A wave of asylum seekers entering Canada this year has exacerbated a backlog of refugee claims that the government is struggling to manage, leaving tens of thousands of people stuck in bureaucratic limbo even as they try to build new lives.
Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board says it has a backlog of 40,700 cases. More than 10,000 asylum seekers have crossed illegally into Quebec from the United States since July alone. But the board has the money and staff to process just 24,000 cases a year, meaning that many people will have to wait around 16 months for their case to be heard.
“The strain on the organization to handle this many people’s hearings is enormous,” Shereen Benzvy Miller, the head of the board’s refugee protection division, told a parliamentary immigrations committee this month.
“The math is clear,” she added. “Unless you put more resources to this problem, then it takes longer time to schedule, so there will be longer wait times.”
The delay also increases the amount of money Canada spends on asylum seekers’ medical care, education and public assistance, said Richard Kurland, a former national chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s citizenship and immigration section.
“The longer they stay, the more Canadians pay,” he said.
The immigration board set up a special task force in August to respond to the influx of asylum seekers who crossed illegally into Quebec. By the end of September, the task force had finalized around 300 claims, rejecting about 50 percent of them.
That acceptance rate is below the national norm of 65 percent, which could bode poorly for migrants who came to Canada on the basis of economic opportunity rather than a well-founded fear of persecution, as is legally required for refugee protection.
The board hopes to pick up its pace of reviewing claims, and expects the task force to hear 1,500 claims by the end of November, Benzvy Miller said.
Yet more people keep coming in, about 1,400 a month since April. And a government review of the asylum processing procedures, begun in June, will not be completed until next summer.
Most of the 8,500 asylum seekers who walked into Quebec from New York state in July and August were Haitians fearing deportation from the United States and seeking to benefit from a loophole in a treaty between the two countries that allows people to make refugee claims in Canada if they do not arrive at legal ports of entry.
As daily arrivals soared into the hundreds, the Quebec provincial government turned the Montreal Olympic Stadium into a temporary shelter with space for 1,500 beds.
Once asylum seekers have been screened for security risks and make a refugee claim, they are given a monthly stipend and a work permit, and their children are allowed to enroll in school. But this gives many a false sense of security, immigration lawyers say.
With civil war raging in his native Yemen and his Saudi Arabian residency expiring after 16 years, Sami Alromi, 40, a clothing salesman, made a desperate decision to fly to the United States with his pregnant wife and daughter in February, leaving behind three other children.
Just weeks earlier, President Donald Trump had tried to introduce a travel ban on people from Yemen, which Alromi said left his family with only one option: Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada had recently tweeted “those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” so the Alromi family crossed on foot into Quebec in March and made refugee claims.
But their hearing was indefinitely postponed in April.
His wife gave birth in Canada, and ever since their hearing postponement they have been consumed by fear that their other children, whose Saudi Arabian residency permits have expired, will be deported to Yemen, where teenagers are used as soldiers and diseases like cholera are rife.
“Being here I can’t do anything for my kids over there,” Alromi said in a phone interview from Montreal, adding that his wife had become so depressed over their plight that she had to go to the hospital and take medication. “If they are deported to Yemen, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
This month, the immigration board sent word that Alromi’s claim would go through expedited processing under a new policy that allows the authorities to review claims without a hearing for people from Yemen and several other countries.
But Alromi doesn’t know whether his claim will be accepted.
“Waiting is very hard,” he said.