Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the invitation to speak to the committee once again today on this important topic.
I'm joined by Paul MacKinnon, assistant deputy minister of strategic and program policy, as well as André Baril, director of asylum policy.
To address the recent influx of asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the United States outside of designated ports of entry, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has taken a number of actions. Most important, we are working in partnership with other departments as a member of the ad hoc intergovernmental task force on irregular migration as well as with agencies, other levels of government, and of course our external partners.
This whole-of-government approach is working well, including through the government operations centre, and we will continue to work together on this important issue. We know that the situation is in part a result of misinformation on various social media and other channels suggesting that those in the United States will receive preferential treatment if they come to Canada. This is, of course, incorrect. All claimants are treated according to existing laws.
The current process for asylum claimants is well established and effective. Asylum claims are governed in part by international treaties to which Canada, of course, is a signatory.
As such, we have a legal responsibility to assess all asylum claims and anyone claiming asylum in Canada has the right to due process. That being said, strict processes are in place for all those who seek protection, regardless of how they arrive in Canada.
Upon their entry into Canada, all asylum claimants crossing legally and illegally first undergo a rigorous screening and background screening to ensure that they have not committed serious crimes and do not pose health or safety risks to Canadians. A Canada Border Services Agency officer will then verify their identities using both biographic and biometric information. An interview is then conducted by a CBSA or IRCC official to determine an individual's eligibility for referral to the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Factors determining eligibility to claim asylum include whether the claimant has made a previous claim in Canada or if they have already received protection in another country. If someone is determined eligible, an asylum claim is then referred to the IRB for an independent assessment of the individual's claim based on the risks they face in their home country.
With the influx of asylum seekers through the summer in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, wait times for initial eligibility interviews had increased to several months. However, Mr. Chair, I am happy to report today that due to our increased efforts over the months of August and September, the wait time for such interviews is now reduced to a number of days or weeks depending on the circumstances.
Once an asylum claim is deemed eligible and referred to the IRB, the federal government covers the cost of eligible health services under the interim federal health program. Due to these exceptional circumstances, IFH certificates are now being issued to individuals after they have undergone security and background screening and have been scheduled for their initial eligibility interview.
After a claim is made, individuals may also apply for social assistance, which is the responsibility of provinces and territories. To help ease pressure on the social assistance budgets of provincial governments, IRCC has been fast-tracking work permit applications for all asylum claimants across Canada with a 30-day service standard.
In recent weeks, the government has also taken a number of steps to inform people in Canada and the United States of the facts regarding the asylum process here in Canada and to dispel false information. We are spreading the word that temporary protected status in the United States does not automatically entitle anyone to any status in our country. Some asylum claimants have believed this.
We have also launched an extensive outreach campaign with our partners, and are working with Canadian consulates to bring this message directly to diaspora communities in the U.S. who might be thinking about making the journey to Canada.
Mr. Chair, we feel it's important to continue to emphasize that while Canada supports managed migration and is a welcoming society, entering Canada irregularly can be dangerous for personal safety, and does not guarantee that you can then stay in Canada.
The same rigorous assessment applies regardless of how a person enters Canada and where they claim asylum.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you so much, Mr. Chair.
Good morning. My name is Shereen Benzvy Miller. As of early May, I am the deputy chairperson of the refugee protection division at the Immigration and Refugee Board, or the IRB. I'm accompanied by Greg Kipling, director general of policy, planning, and corporate affairs at the IRB. Thank you for inviting us this morning to discuss this summer's influx of refugee claimants in Quebec.
Several agencies are involved in dealing with this, so where does the IRB fit in? What does this sudden influx mean for the IRB?
The IRB is Canada's largest independent administrative tribunal. It only becomes involved in the process, as my colleague Mr. MacDonald suggested, once we get a referral from the IRCC or from the CBSA. They are at the front lines.
Before specifically discussing the influx of refugee claimants in Quebec and the response of the Refugee Protection Division, I would like to give you an overview of our mandate and the environment in which we operate.
Our mandate guides all the decisions we make in the processing of refugee claims and rulings on those issues, including with respect to the recent increase of refugee claimants in Quebec.
Our work essentially consists in determining whether a person has standing to be a refugee or whether they are a person in need of protection under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in the 1985 Singh decision, ruled that legal rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms apply to everyone—in other words, every person in Canada, including refugee claimants. In addition, the court stated that refugee claimants have the right to a refugee hearing when a serious issue of credibility is raised. That is why the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada was created in 1989.
Mr. Justice La Forest, in a 1995 Supreme Court of Canada decision, stated that the refugee status determination is “probably one of the most difficult judicial or quasi-judicial events existing in Canada”.
