Syrian refugees collect water at the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan, Aug. 18, 2016. CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters

Refugee advocates heave sigh of relief

  • September 8, 2019

Federal funding that will reverse Ontario government cuts to legal aid for asylum seekers is getting praise from Catholic refugee advocates.

“It’s really significant. We’re really pleased,” said Jenn McIntyre, director of Romero House, which supplies support services for refugee claimants in Toronto.

“It pains me to see politicians haggling over whose responsibility it is to pay for legal aid. Refugee claimants do not need another problem to deal with, nor do their advocates,” said Jesuit Refugee Service country director for Canada Norbert Piché.

Ottawa stepped in Aug. 12 with $26.8 million to shore up underfunded legal aid systems in three provinces — $25.7 million of the total to make up for a complete ban on legal aid for refugees decreed in the first Ford provincial budget in April. British Columbia received $1.16 million and Manitoba $20,000. In each province, the new federal money brings the legal aid budgets for refugee hearings up to “100 per cent funding for this year,” said a release from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“We’re really thankful that it happened, but it’s only for this fiscal year,” said McIntyre. 

As of next April there will once again be no funding in place to provide asylum seekers in Ontario with lawyers to help them through a complex legal proceeding, McIntyre said.

Over the last four months, Romero House clients have agonized about how they would be able to represent themselves in a legal proceeding in the language they are just beginning to learn. Legal aid was still paying for an initial session with a lawyer to fill out asylum application forms, but from there refugees would have to assemble and translate all the documentation necessary to prove their identity and make their case for protection.

Even though their hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) weren’t scheduled until 2020 or 2021, “people were really anxious and really nervous,” McIntyre said.

Romero House staff were trying to answer refugee’s questions about the process, but they were overwhelmed.

“People have a right to representation in these hearings, both at international law and also under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms here in Canada,” said lawyer Erin Simpson of the national executive committee of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “To make sure that that legal process is fair and that it maintains some ability to accurately predict when somebody is at risk, you need to make sure people have legal counsel.”

Having a fair and functioning legal process for determining who is or isn’t a refugee is an obligation Canadians took on when they signed the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, said McIntyre.

“We’re signatories to the Geneva Convention. If you don’t like refugees, too bad — because that’s what our obligation is as a country. We have these institutions in place to maintain integrity in the system, to make sure determinations are being made well,” she said. 

The spring federal budget put $49.6 million over three years into overhauling the IRB’s case management system and hiring more members to judge cases. That money would go to waste if the one province that is home to more than half of Canada’s asylum seekers began sending people to face the board with no lawyers and no interpreters (also paid for out of the legal aid budget), said McIntyre. In the first seven months of 2019 the IRB processed 10,235 cases in Ontario, or 57 per cent of the national total.

McIntyre worries that because of the five-month recess at Queen’s Park there’s not much time to convince Ontario legislators they must find a way to fund legal aid for refugees. 

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