The federal government shut down front desks and eliminated walk-in services in immigration and refugee offices across the country last week -- a move that has left refugee claimants and advocates bewildered.
For many landed refugees and immigrants in Vancouver, their first notice of the service reductions came in the form of a yellow, laminated sign taped to the doors of the remaining Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) offices (see photo at top of story).
The sign tells claimants to visit the CIC's website or call its automated help line to schedule an appointment.
Asylum seekers can still walk in to make a claim, but that's not clear from the sign, and that may be hampering the asylum pleas of refugee claimants, said Lesley Stalker, a prominent B.C. immigration lawyer.
The CIC changes throw another obstacle in the way of immigrants seeking help just at a time when they'll be expected to jump through more legal hoops, at a quicker pace, with a soon-to-be-approved immigration reform law -- Bill C-31 -- passing through the Senate now. The CIC says the cuts were necessary to "streamline" and modernize Canada's immigration processing system. But refugee advocates say those cuts -- and the confusion they're creating -- may fence out many genuine asylum seekers with red tape.
"The other thing that's very odd about the sign," said Stalker, "is it doesn't tell you how to make an appointment. You're told that you have to have make an appointment, but you're not told how to make an appointment and you're left in limbo."
"It kind of undercuts the purpose [of Bill C-31]", said Stalker. "The minister wants to make the process as quick and efficient as possible, but there seems to be barriers to people starting their claims."
Nineteen CIC domestic offices closed
The CIC contends the cuts were necessary.
"In order to reduce duplication and overlap, CIC is restructuring and will streamline by reducing the number of regional offices across the country," said a CIC spokesperson in an emailed response.
The response noted the CIC would keep at least one office open in each province, including the Hornby street address.
Starting June 1, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) closed down 19 of its domestic offices -- including the ones in Nanaimo, Prince George, Kelowna and Victoria, said a CIC website bulletin. It added the remaining offices will no longer assist many walk-ins in getting help accessing government services.
The CIC expects the cuts will save $5.2 million next year.
Those cuts to services, in turn, would be compensated by a website and automated call centre, which would provided 24-hour assistance in the form of a visa wizard, video tutorials, FAQS, and "proactive messaging," said the response.
'Really hard to understand'
But for recent arrivals, a website and an automated call centre may confuse as much as help, said Kujachagulia Wayhi, a journalist who had to flee his home-country Brazil six months ago after receiving death threats.
"When it comes to bureaucratic and technical language, it's really hard to understand 100 per cent," said Wayhi.
When he saw the sign, at first, he said he didn't understand.
Wayhi said he learned about the sign from his girlfriend, who works in the building next door to the Hornby Street CIC office. When he went down to check her story, he found a small crowd gathered outside. Their reactions, he said, were similar to his. Some, like himself, stayed there for two hours trying to interpret the message.
Others, he said, stood with cell phones, trying to navigate the automated help line.
Before, Wayhi said, the front desk "had a receptionist who would answer all your questions: how to get your work permit, how to take your medical examinations, how to apply for your PIF [the personal info form where you explain why you're claiming refugee status in Canada], and how to apply for your SIN," he said.
Now, instead, of a human being, claimants are greeted by "a voice that asks you to wait, or repeats, or asks you to call another time," he said.
'Little or no warning or consultation'
"The sign on the door is just a smaller example about how cuts are made with little or no warning or no consultation, and they will have literally life or death implications for people," said Simon Fraser University psychology professor Sharalyn Jordan, who also works with Rainbow Refugees, an assistance and advocacy organization for refugees discriminated against in their home countries because of the trans, queer, or HIV status.
Currently, asylum seekers have two opportunities to claim for refugee status: once at the border or airport, or after they've settled down, at a domestic office within Canada, like the CIC's Hornby Street address, said Jordan.
The downtown office provided a main walk-in space for claimants seeking forms on health coverage, asylum claims, and a range of other immigrant and refugee services, she said.
But many asylum seekers find themselves on their own not knowing what to do, she said. They often have to visit the CIC front desk before being directed to a lawyer or a social assistance service like Rainbow Refugees. The confusion created by the sign could damage an asylum seekers claim, she added.
"Any delay raises questions: you were in the country for three months, why didn't you make a refugee claim earlier? A delay of as little as a week results in questions about of the credibility of their subjective fear of persecution," she said.
