05/07/2019 10:30 EDT | Updated 05/07/2019 10:48 EDT

Canada's Asylum Claims Backlog Is Worse Now Than Ever: Auditor General

The spring report is pointing to systemic inefficiencies.

Paul Chiasson/CP
An asylum seeker is confronted by an RCMP officer as he crosses the border into Canada from the United States Monday, August 21, 2017 near Champlain, N.Y.

OTTAWA — Canada's refugee system is plagued with a backlog of asylum claims that is worse now than it has ever been, caused in part by systemic inefficiencies, according to findings from acting auditor general Sylvain Ricard.

As part of five audits of government activities released today, Ricard's office looked at how quickly and efficiently the three government agencies involved in reviewing and processing refugee claims are doing their work.

The audit found Canada's refugee system is not able to respond quickly to surges in asylum claims — which has led to a two-year backlog of claims.

Watch: Trudeau defends controversial changes to asylum laws

"We found that Canada's refugee system is unable to process claims within the two-month target set by the government. In fact, backlogs and wait times are worse now than when the system was last reformed in 2012, to address these very same issues," the audit report says.

An influx of asylum-seekers to Canada that began in early 2017, including over 42,000 "irregular" migrants who have entered Canada through non-official border checkpoints, has outstripped the government's ability to process them in a timely way.

With the current backlog of over 75,000 claims, asylum-seekers could wait up to five years to learn whether they can remain in Canada if improvements are not made.

"Fairness and speed are key principles of Canada's refugee determination system," Ricard says in the report. "The system must be able to respond quickly to changes in the volume of asylum claims to avoid backlogs and delays in refugee protection decisions."

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The auditor general points to several key factors that have led to the current backlogs, including funding levels for the three agencies involved in processing claims: the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Immigration Department.

None of the three organizations could access additional resources quickly enough to respond promptly to increases in claim volumes, the auditor general found.

The number of claims filed each year fluctuates, yet the system receives a fixed amount of funding to process them. That's why when there is a spike in the number of claims — as has happened over the last two years — volumes of unresolved cases grow and wait times increase.

Ricard's office also identified a number of internal problems in the way the three government agencies process claims that have added unnecessary delays.

The CBSA, the Immigration and Refugee Board and the Immigration Department all use different information systems to collect and share information. These systems don't work well together.

Paul Chiasson/CP
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen discusses the situation of irregular migration as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale looks on May 7, 2018 in Montreal.

Also, many hearings for refugee claimants are postponed, which adds months of delays to each file. Most of these postponements were caused not by the asylum seekers, but by IRB members who were unavailable for hearings.

Duplicated work and a heavy reliance on paper files have also contributed to delays in claims processing.

The auditor made five recommendations for improvements, all of which have been accepted by the government.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said the government is responding to increased pressures within Canada's asylum system with investments contained in this year's federal budget that promise $208 million in new money for the IRB to tackle refugee claims. This money is partly to be used to hire 130 new staff, including 85 new decision-makers.

The money is aimed at getting IRB to the point where it can process 50,000 claims per year.

The Immigration Department projects wait-times for asylum-seekers awaiting refugee hearings will be cut almost in half, from the current two years to 13 months.

Highlights of the auditor general's reports released Tuesday:

  • Millions of people had trouble getting through to agents at federal call centres. Instead of giving callers the option of waiting, some centres sent them back to the automated phone system, directed them to a website or told them to call back later.
  • The RCMP isn't sure that all of its officers have access to the rifles and body armour needed to respond to an active shooter, almost five years after three Mounties were gunned down in New Brunswick. The national police force mismanaged the purchase, distribution and ongoing maintenance of semi-automatic rifles known as carbines.
  • Canada's refugee-determination system is unable to process claims on time despite reforms introduced seven years ago. The lack of flexibility meant that the 2017 surge of asylum seekers led to a backlog and longer wait times for protection decisions.
  • The Canadian sales-tax system failed to keep up with the rapidly evolving digital marketplace, meaning $169 million of GST on foreign products and services sold in Canada in 2017 went uncollected. In addition, the federal government could not assess and collect all sales taxes on e-commerce transactions.
  • Public funds might be supporting partisan advertising due to a lack of adequate controls. Only government advertising valued at $500,000 or more is reviewed by an independent body, even though less-expensive campaigns could represent a risk of partisanship.
  • The National Museum of Science and Technology houses a large portion of its collection in leased storage facilities, along with many objects that have yet to be assessed or catalogued. Poor conditions in these spaces pose risks of deterioration, damage and theft.