With more refugees pouring in, Toronto advocates ringing alarms about federal funding

Amid a rise in refugees crossing the Canadian border, Toronto refugee advocates are raising red flags about a drop in federal funding for legal aid in Ontario.

"There's going to be insufficient money to fund counsel to represent refugee claimants," said ​Maureen Silcoff, a Toronto immigration and refugee lawyer, during an appearance on CBC's Metro Morning.

The federal budget proposed $62.9 million over five years, starting in 2017–2018, which works out to $12.6 million a year for immigration and refugee legal aid services, in partnership with the provinces and territories. The funding proposed would then drop to $11.5 million each year.

From 2006 - 2016, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) received approximately $7 million annually toward legal aid refugee services from the Canadian government. There was a one-time boost last year to help offset the costs associated with the significant increase in demand for legal aid services, with the federal government providing an added $6.72 million to bring LAO's 2016–2017 allocation to $13.7 million. 

Funding to drop twice over next 5 years

But that drops going forward, with LAO's share of the federal funding amounting to $8.9 million annually for the next two years, and then back down to $7 million for the three years after that.

"Legal Aid Ontario is optimistic that the government will continue to demonstrate its support for the provision of refugee services in Ontario, as it has in the past," LAO told CBC Toronto in a statement.

"We are continuing to work with the federal government to help address the costs of refugee services," spokesperson Feronah Neil said.

But others are ringing alarm bells.

Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, says the province will see a higher number of claims in Ontario with less money from the government. 

"This is going to have a serious impact in the services and the quality of services that a lawyer can provide in terms of translation of documents, interpretations, preparing for a claim, the refugee hearing," he said.

"The federal government knew about this, the RCMP is receiving these people. They know the numbers are going up."

More refugees crossing border this year

Already this year, data shows more refugees are flowing into Ontario, and Rico-Martinez says most will settle in Toronto.

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, the number of people making refugee claims at its crossings in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Sarnia, Ont., rose this year.

In January, there were 433 refugee claims. If that rate continues, there would be 5,196 by the end of the year — up from 2016's total of 3,865 and 2,742 in 2015.

With those numbers ticking upwards, Silcoff said the drop in federal funding is something the government should "take a second look at," but noted Legal Aid Ontario also receives funding from the province as well.

Rico-Martinez stresses that having a lawyer is crucial to help refugees navigate Canada's complex system, and that if they don't convince the system their life is at risk, they run the risk being sent back to their home country.

"It's a life or death situation," he said.