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Refugees face luck of the draw

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An exhaustive study into how refugee claims are handled in Canada has raised disturbing questions about both the fairness and quality of decisions that could be matters of life or death for thousands of people seeking asylum.

The study by Osgoode Hall law Prof. Sean Rehaag found "vast disparities" in the decisions of different members of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which is often the first official stop in the refugee-claim process for those who wash up on Canada's shores or who arrive by other means.

Mr. Rehaag's study, subtitled The Luck of the Draw, also exposed inconsistencies in dispositions from the Federal Court, which serves as an appeal court of last resort for claimants who were turned down by the refugee board.

In the case of the IRB, the study cited the case of an adjudicator who rejected each of the 129 claims he heard in one year, while a different official approved 99 per cent of 746 cases.

At the court level, Liberal-appointed judges were more likely to grant refugee status than a Conservative appointee. Cases heard in Montreal were more likely to be denied than in anglophone cities.

These discrepancies need to be reconciled and explained. It is simply not acceptable that decisions appear to be based on the vagaries of who is hearing the matter and where.

The IRB adjudicators were government appointees until the Immigration Department recently decided to fill the posts with civil servants. But it made a mockery of its attempted fix by hiring some appointed adjudicators as civil servants.

There needs to be an audit of the current system to determine if the decisions, including those by the Federal Court, are lacking in fundamental justice, or if the apparent inconsistencies were merely coincidental.

Canada resettles about 14,000 refugees every year, mostly in a process that is determined overseas, but many are also privately sponsored. For the most part, these new Canadians adjust well.

Thousands more, however, arrive by land through the United States, by airplane or boat seeking asylum. Many, including those whose applications are rejected, go underground for years before they are found.

But as Free Press reporter Carol Sanders discovered in a report on Saturday, many refugees who are truly fearful of returning to their home countries find their stories are simply not believed.

The IRB adjudicators apparently rely on federal briefing notes on the conditions in war-torn countries, such as Somalia, which was once described as the most dangerous country in the world.

The Canadian government, however, apparently believes it is safe enough today. That's why a Winnipeg-based adjudicator recently rejected a Somali mother's claim she feared reprisals from other clans if she was forced to return.

If the Federal Court rejects her claim, she will have to return after 20 years on the run.

Canada has been reasonably responsible in accepting refugees, but the Somali mother's dire predicament also reveals a system that can be quite heartless and unable to distinguish between those who are scamming the system, and those whose life stories deserve a little extra consideration.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2013 A8

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