OTTAWA — An independent review of the Immigration and Refugee Board says there are persistent and systemic problems with the organization that handles asylum claims and appeals, problems it says can’t be fixed without a major shift at the top.
The review released Tuesday is the result of a year-long analysis of the arms-length agency, which manages asylum claims and appeals. It was conducted by Neil Yeates, a former deputy minister of the Immigration Department.
It found a long history of problems in managing spikes in asylum claims and backlogs — and the current influx of irregular migrants is no exception.
Yeates recommended fundamental changes to the way the board operates, including a new management structure that would bring it under the authority of the minister of Immigration, managed by either a new refugee protection agency or an asylum system management board.
“A key observation arising out of consultations … is that the efficiency of the asylum system in Canada has suffered as a result of the lack of active, coherent and accountable management across the entire continuum of its activities,” the report said.
In the absence of clear direction, decisions are made within parts of the refugee and asylum system with no due regard for impacts on other aspects of the system. For example, when Canada rolled out its 2015 Syrian refugee resettlement program, it postponed about 40 per cent of hearings scheduled at the time with the board’s refugee protection division.
Currently, the asylum system is governed by a memorandum of understanding between the Immigration Department, Canada Border Services Agency and the IRB. But each of these bodies has its own distinct accountability structures, which sometimes causes confusion, duplication and lack of co-ordination.
A better governance model is needed to oversee the entire asylum system in order to improve communication, reduce red tape, ensure more predictable funding and provide better reporting tools, Yeates said in his review.
“With the introduction of the IRB in 1989, nearly 30 years ago, it is now overdue to put in place the necessary mechanisms to make asylum a much more managed system,” the report said.
“This will be essential to getting ahead of the current asylum crisis and to be prepared for any future sudden growth in demand.”
Currently, the board operates at arms-length from the government. Managers and stakeholders have expressed reluctance to alter this autonomy.
But improvements can be made to the management structure without impinging on the independence of decision-makers, Yeates argued in his report.
The Canadian Council for Refugees was alarmed by the suggestion of potentially removing refugee determination from the IRB.
“People’s lives hang on decisions in the refugee determination system,” said council president Claire Roque.
“We are not talking about traffic violations, we are talking about a decision that may determine whether a person lives or dies. When we make such important decisions, we need to guarantee due process and the basic protections of an expert and independent tribunal.”
Meanwhile, Yeates also compiled the first government-wide costing of the asylum system, including both the direct costs for processing claims as well as social supports like legal aid and health benefits.
It is estimated Ottawa has spent an average of $216 million a year for the last four years on people who come to Canada in search of asylum, not including costs for Federal Court or provincial costs.
This spending is not tracked within a framework looking at the overall asylum system, Yeates said, which is why he wants to see an annual asylum budget, based on annual forecast intake and productivity targets.
The findings in the report will inform government’s own review of the asylum system, Mathieu Genest, press secretary to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Tuesday, adding that it is still “premature to speculate on any changes that may be considered.”
“IRCC is studying the recommendations and will be consulting stakeholders, and provincial and territorial partners, on the findings over the course of the summer.”