Refugee board hearings return to Ottawa

Four years after holding its last hearing in Ottawa, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) will resume hearings in the nation's capital today — meaning that low-income refugee claimants will no longer have to travel to Montreal to present their cases.

4 years after local office shut its doors, hearings will resume Monday

Asylum seekers wait to be processed by RCMP officers at a police checkpoint near the Quebec-New York border. Monday marks the first time in four years that refugee claimant hearings will be held in Ottawa. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Four years after holding its last hearing in Ottawa, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) will resume hearings in the nation's capital today — meaning that low-income refugee claimants will no longer have to travel to Montreal to present their cases.

In May 2012, as part of federal budget reductions, the former Conservative government announced it was closing immigration offices across the country. 

The Ottawa office shut its doors in 2014 due to a relatively low volume of cases at the time, with the outstanding hearings being transferred to Montreal.  

Immigration lawyers say that move caused undue hardship for their clients. 

Ottawa immigration lawyer Ronalee Carey says there's both 'good and bad news' in the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada's decision to reopen its Ottawa office. (Supplied)

"It's been incredibly challenging, especially since they changed the schedules both for Via Rail and for [bus service] Greyhound," said Ronalee Carey, an Ottawa immigration lawyer.

"It's made it impossible to get to morning hearings there, because there is simply no public transportation in Ottawa that leaves early enough in the morning."

Carey said that forced her clients to travel the night before. They often had great difficulty coming up with the money to pay for a hotel and restaurant meals, she said — especially when they had to bring their children. 

But in May, the IRB sent an email to Ottawa immigration lawyers indicating there was a two-year, $74-million funding boost to help process a soaring number of asylum claims — and that led to the eventual reopening of the Ottawa office.

'Absolutely delighted'

Two years ago, in the IRB's eastern region — which includes the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ottawa — there were only 5,819 refugee claimants.

However last year, according to the board's own numbers, that number spiked to 21,716. And in the first six months of 2018, there were 11,752 asylum seekers in the eastern region.

That rising demand is why Ottawa immigration lawyer Arghavan Gerami said she "advocated fiercely" to have IRB refugee hearings return to the city. 

Gerami said she was "absolutely delighted" when she learned they were resuming.

"My first hearing here is actually next Friday. And it's such a refreshing change because travelling to Montreal means [my clients] have to incur so much stress," she said.

"They are exhausted, and their credibility is at issue in these hearings."

Ottawa immigration lawyer Arghavan Gerami pressed the federal government to reopen the city's Immigration and Refugee Board office. She said it's reopening has left her 'absolutely delighted.' (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Concerns linger

While Carey is pleased the burden of travelling to Montreal has been lifted, she does still have concerns.

At a meeting with IRB officials last week, Carey said she was told there would initially be four board members conducting hearings in Ottawa, with that number rising to seven over the next few months.

The concern is, when the board members see the same lawyers day in and day out, they develop compassion fatigue.- Ronalee Carey

Carey said that leaves a very small pool of board members hearing similar evidence from claimants, often from the same country. 

"The concern is, when the board members see the same lawyers day in and day out, they develop compassion fatigue and they don't hear cases with fresh ears," said Carey.

"What we found before the hearings were moved to Montreal that the rate of rejection was much higher [here] than in other locations."

Carey said she was also told at the meeting with IRB officials that there are currently 1,000 claimants waiting for hearings in the greater national capital region, which extends south to Merrickville, Ont., and east to Thurso, Que.

Most have been waiting between 12 and 18 months for a hearing, she said.

Information provided by the IRB shows that the average wait time for a hearing is 19 months – up from 16 months last October.  

"It's really, really stressful because you are living here in limbo," said Carey

"You have no idea if you're going to be sent back, and you may be afraid for your life. So you have this constant fear and you have no sense of safety because you have no permanent status"