Ottawa — The number of people seeking asylum in Canada is rising “far beyond” what the existing system can handle, according to a recent letter from Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussein obtained by the National Post.
“Without changes to improve efficiency and productivity of the asylum process, wait times and backlogs will only continue to grow,” Hussein writes in the Aug. 14 letter, addressed to the Canadian Bar Association. “This situation is not sustainable, nor is it fair to the people who need Canada’s protection.”
The language is unusually strong for Hussein, who speaks often about Canada’s “strict and efficient immigration and border-control system,” including in an op-ed for the Toronto Star last month.
His recent correspondence with Barbara Jo Caruso, chair of the immigration law section of the Canadian Bar Association, highlights a sense of urgency as Hussein considers how to reform the backlogged asylum system. But it gives little insight into what changes the Trudeau government is considering following a report released in June that recommended a major overhaul of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), the arms-length body that handles asylum claims.
“While the department has carefully analyzed the findings and recommendations of the report, it would be premature to speculate on any future changes to the asylum system,” Hussein writes in the letter.
Sergio Karas, an immigration lawyer and analyst, called Hussein letter “an admission of failure … by the Liberal government,” and said the existing system wasn’t designed to accommodate the current volume of asylum claims.
“I honestly do not understand how it is that the federal government can look the people of Canada in the eye and say that the system works,” he said. “Because the system has collapsed.”
Last year, Canada saw a dramatic uptick in asylum seekers entering the country between official border crossings, particularly in rural Quebec. More than 20,000 irregular asylum seekers entered Canada last year, and more than 12,000 have in 2018, though the rate of new arrivals has slowed considerably since its peak last summer.
A spokesperson for Hussein told the Post the minister recognizes the need to increase the IRB’s capacity but said the problems pre-date the recent influx of asylum seekers. In fact, Hussein was instructed in his February 2017 mandate letter to improve Canada’s asylum system.
“We inherited a massive backlog of asylum claims after a decade of short-sighted and damaging policies under the Harper Conservatives,” Mathieu Genest said in an email statement. “This situation has only been exacerbated by the increase in asylum seekers, which has been growing since 2013.”
Genest said the government invested $74 million in the 2018 budget to help the IRB finalize claims more quickly, in part by hiring 64 new claim adjudicators and support staff. Still, IRB data shows there were more than 55,000 refugee claims pending as of June 30.
Hussein wrote Caruso in response to a letter in June, shortly before the review was released, calling on the government not to do away with the IRB’s independence. “The IRB stands as a model around the world for independent refugee determination, separate from other arms of government,” she wrote.
In his response, Hussein said the government will ensure “that claims are reviewed by impartial and qualified decision makers,” but gave no other indication of what reforms are coming.