Thursday, March 15, 2007

Finley warned about growing refugee backlog

Jack Aubry, CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen
Published: Thursday, March 15, 2007

OTTAWA -- Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley's briefing books warned in January the impact of the Harper government's "shortcomings" in appointing new members to the refugee board was creating a growing backlog in refugee claims at the expense of millions of dollars in "social costs".

The new minister's briefing books, obtained by CanWest News Service through the Access to Information Act, warned processing times will go over the one-year mark by the end of this month because of the current vacuum in appointments.

It added the situation will become "particularly acute" in Toronto where more than 60 per cent of the board's operations are conducted.

It warned the Conservative government: "The lack of new appointments and re-appointments in 2006-07 has also affected the Immigration and Refugee Board's capacity to meet its obligations under the Official Languages Act to hear cases in French, especially in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver."

While the Harper government is preparing to reform the appointment process, which will give the immigration minister a greater voice in choosing adjudicators, more than one-third of the positions on the beleaguered board have remained open.

There were only five vacancies on the IRB when Prime Minister Stephen Harper took power about a year ago.

Critics have questioned whether the anticipated reforms precipitated the recent resignation of board chairman Jean-Guy Fleury more than eight months before the end of his five-year term. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family and "pursue new endeavours."

But in a letter to Finley, Fleury noted the board's "current structure is dated and lacks sufficient clarity vis-a-vis accountabilities."

Fleury's announcement followed the departure of executive director Marilyn Stuart-Major, who retired Feb. 2, and the deputy chair of the refugee-protection division Gaetan Cousineau, who was not re-appointed by the government after his term expired in November.

The briefing book, presented to Finley on Jan. 4 when she assumed the portfolio, predicted there would be 53 openings - 44 in the Refugee Protection Division and nine on the Immigration Appeal Division - on the 156-member board by March 31, 2007.

Dominique Forget, a spokesperson at the board, confirmed Wednesday there will be 53 openings at the end of the current fiscal year if there were no new appointments.

A spokesman in Finley's office said interim board chairman Brian Goodman will start on Monday and is expected to "streamline" the system so it leads to eventual appointments. He said the government has made 39 appointments to the board since its election in 2006.

But it is the Harper government that is now being accused of making a number of patronage appointments in the immigration and refugee sphere, despite promising to make only merit-based appointments in the last election.

Raminder Gill, who ran as a Conservative candidate against former Liberal MP Wajid Khan in the last election, was named a citizenship judge in October.

Opposition MPs have accused the government of using the position to make way for the defection of Khan, who crossed the floor to join the Conservatives in January.

In December, the government appointed former Progressive Conservative candidate Gilles Guenette to the IRB for a three-year term.

Last month, Finley named John Weissenberger, one of Harper's closest friends, as her chief of staff.

The briefing document also warned: "Delays in appointments have a major impact on the public interest in relation to security, family reunification and the lives of refugee claimants that are in limbo."

The briefing note said the longer processing times for claims add to the social costs carried by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, including those for health care, education and welfare.

"It is estimated that every additional 10,000 refugee protection claims in our inventory represent social costs of $35M to $40M a year."

Finley's briefing book said the IRB had reduced its backlog from 53,000 in 2002 to 20,000 by March 2006.

But it went on to say the ministry's objectives this year would not be met as 900 claims a month were added to the backlog, jumping the number to about 25,000 in-waiting claims.

Opposition MPs have said the government is stalling on appointments until changes are made to the process that will give the minister more power over the selection of adjudicators.

Finley has signalled her intention to adopt a recent recommendation from the Public Appointments Commission, which proposed streamlining two different appointment advisory bodies into one and giving the minister a bigger say in choosing adjudicators.
Last November, former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg launched a review of the way in which IRB members are appointed. The Liberals say this confirms their belief that government is rejigging the system to allow patronage appointments for right-wing candidates who are less tolerant of refugee claimants.

Ottawa Citizen