Canada has significantly reduced the number of asylum seekers awaiting security clearances after facing a massive backlog in the wake of a surge of so-called irregular migrants crossing from the United States in the last two years.
According to Canada Border Services Agency, as of Jan. 31, there were 2,647 refugee cases still awaiting security screening results, down from a peak of 11,745 last February.
The agency attributed the improvement to an injection of $6 million in new funds aimed at streamlining the process to eliminate duplication with other government security partners, the hiring of 80 additional staff and the redeployment of existing personnel to tackle the backlog.
“Those investments have worked. The CBSA no longer has a backlog and its operations have stabilized,” said Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
Earlier this month, the Star reported that thousands of refugee claimants were living in Canada without having been fully cleared by national security, as indicated in an internal border agency report obtained under an access to information request.
The report found the backlog had gone up from 1,683 cases in 2016 to 11,745 last year when the average wait time to complete the border agency’s security screenings reached 72 days. The oldest file in the queue hit 857 days, prompting concerns over national security.
Tens of thousands of irregular migrants have crossed the border from the United States for asylum in Canada since late-2016 when U.S. President Donald Trump was elected with an anti-immigration mandate. This created much of the security clearance backlog.
All refugee claimants — whether at a port of entry or after entering the country irregularly — must undergo health clearances and an initial security check based on biometrics information such as fingerprints, photos and travel documents. They are then released for further screening by border agents, which may include personal records from a refugee claimant’s home country, before their refugee hearings.
Between January 2018 and this February, the border agency said it received 44,593 security screening requests for refugee claimants, with an additional 8,520 carried over from 2017.
During the same time period, officials also closed 50,106 files and weeded out 0.4 per cent or 102 people who were deemed a security threat due to involvement in terrorist groups, organized crime and crimes against humanity.
In 211 refugee cases, officials were unable to reach a conclusion, a further 511 cases were put on hold for missing information, and 2,367 requests were dropped because a screening was deemed no longer necessary due to other circumstances. The rest of the files received clearances.
As of February, refugee claimants have to wait an average of 54 days for security screening results by the border agency, with the oldest file in the system being 1,150 days.
Jayden Robertson, a spokesperson for the border agency, said screening time varies due to the complexity of the case, availability of information, the level of details provided in an application and responses from the agency’s security screening partners such as the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung