Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Refugee claim backlog soars in first quarter

Toronto Star
44 adjudicator jobs go unfilled, as Conservatives `hijack' immigration board, critic says
Apr 29, 2007 04:30 AM
Joan Bryden

OTTAWA–Canada's backlog of refugee claims almost doubled in the first quarter of 2007 as the Harper government continued to drag its feet on filling vacancies at the Immigration and Refugee Board.

As of March 31, the effective backlog, based on 26,164 pending claims stood at 6,164 – up from 3,495 at the end of 2006.

Over the same period, the number of adjudicators available to hear claims actually declined by one, while the average length of time to process a claim rose slightly to 12.6 months from 12.3.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives took power just over a year ago, there were only five vacancies on the 119-member, quasi-judicial board. That grew to 18 by last July, to 43 by the end of last year and to 44 today.

The board has grappled with backlogs before. Indeed, 2005 was a banner year in which, for the first time in a decade, the backlog was essentially reduced to zero.

But board spokesperson Melissa Anderson said it is "significant" to see the backlog grow by almost 3,000 claims in only three months.

"Our previous backlog took a while to kind of build, really, and it was driven primarily by large, significant increases in new claims," she said.

"Whereas this time, what's quite different is really the number of refugee claimants hasn't gone up very significantly ... It's being driven this time, sort of internally, essentially through the lack of members (to hear claims)."

Mike Fraser, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Diane Finley, said 39 adjudicators have been appointed to the IRB since the Conservatives took office. A new chair and vice-chair also have been named and the government is "moving forward with a national search for candidates."

Fraser noted the government commissioned an independent review of refugee board appointments and is implementing the resulting recommendations. Among other things, all new board members will have to pass a written exam.

The so-called reforms also give the minister more say in the choice of adjudicators. Critics fear that change will politicize appointments.

Liberal immigration critic Omar Alghabra (Mississauga-Erindale) said in an interview the Conservatives appear to be deliberately dawdling, "hijacking IRB for their own political benefit, whether to appoint their friends or whether to impose their ideology."

Alghabra said it means legitimate refugees are in limbo longer – an injustice to them and an increased financial burden on the state which provides health, education and social assistance until claims are settled. Also, bogus refugees get to stay longer, with potential implications for Canadian security.