Flood Of Mexicans Delays Other Refuge-Seekers

Flood of Mexicans delays other refuge-seekers

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
December 4, 2007 at 4:10 AM EST

OTTAWA The backlog of cases waiting to be heard by the federal Immigration and Refugee Board is ballooning, but Mexicans are being pushed to the head of the queue as the government tries to manage the massive influx from that country.

The number of all potential refugees in line to appear before the board was up by 66 per cent in the past year, to 34,094 late last month from 20,500 in October, 2006.

It's a problem that can be traced, at least in part, to the number of IRB seats that are unfilled. Although the full complement of board members is 127, there are 43 vacancies waiting for appointments by federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley.

That has increased the average processing time to 14.3 months from 11.9 months just before the Tories took office.

But Mexicans seeking a haven in Canada say they are being rushed into hearings because there are so many of them and the government considers Mexico to be safe, so there is a strong likelihood their claims will be rejected.

“It's a double standard and it's damaging a lot of people,” said Francisco Rico-Martinez, the co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.

Fernanda, who refused to allow her last name to be used because it could jeopardize her case, is a 23-year-old Mexican who filed a claim for refugee status at the end of August and submitted her personal information form to the IRB a month later. She quickly received a March hearing date.

“I am surprised how fast this situation is because I have been talking to other people, other refugee claimants, and they have been here and they have been waiting for a refugee hearing for a longer time and they haven't been scheduled for a refugee hearing yet,” said Fernanda, who is eight months pregnant and says she is fleeing domestic violence.

Last year, 3,419 Mexicans claimed refugee status in Canada. They accounted for 25 per cent of all claims referred to the IRB's Refugee Protection Division.

It's a migration that is likely to grow after a Federal Court judge ruled last week that the rights of refugee claimants are violated by the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement that allows Canada to turn them back when they try to come here from the United States.

The Mexican success rate before the IRB has been low: Only 11 per cent of claimants who had hearings in the first six months of this year were accepted as legitimate refugees.

When asked why the Mexican cases were being heard faster than those of people from other countries, IRB spokesman Charles Hawkins said the board is simply trying to deal with the heavy Mexican caseload.

“The IRB views the processing of refugee claims from Mexico as a priority and will take steps to efficiently manage the large number of claims,” Mr. Hawkins said.

More member resources have been assigned to adjudicate Mexican cases, he said. “Prehearing procedural courts have been implemented in the two largest regions to identify abandonments [and] withdrawals early on, and to give counsel [and] claimants a firm hearing date and deal with any other matter that may hinder the immediate processing of the claim.”

Mr. Rico-Martinez said all these efforts are aimed at discouraging Mexicans from arriving in Canada in the first place.

And the expediting of Mexicans creates problems for people from other countries who must wait even longer for a hearing, he said.

“There are practical consequences in terms of living in a limbo situation where you only have a temporary work permit, you don't have access to health care, you basically can't get on with your life in terms of education and training and so on,” said Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

But it is particularly hard on people who cannot bring immediate family members out of dangerous situations overseas until they have been granted refugee status, she said.