait for a hearing sitting at roughly 20 months as of February 2018.

The lack of details about why Ottawa hearings are being resurrected — whether it's a Band-Aid solution to fix the backlog or part of a more long-term strategy — has somewhat tempered immigration lawyer Arghavan Gerami's enthusiasm.

"Right now, we don't know if this is something that is emerging because of the overload," said Gerami, who has about 25 to 30 clients waiting for a hearing date.

It's a positive development ... but we need more information.- Arghavan Gerami, Ottawa immigration lawyer

"Is this just a temporary plan to shift some of those claims over [here] and redistribute the weight, in essence? Or is this a more fundamental shift to having an actual long-term presence in the nation's capital?"

The announcement does, however, mark a "good start," she added.

"It's a positive development, especially for vulnerable claimants," Gerami said. "But we need more information."

It's also not known when the local hearings would begin, or where they would take place. Staffing levels remain unclear as well, although the IRB email mentions hiring "at least an additional 50 decision-makers" in its refugee protection division, with the National Capital Region serving as "a possible place of work."

An IRB spokesperson told CBC News the board would not be able to answer questions Thursday.