Refugee Rights Day: A Milestone for Claimant Rights

Toronto Mayor John Tory signs our banner as he proclaims “Refugee Rights Month” at Toronto City Hall, April 3, 2017

On April 4th, 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a decision that everyone in Canada including refugee claimants, is entitled to justice when life, liberty or security of person is at stake. This decision (known as the Singh decision) ultimately led to the creation of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) which gave all refugee claimants the right to an oral hearing in front of live adjudicators (Board members). Before then, applications for asylum were simply submitted on paper; people who had undergone persecution and fear did not have the opportunity to tell their unique stories in person.

While the Singh decision and the establishment of the IRB was a milestone in the history of refugee rights in Canada, the high-stakes process of preparing for, and attending an actual hearing remains a daunting event for refugee claimants. The outcome could mean life or death. This process was made even more difficult in December 2012 when changes to the system dramatically shortened the preparation timelines for asylum seekers: shifting from a year or more to only 30 to 60 days. For those fleeing war zones who are victims of trauma, a month or two to collect evidence from police, hospitals, and government offices in their home country and prepare their story of persecution is incredibly short and difficult. Hence while “access to justice” was made greater thanks to the Singh decision, preparing for it became more difficult.

In the face of this increased challenge, Matthew House Toronto sought a solution. The result was the creation of a novel program involving a refugee hearing “simulation”. This Refugee Hearing Program had been piloted introduced over the last three years at our own shelter and has met with great success. Since its inception, refugees who have participated in the program have achieved a greater than 90% success rate for acceptance compared to the national average of less than 60%.

Recently, thanks to a grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Program, this new program is able to expand to help more newly arrived refugee claimants prepare for their crucial hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board.

A refugee claimant’s life can literally hang in the balance based on the results of their hearing. Therefore the Refugee Hearing Program is a vital tool in alleviating anxiety and assisting in the preparation process.

“The scenario we create completely reflects what takes place in an actual hearing,” says Helton Achaye, the program’s manager. “We partner with volunteer refugee lawyers and former IRB board members. They help train law students and other key volunteers who then serve in the role of judges in the “mock” hearings.

Ibrahim, a former Matthew House resident from Sudan, cannot speak highly enough about the program. He was very anxious about his refugee hearing. “In my country judges are feared,” he said. “Standing in front of a judge is a very scary thing. Most are bad and the regime is behind them. They do not give you your rights. I was very afraid.”

“The Matthew House staff really helped me. They explained the process and acted it out just like the real thing. They showed me where the judge would sit and the lawyer and interpreter. At the end, they gave me some really helpful feedback pointing out areas where my answers were weak and needed more preparation.”

On the day of his actual hearing, Ibrahim recalls, “I felt so much better prepared and calmer.” At the end of his hearing the IRB Board member immediately rendered his decision: Ibrahim was recognized as a Convention Refugee and granted the protection of Canada.

“Words can’t describe how I felt. I was overwhelmed with joy and relief,” he said. “I began to cry right there in in the room.” That joy carried over to a celebration that day with staff, residents, and volunteers when he returned to Matthew House.

While we are still on a journey as a nation, we are thankful for the Singh decision in 1985 and the establishment of the IRB offering refugee claimants the opportunity to personally share their story of persecution in front of a live adjudicator. And, it is our hope that, coupled with the additional support of the Refugee Hearing simulation program, more refugees will receive the protection they need.

So when April showers come our way in Canada, have no regrets, remember it also signifies the month when greater justice was granted to some of the most vulnerable people in our land.

Anne Woolger
Matthew House, Toronto

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