OTTAWA - Canada's backlog of refugee claims is soaring to record numbers due to the government's failure to appoint sufficient adjudicators, says the chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The backlog has ballooned along with the number of board vacancies since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in February 2006.
The number of vacant positions has more than quintupled - to 58 from 10, according to the board. At the same time, the number of claims waiting to be heard has more than doubled to 42,300 from just over 20,000.
In its recent report to Parliament, the board projects that the number of pending claims will soar to 62,300 this year. That's more than triple the line-up when Harper took office and well beyond the previous record of 52,325 pending claims in 2002.
Moreover, the numbers are expected to escalate to 73,300 next year and a whopping 84,300 the following year.
"The considerable shortfall in the decision-maker complement in both the Refugee Protection Division and the Immigration Appeal Division will result in growing inventories for these divisions, which together will form the highest inventory in the IRB's history," board chairman Brian Goodman warns in an introductory message to the recent spending estimates report.
The problem is most acute in the board's refugee protection division, which adjudicates refugee claims. Forty-eight of the division's 127 positions are unfilled.
The 37-member immigration appeal division, which hears appeals of criminal removal orders and rejected applications for family sponsorships, has 10 unfilled positions.
The board was taking an average of 11.7 months to process a refugee claim when the Harper government took office. But Goodman says the processing time is "significantly affected" by the lack of adjudicators and is now approaching 16.5 months.
"This is clearly too long."
Goodman adds that the key to reducing the backlog of claims is to return "as quickly as possible to a full complement of decision-makers."
Not all the pending claims can be considered backlogged. For optimal efficiency, the board contends that it's useful to have 15,000 to 20,000 claims wending their way through the process at any given time.
Still, by that standard, the backlog has ballooned to at least 22,300 since Harper's Conservatives took power. And that's after a banner year in 2005, in which the board managed to reduce the backlog effectively to zero for the first time in a decade.
In an e-mail statement, Immigration Minister Diane Finley said the government has made 101 board appointments and reappointments, including a new chairman, deputy chairman and assistant deputy chairman. She added that 87 appointments were about to expire when the Conservatives took office.
Finley repeated the government's contention that it has made the appointment process "more accountable and transparent" than the previous Liberal regime.
"We are committed to ending the culture of entitlement at the IRB that existed under the previous government," she said.
"Unlike under the Liberals, candidates have to pass a written exam. Under the previous government, 25 per cent of those named to the board had failed their exam."
Finley's office has given variations on that answer for about a year.
Opposition critics initially suspected the government was dragging its feet on filling vacancies until it implemented proposed changes giving the minister more control over appointments. But those changes have been in place since last July and the vacancy rate continues to hover at about 33 per cent.
Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua said he now suspects the government is deliberately trying to sabotage the board so it will have an excuse to scrap it and replace it with a "more restrictive, less generous" system for determining refugee claims.
"It's a natural flow of events. First you create a crisis and then you solve the crisis," he said.
Bevilacqua said the government has followed the same pattern with recent proposals to give the minister more discretion to pick and choose which categories of immigrants to fast track or block.
The government contends the changes are necessary because admissions to Canada have become bogged down in a backlog of 900,000 applications, some of which can take as long as six years to process.
NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow said she too suspects the government plans to let the refugee determination system get so hopelessly backlogged that it will have an excuse to scrap the board. She said it's hard to find any other explanation.
"There are lots of qualified people, they could easily bring the IRB to full complement," she said.
"We've been saying that for two years now. I don't know what they're waiting for."
Canadian refugee backlog balloons
Canada's backlog of refugee claims is soaring to record numbers due to the government's failure to appoint sufficient adjudicators, says the chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board.