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Canada

Auditor general calls for online application portal for refugees amid severe backlogs

OTTAWA — Refugees are being left behind by Canada’s oversized immigration backlogs, and the federal auditor general is calling on the government to immediately create a way for them to apply online.

A report from Auditor General Karen Hogan released on Thursday suggests that while processing times improved for most permanent residency programs in 2022, they remained long for refugee and humanitarian programs.

Some applicants had waited almost three years for a decision,and as of the end of last year, 99,000 refugee applications were still waiting to be processed.

“Many applicants will wait years for a decision in the current processing environment,” Hogan said in her report.

She said refugees would benefit from a secure online application process that was recently introduced for other immigration streams, and is calling for it to be created “without further delay.”

The government had already planned to make online applications available to refugee claimants, and hopes to introduce the feature by the end of the month for privately sponsored refugees and in November for government-assisted refugees.

Hogan found that some of the delays are a result of higher workloads in offices with lower staff levels.

For example, almost half of the backlogged refugee applications were being handled by offices in Kenya and Tanzania. The auditor found the Nairobi office in Kenya had about half the staff but almost double the assigned workload of the office in Turkey.

The office in Tanzania’s workload was five times greater than the Italian office in Rome, even though the offices had a comparable number of staff.

The government had committed in 2016 to assign applications based on which offices had capacity, but Hogan said that hasn’t happened.

“As a result, regional backlogs continued to accumulate in the overseas family and refugee classes in some offices with limited capacity,” Hogan said in her report.

That means that people from specific countries were facing bigger, longer backlogs for most of the permanent residency programs she looked at. More than half of the applications submitted by citizens of Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were backlogged.

In the case of refugees, the department told the auditor that unique conditions in some countries can also lead to delays, such as remote or dangerous locations that can make it difficult to conduct interviews.

The report on immigration backlogs was released alongside four other audits that delve into the inclusion of racialized employees in the public service, antimicrobial resistance, benefits delivery and technology modernization.

The auditor general found that efforts to combat racism and discrimination within federal public-safety and justice bodies, including the RCMP, is severely lacking.

Leaders are failing to adequately track whether the work lives of racialized employees are improving, Hogan found, and accountability for behavioural and cultural change was “limited and not effectively measured.”

The auditor found that progress on modernizing IT systems has been slow, with two-thirds of the 7,500 applications used by departments and agencies being in poor health.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s Benefits Delivery Modernization programme, has experienced significant delays, rising costs and staffing challenges. The program was launched in 2017 and aims to modernize the systems used to deliver the Canada Pension Plan, old age security and employment insurance benefits.

When it comes to combating the growing public-health threat of resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs, the auditor also found the government’s efforts wanting. The health department released an action plan in June, but Hogan found it to be incomplete, as it didn’t include any measurable goals or timelines.

“There is a risk that action among federal, provincial, and territorial governments to tackle antimicrobial resistance will be delayed, poorly co-ordinated, and not comprehensive,” she said in her report.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2023.

— With files from Nojoud Al Mallees and Alessia Passafiume

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press


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