The adjudication of refugee claims is a complex matter for several reasons.
One, refugee protection division members are making profound decisions of life or death, often with incomplete or limited evidence.
Two, many of the claimants who appear before the board are vulnerable and suffer from mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of the trauma suffered in their homeland. So far in 2017, 93% of claimants required the assistance of an interpreter. We have the capacity to provide this service in 240 languages and dialects.
Three, in addition, the RPD members must be up to date on the developments of the law and must be experts on the country conditions of 126 countries so far in 2017, most of which are constantly in flux.
Last, the courts have consistently held that the RPD must ensure a high level of procedural fairness, due in part to the importance of the decision being made.
It is in that context that the Refugee Protection Division developed its approach to respond to the influx of refugee claimants crossing the Quebec border. The fact that many of those refugee claimants are living in temporary tents and do not have work permits has created a number of problems, both for the refugee claimants and for the Refugee Protection Division's processing of refugee claims.
First, since a large number of those refugee claimants were in a very precarious situation in Canada, fairness required that the Refugee Protection Division use all means available to process the refugee claims quickly. That means we have to prioritize the processing of as many cases as possible, to the extent that our resources permit, while meeting our overall mandate. Therefore, on August 11, we immediately created a response team, which will be active from September until the end of November.
We have appointed 17 of our members to that team and immediately took measures to hire new members so as not to impede our capacity to deal with the number of cases we normally receive on an ongoing basis.
The response team has both operational and adjudicative thrusts. I'd like to underline that this response has not diminished in any way IRB's ongoing commitment to one of the key objectives of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which is the security of Canadian society. For example, the IRB has a publicly accessible policy that requires that the RPD not accept a refugee claim until CBSA has had a reasonable opportunity to complete its security screening. This policy remains in place for all claims, including those heard through the response team. There are other processes related to security matters that I would be happy to discuss during the question period, if they are of interest.
Since July 1, more than 8,000 claims were referred to the RPD. Before this, we were projecting an intake of 40,000 cases for this fiscal year. The strain on the organization to handle this many people's hearings is enormous, as our capacity to hear cases this fiscal year, following a plan of action for efficiency and internal reallocation of funds, is roughly 2,000 per month, or 24,000 per year.
Naturally, claimants whose hearings are not brought before a decision-maker of the response team in the next two months will wait to be scheduled like other claimants. Wait times before the Lacolle arrivals were already at approximately 16 months per person. Intake in the eastern region, in the month of September alone, was equal to the eastern region's intake for all of 2016.
To date, the response team has processed nearly 300 claims, and it expects to process up to 1,500 of them during its three-month term. Those decisions represent only a small portion of refugee claims compared to the thousands of decisions rendered every year, and they account for only a fraction of refugee claims that have been submitted to us since July.
In general, we will ensure to take advantage of all the opportunities and leverage technology, as well as our employees' expertise, to deal with the current situation.
Greg and I look forward to your questions. Thank you for having us.
I'm aware of that, but we have come from a place where an additional 1,000 cases are still being added to the backlog, and now it has moved to 13,000.
I get it that there is a review, but there needs to be action. That's what we want to see. If there is no action with respect to that, we are jeopardizing the integrity of our system. That is what I'm mostly worried about. That is not good for Canada. It's not good for anybody.
The minister, when he was at this table—he comes very rarely—that one time, I think he did acknowledge that additional resources needed to be available for the IRB, but we have not seen any.
With that, I want to turn to IRCC. With the existing resources that were reallocated, the 120 staff, within the IRCC to deal with the situation, can you provide the exact breakdown of how many staff were reallocated and from where?
The response could be quite long, so I'll pick some of the most unique best practices that we've learned over the years.
It starts really with what we learned with our operation for Syrian refugees; that is, that our department now has a better-tuned ability to set up, very quickly, mobile processing centres. We have biometric kits, as we call them, that take biometrics and they are mobile. We can move those around. We have positioned in various places our secure forms, shredders, and secure printers. We have very much fashioned ourselves in the last few years to be mobile.
The other best practice is that because our global case management processing system is all electronic now, we're literally able to work around the globe, be it in Canada or elsewhere, 24-7. Because of the time zone changes and the different cultures we work in, work days are different. That's what we call the “back office”. We've refined our back-office processes, making them much better.
The other best practice we've learned is that when you start to look at multiple forms and intake mechanisms, you need to thin down and not ask the same questions at different points of the continuum, which can be long at times. The more you do so, the more quickly people can move through.
