‘Substantial’ backlog: Ottawa takes up to three years to process applications for refugees, report finds

Report comes as the Liberal government ramps up its immigration targets to welcome 500,000 people annually by 2025

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OTTAWA — Refugee applicants hoping to find solace from violence or humanitarian crises in Canada have to wait up to 20 months on average before an immigration officer even touches their application, according to a new auditor general report that highlights serious concerns with the government’s immigration system.

Overall, Auditor General Karen Hogan says that recent efforts by the federal government to reduce staggering backlogs throughout the immigration system have seen some success but are still far from achieving their mark.

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By the end of 2022, 99,000 refugee applicants were still waiting for a response to their request and many “will wait years for a decision” at the current pace, she noted.

“The auditor general’s report traces a portrait of a department that has a lot of challenges. It traces some progress that I’m very happy to see… but I expect excellence from my department and this is not an excellent report,” Immigration Minister Marc Miller told reporters Thursday afternoon.

“People who flee war and famine are desperate and… Canada is a choice destination. Our objective is to reduce delays,” Miller added in French.

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Through her audit, Hogan found that some of the measures announced since 2016 to reduce the backlog — which spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic — were either unevenly put into practice or simply never implemented at all.

“At the end of 2022, large backlogs of applications remained across all permanent resident programs that we examined,” reads her report published Thursday in which she made six recommendations to the government.

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Her audit comes as the Liberal government ramps up its immigration targets to welcome an unprecedented 500,000 people annually by 2025.

Hogan told reporters during a press conference that the backlog at the beginning of the year for some immigration programs is so big that it already exceeds the programs’ annual processing objective.

But the worst performances are by far within the refugee and humanitarian programs, where applicants wait almost three years on average before receiving a decision from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). 

In fact, Hogan found that refugee applicants wait well over one year on average before a government official even opens their file, a symptom of a larger issue where IRCC is slow to begin processing files as they arrive.

“Across all programs, applications frequently waited in the queue before the initial processing even began. This caused the longest delays for refugee applicants: We found that these applications sat untouched for 15 to 20 months (on average) before being prepared for an initial eligibility assessment,” reads the report.

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She also called on IRCC to open an online application portal for refugee claimants “without further delay”.

Despite progress in reducing backlogs across eight permanent resident programs, the AG found that a “substantial” number of applications remained stuck in the backlog at the end of last year that “far exceeded” IRCC’s service standards. 

For example, 50 per cent of applications for the Provincial Nominee express entry program were backlogged at the end of 2022 (down from 83 per cent at the beginning of the year). 

Furthermore, the average “age” of the backlog has increased because IRCC was processing newer applications before closing older ones. 

That means that some people who applied to immigrate to Canada in 2022 had their files finalized in six months whereas earlier applicants’ files continued to languish in the system.

For one program, the report found that the average age of backlogged applications nearly doubled, jumping from 27 months to 47 months, as newer applicants were prioritized over existing files.

A key reason is that department staff feel pressure to “finalize large volumes of applications” in order to meet the government’s growing immigration levels.

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The report also noted that expected processing times for permanent resident programs the department began posting online in March 2022 appear to be misleading.

That’s because it is based on the processing time of applications completed within the previous six months. “It did not consider the volumes of applications that had been received or were backlogged, both of which significantly influence expected processing times,” reads the report.

In 2016, IRCC announced a series of measures to try to reduce the growing backlog of immigration cases. A key measure was moving to “capacity-based processing,” which spread the workload by transferring some cases from overburdened offices to less busy ones. 

For example, it could transfer applications received at its “chronically under-resourced” offices in sub-Saharan African to be processed in its office in Rome, which has a similar number of staff but a workload five times smaller than the main IRCC bureau in Tanzania.

“The department identified this change as key to alleviating excess demand on some offices, decreasing regional disparities in processing times, and reducing backlogs,” the report said about switching to capacity-based processing.

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Seven years later, the auditor general says that never happened. Not only that, but the immigration department still doesn’t know the processing capacity for each of its offices and if they had the requisite resources to meet their needs. 

“The department cannot move to effective capacity-based processing without reliable information on where capacity exists. At the time of our audit, the department was still exploring options to track capacity by office to better support timely processing,” reads the report. 

“It expected to begin this tracking in 2026 — 10 years after the department said that it had shifted to capacity-based processing.”

The report also found that IRCC delays were so long that they would sometimes cause applicants’ documentation to expire, causing more delays.

“We note that a delay increased the likelihood that documentation would be needed to process an application, causing further delays. For example, in more than one third of the backlogged applications we examined, we found that applicants’ immigration medical exams had expired,” reads the report.

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Hogan’s report also found that newly launched online application tools were unequally available across immigration programs.

The report also noted that 57 files it examined were still assigned to an employee who had left IRCC, incurring unnecessary delays ranging from four to 22 months.

“We brought these applications to the department’s attention, and all were reassigned by the end of our audit,” reads the report.

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Originally posted 2023-10-19 14:31:00.