Toronto

Refugees 'in the crosshairs' as Legal Aid Ontario battles for government funding, advocates warn

Moves by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) to slash services for refugees have immigration advocates sounding the alarm, saying the measures threaten to hold vulnerable asylum seekers hostage in the organization's fight for added government funding.

Agency says it has no choice but to slash refugee services — but many say cuts could be 'devastating'

Many advocates are raising the alarm about Legal Aid Ontario’s planned temporary cuts to refugee services, saying while the agency needs funding, the move will hold vulnerable asylum seekers hostage. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Immigration advocates are sounding the alarm as Legal Aid Ontario moves to slash services for refugees — saying the measures threaten to hold vulnerable asylum seekers hostage amid the organization's fight for added government funding.

The mounting concern comes as the arm's-length provincial agency launches a consultation process to look into what it calls the "difficult choice" to temporarily suspend some of the services, beginning July 1.

But while it's not known yet exactly which services will be cut to address the organization's 40 per cent shortfall in its immigration and refugee program, many are worried about the impact on refugees as the organization makes its case for additional provincial and federal support.

"When I say that the cuts will be devastating, I mean that literally they could result in a return to persecution, torture or death," Osgoode Hall law professor Sean Rehaag told CBC Toronto. "LAO is using a really problematic negotiating tactic here."

Rising demand for refugee services a 'reality'

Legal Aid Ontario disputes that.

"LAO would never bargain with a vulnerable population. We are well aware of the humanitarian impact of our refugee work," Graeme Burk, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.

The organization points to what it calls a dramatic rise in the demand for its refugee services, saying that despite the increase, the federal government's contribution has remained relatively static, in the $7-million range. While the program has cost about $20 million annually for the past several years, those costs ballooned to $27 million last year and are projected to jump to $33.6 million in 2017-2018.

That's about seven percent of Legal Aid Ontario's operating budget of $455 million.

And while the federal government did boost funding to $13.7 million in 2016-2017, the funding falls back to $8.9 million for the next two years and back down to $7 million for the three years after that.

In the meantime, the number of refugees coming into Ontario continues to climb.

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, the number of people making refugee claims at its crossings in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Sarnia, Ont., rose this year, with 433 claims in January.  If that rate continues, there would be 5,196 by the end of the year — up from 2016's total of 3,865 and 2,742 in 2015.

"The reality is demand for refugee services has increased, and without additional funding to meet that increased demand, LAO must take immediate steps to ensure it operates within its means," said Burk.

'Many vulnerable people outside of refugee services'

But whether those steps should involve cuts to refugee services is something Debbie Douglas, executive director for the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, disagrees with.

"We support LAO negotiating for more funding," said Douglas, who sits on the Legal Aid Ontario immigration and refugee law advisory committee. 

But she added she wants to see the agency take another look at its budget and put in a stop-gap measure while it continues its fight with the federal and provincial governments.

"I think it is unfair for immigrants and refugees to be held hostage in this political budgetary back-and-forth."

The organization points to what it calls a dramatic rise in the demand for its refugee services, saying that despite the increase, the federal government’s contribution has remained relatively static, in the $7-million range. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Immigration lawyer Raoul Boulakia says without access to legal representation, completing a refugee claim is virtually impossible. But while he says the federal government should be contributing more, he adds Legal Aid Ontario could free up more money from other parts of its budget.

"I do understand why Legal Aid is frustrated," Boulakia said, "but I don't agree at all with this decision."

"Refugee law is absolutely critical … but the government and legal aid are basically putting the refugees in the crosshairs with this funding dispute."

The agency says it serves 800,000 people every year — between criminal, family, domestic violence cases and others — all "vital services" in their own right, Burke points out. "The problem for LAO is that our work assists many vulnerable people outside of refugee services."

'Genuine refugees will be denied protection'

Rehaag has some ideas about where the agency might trim its budget.

He suggests cuts could be made to its larger program areas, like those dealing with minor criminal offences, and points to the 303 employees at the organization who made this year's Sunshine List.

Legal Aid Ontario says it's making changes across the board to balance its budget — including a salary freeze for staff and senior management, not filling vacancies where possible and reducing the number of criminal certificates by 10,000.

For its part, the province says over the last four years it's invested $150 million to make legal aid services available to more Ontarians, but that there is "unprecedented demand for refugee and immigration" services — something the federal government is also responsible for addressing.

Meanwhile, the justice department says while it provides funding for legal aid services to provinces and territories, it's up to each jurisdiction to administer their own programs. It also says it works closely with its counterparts to monitor the volume of refugee claimants and their demand on legal services, together with the provinces and territories, providing additional money for the next two years to deal with the added pressures.

In the meantime, advocates like immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman, who work on the front lines, say if Legal Aid Ontario proceeds with the cuts, they could mean the difference between life and death.

"Many refugees come with little more than the shirt on their backs," Waldman said. If the cuts go through, he warns, "undoubtedly genuine refugees will be denied protection in Canada as a result."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shanifa Nasser is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News interested in religion, race, national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. She holds an MA in the Study of Religion from the University of Toronto. Her reporting has led to two investigative documentaries by The Fifth Estate. Reach her at: shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca

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