Also, to be frank, we've invested in individuals. We've invested in people by sending them out on temporary duty. We take headquarters people and send them out to the field to do processing for up to six weeks at a time. We offer employees what are called “single assignments” to go oversees to get direct experience. We also do this in our domestic context. We are trying, then, to invest in our people to make them better and faster decision-makers.
There is also one—
I will answer in English to be more specific.
This is an important issue. In fact, overall the health of the asylum claimants very much drove how we responded operationally. We wanted to ensure that Canada's border, in being well managed and with such high numbers, did not have any health concerns.
The reality is we're dealing with people and people's lives. We had pregnant women showing up. We had actual births at the port of entry during this period of time in the high volumes. We had children who needed medical attention, and so on.
Not unlike other refugee flows, grosso modo the health of the overall Lacolle movement was relatively good, since the majority of the people had been in the United States for a while. Their health was actually quite good overall. That said, we were prepared for any health-type issues, as we are in the IRCC offices, because we have contact with people daily and things happen in life.
Again, importantly, the minister made a decision—I believe it was August 24—to issue the interim federal health certificate before eligibility decision for the Lacolle individuals, to ensure that anyone who had a health need could in fact reach and get that interim federal health coverage right away.
Please, Mr. Chair, if I may, I would just like to correct that impression for the record.
The practice notice you're referring to, which is on our website, is in direct response to the fact that the community of consultants and counsel in the eastern region came to us and explained that the time frames that are required for the submission of the basis of claim were completely impossible for them to meet because the demand for their services was so incredibly high.
As a result of that, in keeping with the legislation, we were able to require that claimants actually submit what is the skeleton of the basis of claim form as a holding place for the file. This is the “tombstone data” that somebody can fill out without access to counsel and without a profound understanding of the actual system. Then, before the hearing, we require a full basis of claim to be submitted with all of the elements filled out in order for the claim to proceed.
None of the substance of that basis of claim form is being given up at all. It is required. That practice notice basically allows for a two-step process to submit that claim. Remember that the IRB is focused on equal access to justice, and the principles of natural justice do include, primarily, the right to be heard and the right to make a full case.
In respect of that, as a tribunal we felt it was required in this time of high demand to allow the eastern region to do it slightly differently than other regions. This is, as the practice notice says, just a temporary measure, because the law is pretty clear that if you make a claim at a port of entry, you have 15 days to get the basis of claim form to the IRB. If you make an inland claim, you are expected to deliver the basis of claim form at the time of your claim being made.
In terms of the cost of activities, we are currently figuring it out, but a trip to the United States normally costs $2,000 per person.
That's just a round figure. For the IRCC officer we sent down to Miami and/or to New York to assist with outreach efforts, the cost is extremely minimal. Granted, there is a cost.
The goal of the outreach overall, as has been said—and you are correct, sir, in describing the outreach—is really to inform people. It's about giving people information to help them make a life decision. People will make their life decision as they see fit at the end of the day, but as immigration officials, we want to make sure that people make the best informed decision.
Our outreach is extensive. It involves media platforms, social media platforms, print platforms. It involves face-to-face conversations with people. It involves members of Parliament and ministers meeting with individuals. It even involves individuals like us and our decision-makers talking with people. It also involves outreach with organizations—lawyers, consultants, non-governmental organizations, workers in the communities, and so on. It also involves our provincial colleagues.
Outreach is also about providing something to individuals in the language of their choice, in the language they are comfortable with.
Immigration is a very complex system. So it is of the utmost importance for the information to be clearly stated, so that everyone can understand it. We are talking about those people's mother tongue.
That's why we chose to translate a lot of the products into various languages, not just Creole. We have translated things into other languages.
That's actually a very good question because the asylum system is complex. I'll be very brief, and then I'll hand the floor over to my colleague Ms. Miller.
Overall, the asylum system is governed through legislation, IRPA, as well as various regulations. From those authorities we devise operating procedures for how we effect the law. When individuals go through a regular port of entry—air, land, or marine—and claim asylum, they're processed under the carriage of the CBSA. They'll first do an “admissibility to Canada” check and then they'll do an “are you eligible to move forward to apply to the IRB” check That's all it is.
When someone crosses in-between a port of entry, the local law enforcement—typically the RCMP, but you never know—would take that person back to a port of entry, where the CBSA will process him or her. Some individuals come into the country, legally or not, and then later on decide to claim asylum. They typically walk into an IRCC office. In fact, about 50% to 60% of the claims are inland, as we call it. They come into our office. We now have carriage of that individual. We'll go through the same steps—admissibility, eligibility—and then we will refer the person to the IRB.