Refugee backlog grows as Tories fail to replace board members

Posted by admin on Oct 4th, 2006

Refugee panel `in chaos’. Immigrant hearings routinely cancelled as backlog grows Tories criticized for failing to replace 34 board members. Oct. 3, 2006. 01:00 AM NICHOLAS KEUNG Toronto Star

Refugee claimants in Canada are seeing their long-awaited hearings cancelled or postponed because the Conservative government isn’t appointing enough members to the Immigration and Refugee Board, say refugee advocates.

Most members appointed under the old Liberal regime aren’t being renewed as their terms expire. The slow pace of replacement is prompting fears of a growing backlog in the already-overloaded system, as well as a renewal of past patronage appointments. The IRB itself is so frustrated that it has publicly warned claimants that the shortage of adjudicators will delay their cases. The board is short 34 members — 22 per cent of its total complement.

“At the rate we are going, this will mean longer waiting times for persons appearing before the IRB as well as a growing inventory of cases waiting to be heard,” spokesperson Charles Hawkins said in an interview.

Since the Conservative government was sworn in last February, only eight new appointments and 12 reappointments have been made. Meanwhile, 29 experienced IRB members were let go when their tenures expired. To maintain normal operations, the board will need 44 new appointments and 20 reappointments by March.

“It has already created chaos at the board because many hearings have routinely been cancelled now,” said Toronto refugee lawyer Raoul Boulakia. Nine of his 16 cases that were to have been heard in September and October have been rescheduled.

“It’s questionable why the government will let the administration of justice be neglected so much.”

Lesley Harmer, spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Monte Solberg, pointed out that the appointment process now takes six to eight months. To improve recruitment, the IRB placed job notices in national and local papers for the first time, drawing more than 350 applicants, she added. “The time frame (of appointments) is unacceptable, and we are taking steps to reduce it,” Harmer said.

But since most members not renewed were Liberal appointees, critics suggest it amounts to a political “housecleaning” — despite reforms two years ago that were meant to end the practice of patronage appointments to the IRB.

“We are concerned that there are insufficient board members, and also who’s being appointed,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “The suspicion is that the government is delaying the appointments so new names with Tory connections can be brought forward.”

The former government revamped the IRB’s appointment process in 2004, requiring candidates to take qualifying exams and be interviewed by an independent selection committee before being short listed. Although cabinet still has the final say, the process is supposed to eliminate political manoeuvring.

Refugee claims have dropped from more than 44,000 in 2001 to roughly 20,000 last year, mainly as a result of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which effectively eliminates claimants arriving via the United States.

Reducing hearing panels from two adjudicators to one also has helped cut average processing time from 16 to 10 months.

Geraldine MacDonald, president of the 200-member Refugee Lawyers Association of Ontario, said it’s not unusual for hearings to be rescheduled, but it was only recently that administrators began telling lawyers that “we don’t have any member to get to your case.”

Peter Showler, who served on the board from 1994 to 2002, said the government’s slow movement will not only increase the time it takes refugees to get a hearing, but also compromise the quality of the decisions.

“They are letting go some really strong members, who are the lead dogs of the sled-dog team,” argued Showler, who now teaches refugee law at the University of Ottawa.

“This is foolish. Who does the government think will train and mentor the new cadre of members when the government eventually gets around to appointing them? This is going to do serious damage to the board and to refugees.”

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