By Anna Mehler Paperny and Rod Nickel
TORONTO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Thousands of people who fled to Canada to escape President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal migrants have become trapped in legal limbo because of an overburdened refugee system, struggling to find work, permanent housing or enroll their children in schools.
Refugee claims are taking longer to be completed than at any time in the past five years, according to previously unpublished Immigration and Refugee Board data provided to Reuters. Those wait times are set to grow longer after the IRB in April allocated “up to half” of its 127 tribunal members to focus on old cases. The number of delayed hearings more than doubled from 2015 to 2016 and is on track to increase again this year.
Hearings are crucial to establishing a claimant’s legal status in Canada. Without that status, they struggle to convince employers to hire them or landlords to rent to them. Claimants cannot access loans or student financial aid, or update academic or professional credentials to meet Canadian standards.
Canada's refugee system was struggling to process thousands of applications even before 3,500 asylum seekers began crossing the U.S. border on foot in January. It lacks the manpower to complete security screenings for claimants and hear cases in a timely manner. Often there are not enough tribunal members to decide cases or interpreters to attend hearings, the IRB said.
More than 4,500 hearings scheduled in the first four months of 2017 were canceled, according to the IRB data.
The government is now focused on clearing a backlog of about 24,000 claimants, including people who filed claims in 2012 or earlier. That means more than 15,000 people who have filed claims so far this year, including the new arrivals from the United States, will have to wait even longer for their cases to be heard.
Asylum cases are already taking longer to finalize, on average, than at any time since Canada introduced a statutory two-month time limit in 2012. This year, it has been taking 5.6 months on average, compared to 3.6 months in 2013.
Mohamed Daud, 36, left his family and a pending refugee claim in the United States and walked into Canada in February after hearing rumors of U.S. immigration raids. Daud, originally from Somalia, had been living and working legally in Nebraska but feared he would be detained and then deported at an upcoming check-in with immigration officials.
His May 8 hearing with a Canadian refugee tribunal was canceled three days beforehand. He has not been given a new date.
"I don’t know when they will call me. I can’t work. It isn’t easy," said Daud. While waiting for a work permit, he gets approximately C$600 ($453) a month in government social assistance and shares a room in an apartment with six other asylum seekers.
Still, Daud doesn't regret abandoning his life in the United States.
"The worry, the fear is the same," he said.
To try to speed cases through, Canada’s refugee tribunal has put people from certain war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen on an expedited track that requires no hearings.
Border agents are working overtime to address the backlog in security screenings, said Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the Canada Border Services Agency.
Asylum claimants are eligible for work permits while awaiting hearings, but employers are often reluctant to employ people with temporary social insurance numbers whose future is uncertain, refugee lawyers told Reuters.
"How do you establish yourself when your status is unknown?" said Toronto-based lawyer Aadil Mangalji.
This year is on track to be the highest year for refugee claims since at least 2011, according to government statistics.
The stresses on the Canadian system mirror those of other countries with an open door policy. In Sweden, rising financial strains involved in resettlement were partly behind a move to introduce tough asylum laws.
Honduran Raul Contreras, 19, who walked across the Quebec border in March and whose hearing has been postponed indefinitely, is staying in a government-subsidized Toronto hotel with his mother, step-father and uncle. Contreras, who spends his days at a local library or working out in the hotel gym, says he has been repeatedly rejected by landlords.
"They just said that they didn't rent places to refugee claimants," he said. "(They) said that refugees don't have jobs and probably wouldn't pay."
(For a graphic on Canadian asylum delays, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2sSyQ24)
(Editing by Ross Colvin)