"There may be people who simply cannot start their claim and don't access the information on how to go further," she said. "Potentially," she added, that means "someone staying on undocumented or being deported back to a country where they face persecution."
Canadians are used to accessing websites and automated call centres to get info on and help with provincial health insurance premiums, student loans, and other government services. But for recent emigres, using websites and telephone systems provides an additional challenge, said Shayna Plaut, a UBC doctoral candidate working at the university's Liu Institute for Global Issues.
She says many arrivals speak English as a third or fourth language, adding the current system also assumes they have easy access to a phone or a computer terminal.
Jordan said she tried calling the 1-888 help line Tuesday and said she encountered "a fairly lengthy maze of automated phone options that you can get in either English or French."
"Then you are referred to a website where you get an even more confusing range of options," she said.
To verify Jordan and Plaut's claims, The Tyee tried calling the 1-888 number to apply for refugee status itself.
"Welcome to Citizenship and Immigration Canada," said a soothing female voice.
“For service in English, press one. Pour les service en Francais, pres les deux," it said. (Excuse my French.)
I mashed one on my Smartphone.
"Effective June 30, 2012, Citizenship and Immigration Canada will be implementing changes for the eligibility and benefits of ISHP," the voice said. "To see whether you are eligible under the new rules, please visit our website at www.cic.gc.ca or select option one, select option one again, select option three, then select option two to speak to an agent."
"Huh?" I said.
"If you are calling regarding the new measures for live-in care givers in abusive situations with their current employers, select option one, select option one again, select option four, then select option three for further information," the voice continued. "Please have a pen and paper ready to write down the instructions from the phone service and other important information.
"If you wish to use our automated phone service, please choose one of the following options."
After 20 minutes on the phone, The Tyee found the most direct route to a live person was to not answer the voice. The system automatically forwards you to a call centre after the options repeat unanswered three times.
At the time of this discovery, about 4:20 p.m., the call centre was closed. The recorded voice told The Tyee to call their help-line again tomorrow for assistance.
'Walls being built'
Nearly 400,000 foreign arrivals came to Canada last year, with a majority settling within the core metro regions of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, according to CIC statistics. Only 25,000 claimed for refugee status in 2011, said Stalker in a Georgia Strait piece.
The vast majority of those people, documented and undocumented, came in ones, twos and threes by plane or through border crossings. But over the last few years, a small minority of immigrants have shown up unannounced by boats. In the summer of 2010, 490 Tamil asylum seekers appeared off of B.C.'s west coast. The boat people captured media headlines and led to calls for stricter asylum laws to end Canada's presumed reputation as a "soft touch" for those with dubious refugee claims.
The Tamil asylum seekers were processed at a camp set up at the Esquimalt naval base. Most are still waiting to be accepted as refugees.
Since 2010, the federal conservatives have taken it upon themselves to strengthen Canada's immigration laws by enacting new legislation. Bill C-31 is the primary thrust of that effort, said Plaut, who added it's cause for concern. The bill gives federal immigration minister power to designate countries as "safe" or "unsafe," and to appoint certain groups of immigrants as "mass arrivals."
Those additions to the bill have come under steep criticism from a multitude of sources, including prominent immigration lawyers such as Stalker, who spoke at a recent conference on Bill C-31 hosted by The Tyee.
Critics of the bill told the CBC that it would give Canadian's international reputation a "black eye" and also generate costly court challenges because C-31 is in contravention to UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Charter of Rights, and Supreme Court precedents.
Jordan added to that criticism, saying any assessment of an asylum seekers' claim needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, and general lists of "safe" and "unsafe" countries don't capture that complexity. Refugees who had to leave their home countries because of their sexual, gender, or HIV status often come from democratic and thus ostensibly "safe" countries, she said.
Ultimately, said Wayhi, the CIC office closures and service cuts come as part of a much bigger, "multifaceted" problem.
He says he is lucky, possessing a cell phone, access to a land line, decent spoken English, and a network of friends "who are very, very supportive."
Even so, he said, the office service reductions, combined with Bill C-31 and changes in eligibility to the refugee healthcare program, will make it tough for him.
"This is all changing at the same time," he said. "I'm realizing there are walls being built around me in Canada."
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