Refugees Board Backlogs Delay Haitian Family Reunifications

Refugee board backlogs delay Haitian family reunifications

By Louise Elliott,
CBC News
Last Updated: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 8:28 PM ET
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Huge backlogs at the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) are hampering efforts to reunite Haitians displaced by the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake with relatives who've immigrated to Canada in recent years.

More than 7,500 refugee claims from Haitians who applied for refugee status in Canada prior to the disaster are stuck in a backlog of 61,000 claims.

Myrlene Coulanges, whose refugee application has been pending for more than two years, desperately wants to sponsor her 12-year-old son to come to Canada from Haiti after an earthquake destroyed the house he lived in. (Louise Elliott/CBC)Myrlene Coulanges applied for refugee status more than two years ago and is still waiting for a response. Until she is recognized as a refugee, she can do nothing for her 12-year-old son in Haiti, who was left homeless by the quake.

“The last time he spoke to me, he said, 'Mommy, why can't I come away with you? Why can't I come to Canada,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “And I cry, because I don't know what to say. I don't know if I'm safe.”

Many have waited for years with no indication of when their claims will be heard. But the disaster has upped the stakes to the point where some are calling on the government to put in place extraordinary measures.

Refugee board 'SWAT team' needed

Last month, the IRB promised to expedite refugee applications from Haitians with family in Canada and to speed up claims in the appeals division of those Haitians who fall into the family class of refugees. The family class allows immigrants to Canada to sponsor parents, grandparents, spouses and dependent children to come here.

Even though it's considered a good step, experts say the sheer numbers mean it still could take months to bring Haitians to Canada.

Peter Showler, who teaches immigration law at the University of Ottawa and is a former chair of the IRB, said more staff will be needed.

“The board may be asking the government for additional resources to put on a special program,” he said. “It's possible to find board members with previous experience to form a kind of SWAT team.”

But, even if the several thousand refugees in the system do finally get a hearing and some gain refugee status, they will likely face more delays in actually bringing their family members to Canada.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there are currently about 2,200 family-class immigration applications on the books at the Canadian Embassy in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti's capital. The government has promised to prioritize those claims.

But Showler said he expects there will be another 5,000 to 6,000 new applications generated by the earthquake that will result in a logjam at the embassy.

Showler said there are several more practical steps the government can take to speed up the applications:
Waive the hundreds of dollars in landing fees and application fees.
Give visa officers more discretion in deciding which documents are required to prove identity, health and a clean criminal record.
Waive the low-income cut-off for sponsoring family in Haiti. Currently, Haitian Canadians must meet strict income requirements to be eligible to sponsor a family member.

So far, the government hasn't done any of that, and Showler said there are numerous examples of problems with visa officers.

“When there are problems with identity documents and all kinds of other problems, it seems that they often demand unreasonable measures to complete the process, ignoring the fact that, sometimes, these family members are in horrendous circumstances,” he said.

Calls to expand definition of 'family' for immigration purposes

Another flashpoint for debate is the question of whether the family class of applications should be expanded to include brothers, sisters and other more distant relatives.

The government says it has no plans to change the definition, arguing that Canada is far more generous in its definition of who qualifies as family than many Western countries.

“The way Canada defines family in our immigration law is woefully inadequate to respond to the real family relationships many people have, particularly in other parts of the world,” said Sharry Aiken, an immigration expert at Queen's University and a long-time proponent of expanding the family category.

“Close-knit families are absolutely a critical part of daily life. Cousins and aunts and uncles are very close.”

Studies show that the most successful immigrants to Canada are those who have family members with them, Aiken said.

Aiken said that expanding the family class will be meaningless unless the government allocates more resources to deal with the caseload.

Showler said the first step should not be to expand the family class but to prioritize the claims from Haitian immigrants to bring immediate family to Canada that are now in the system.

Even when the government took the step to speed up applications after the 2004 tsunami, the immigration department processed only 400 applications in the six-month period following the disaster, he said.

The government argues it has improved its processing times for example, after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan but did not provide specific numbers.

Coulanges said she believes in Canada but that authorities need to recognize the plight of people like her.

“It's a great place,” she said. “They receive us; they treat us like immigrants. We have nothing to worry about, but this is not enough. We need our family with us.”


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