Refugee advocates are calling for urgent action from the federal government to resolve the refugee legal aid crisis, in the wake of significant changes to the refugee process in the federal Budget Implementation Act that was passed last Thursday.

Women fleeing domestic violence in their home country will be among the hardest hit by this crisis. Because recent changes in the US have shut the door on asylum for women making gender-based claims, they are without protection in the US. Now, when they arrive in Canada, they will be barred from the refugee process here too and deprived of access to a legal aid lawyer to navigate the inferior process the federal government has put in place.

“The result of the Canadian changes is clear: women survivors of domestic violence now have fewer protections in Canada, which places them at risk of deportation to the very dangers they fled,” said Jenn McIntyre, Executive Director of Romero House.

LGBTQ2IQS individuals are also at a high risk of being sent home to face violence because of the combination of the new refugee bar and the absence of legal aid.

“It has been two months now since the Ford government cancelled legal aid for refugees and immigrants, and the federal government has taken no concrete action to address the absence of counsel for vulnerable individuals in refugee and immigration proceedings” said Raoul Boulakia, a member of the Refugee Lawyers Association Executive. “Yet the federal government has invested considerable new resources in deportations and, with the passage of the budget bill, has truncated the protections available to refugee claimants. The combined effect is a juggernaut for vulnerable individuals subject to refugee and immigration proceedings in federal courts and tribunals.”
“Legal aid is critical to the integrity and efficiency of the refugee process,” said Maureen Silcoff, President of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL). “The Ford government was reckless to cancel its funding for the program, but two months later, that’s no justification for the federal government’s total lack of action. The Federal government oversees the refugee determination system. It cannot pretend to be a bystander here.”

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The Ontario legal aid crisis is about to become more acute than ever because of the changes to the system. The Budget Implementation Act makes all individuals who filed a refugee claim in the US, or other “Five Eyes” countries, ineligible to make a claim for refugee protection in Canada. These new rules apply regardless of whether the individual’s previous claim was ever considered or decided, or whether protection was actually available. Individuals who are found ineligible are left to make their case for protection in Canada through the inferior “pre-removal risk assessment” process, which has an extremely low acceptance rate.

For these individuals, it is a federal Immigration officer alone who will decide whether they need protection from torture or serious harm if they are deported to their home country. While Minister Bill Blair has indicated that basic rights will be respected in this process through a hearing, with counsel, there is in fact no real opportunity for most individuals to obtain counsel. The federal government is forging ahead despite knowing that in Ontario, which handles the majority of these cases, people won’t have lawyers because the Provincial government has entirely withdrawn funding for legal aid for refugees and immigrants.

Refugees need lawyers now more than ever so they won’t be removed to face persecution. Refugee advocates are calling on the federal government to provide immediate emergency funding to the legal aid program; and on both levels of government to meet quickly to begin serious negotiations on a new funding formula.