Merriam-Webster defines limbo as "a transitional place or state and a state of uncertainty" - this is never a good state to be in. For many refugees, unfortunately, limbo is a state that they are constantly in, facing varying degrees of uncertainty and security. For the lucky few that make it to a relatively safer country and stake a claim, waiting for a decision is akin to being in this state of limbo. Given the repercussions of a negative decision, this can be an extremely unnerving experience.
In December 2012, there were amendments made to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that introduced Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs) and tighter time limits between the referral process and hearings. A DCO is a country that is considered relatively safe and does not ordinarily produce refugees, and claims from these countries are expedited so as to allow for claims from the unsafe countries to get to processing quicker.
Tighter Time Limits
The tighter time limits apply to the Refugee Protection Division (RPD) that process refugee claims and conduct the hearings. The RPD is part of the independent tribunal, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada, which is responsible for making decisions on immigration and refugees. The tighter time limits are as follows:
30 days from referral to hearing for Designated Country of Origin (DCO) claims made inland
45 days from referral to hearing for Designated Country of Origin (DCO) claims made at a port of entry
60 days from referral to hearing for all other claims
Before we discuss the current situation in Canada, there's one more term that's important to understand: legacy claims. These are claims that were made before December 15, 2012, the day the above-mentioned amendments went into effect. While a majority of the legacy claims were fast-tracked prior to the amendments taking effect, there were a few that were not. On June 20, 2017, the IRB set up a legacy task force to eliminate this backlog of legacy claims.
Now getting to the data! From January to June 2017, the IRB received 17, 241 new system (new system refers to the amendments made in December 2012) claims, which includes claims referred back to the RPD for re-determination. Of these 17,241 claims, 10,330 claims were finalized (accepted, rejected or withdrawn), during this time period (January to June 2017). Looking at this number, it appears that the rate at which claims are processed by the RPD, given their current resources, is about 1,700 claims per month. Also listed on this website are the number of pending claims: As of June 30, 2017, there were 24,404 claims. This includes all unprocessed claims on or after December 2012 to June 2017. This number does not include the legacy claims mentioned before.
The 72nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Immigration and Citizenship (CIMM)
This meeting, held on October 3rd, 2017, provides perspective on these numbers and more recent information on claims post-June 2017. The topic of this meeting was the 'Briefing on the issue of asylum seekers irregularly entering Canada from the United States'. The following representatives from the IRB briefed the members of the committee and were then interviewed: -Shereen Benzvy Miller (Deputy Chairperson, Refugee Protection Division) & -Greg Kipling (Director General, Policy, Planning and Corporate Affairs Branch)
A few notable points, made by Shereen Miller, during the briefing follow:
Since July 1, 2017, the RPD has received 8,000 claims
On August 11, 2017, a response team was appointed, to be active from September through November. This team will prioritize cases of claimants that were in precarious situations, such as living in temporary tents with no work permits.
To date (date of the meeting) this response team processed 300 claims and targets to process 1500 claims in its 3 month period
Wait times are currently at approximately 16 months per claim
The original number of legacy claims was 40,000, and they are now down to a little over 5000
Legacy claims are being handled by a special team that was appointed in May 2017, and they expect to process the remaining 5000 cases in the next 2 years
It is safe to say that the 16 month wait time will increase
Of the total number of claims in 2017, 13,000 of them were made by refugees that entered through illegal points of entry
Of these 13,000 claims, 300 have been processed to date
One more thing that's important to note, is that there is a commitment, from Immigration and Citizenship of Canada (IRCC), to process temporary work permits for refugees within 30 days.
The People Behind These Claims
Now that we have the facts and the data, we can examine how this situation is really affecting the people behind these claims - the refugees - who have faced extraordinary hardships to get to Canada, a country they consider to be much safer than where they come from. The article that brought to light the delays in refugee claimant hearings told the story of two asylum seekers from Somali, Guled Abdi Omar and Abdikadir Ahmed Omar, who navigated their way through Central America and the United States to finally enter Canada at Gretna, Manitoba. Their refugee claims were accepted and their hearings with the RPD were scheduled within 3 months, but days before the hearings they were informed that they were rescheduled indefinitely. Based on what we've heard from the IRB, that wait could be close to 16 months.
It's been 3 months since they entered Canada, and in that time, the process of getting them in line for a hearing has involved security, background, and medical checks as well as verification of their refugee claims. Only after these steps were their claims accepted and referred to the IRB and RPD for hearings. Accepted claims also made them eligible to apply for provincial social assistance, interim federal health care, and temporary work permits. The article mentions that Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar received their work permits a week prior, which means they had to wait 3 months from the time they entered.
The anxiety of waiting does not only stem from the fear of being financially unstable, especially if a refugee has a family depending on them, but from the apprehension about the decision itself. Although routes to appeal exist, a negative decision leads to more waiting and more uncertainty, which, for refugees that have been through so much already, can be tough to handle. The Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) is where appellants must apply to appeal against a negative decision received from the RPD, and the standard response time is said to be 90 days from the day of receiving all documents. While it is unclear if there is currently a delay, given the high numbers of claimants currently, it's reasonable to believe that there would be a comparatively high number of appellants. Data shows that, from January 2017 to June 2017, the RAD received 2,302 appeals, of which 1,757 were finalized, a rate of about 300 appeals finalized per month. And, as of June 30, 2017, there were 2,486 appeals pending, which is not a good sign, considering the rate of finalizing and the number of increasing appeals towards the end of 2017.
While waiting for their appeal to be finalized, Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar also have the option of applying to the Federal Court of Canada to review the decision made by the RPD. A positive decision by the Federal Court does not mean a reversal in the original negative decision but a referral back to the RPD, which means getting back in line and having to endure longer wait times.
One could argue that Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar have escaped a much more dangerous life and are now safe and have a relatively better life in Canada, even though they are waiting for a decision. But that's looking at their situation from a lens of privilege, not knowing what it is like to live in limbo, living a life not knowing if this amazing place you've found yourself in is just temporary or could possibly be the change you've been looking for your entire life. These two men have an untapped potential to live a fruitful and meaningful life, completely free of the fears and apprehensions that most of us have never had to face. And the sole purpose of rehabilitating them to our society is not to just give them a taste of it, like a carrot on a stick, but to give them the whole experience, an experience that many of us take for granted every single day.
As Winnipeggers, it is important we know the facts and the story of refugees - like Abdi Omar and Ahmed Omar, and, in whatever way we can, help make their journey out of limbo a pleasant one. "The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned." - Maya Angelou