Half a billion to clear backlog of some asylum seekers: PBO

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Clearing the backlog of foreign nationals who have claimed asylum in Canada over the last five years — a “great number” of which the immigration minister says are Mexicans — will cost Canada an estimated half a billion dollars, a report from the parliamentary budget officer has found.

It’s a price tag Immigration Minister Marc Miller says Canada “arguably shouldn’t have had to assume in the first place.”

The PBO examined the cost of processing asylum claims filed by people who arrived in Canada using a easy to get document, known as an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTa) as opposed to a traditional visa.

“The application for eTA requires a $7 fee and is completed online, with most applications being approved within minutes,” read the report.

The PBO estimates the federal government is spending $455 million processing these claims. The average cost is $16,500, but it ranged between $9,055 and $40,814.

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“A great number of those costs are associated with Mexico [asylum claims],” said Miller.

Last February, the federal government reintroduced the visa requirement for Mexican nationals.

Asylum claims from that country reached a record high last year, but more than 60 per cent were either rejected or withdrawn.

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“What we found with the Mexican claimants, we found a big chunk were not entitled to it, and that is a charge on the system that arguably we shouldn’t have had to assume in the first place,” Miller told reporters at a news conference in Montreal.

“The re-imposition of the visa was a good thing to do,” he added.

The PBO analysis only went up until the start of this year. For the first two months of the year, Mexican nationals were still able to enter Canada with an eTA.

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“Asylum claimants who arrive in Canada with an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) are the fastest growing group when compared to claimants with other types of authorizations to enter Canada (such as visas),” said the PBO report.

It adds that the reinstatement of the visa requirement will likely reduce costs.

“Given that asylum claimants whose country of alleged prosecution is Mexico are the largest portion of recent asylum claims, this could significantly impact future processing times, as well as the backlog, and therefore affect the per-claimant cost.”

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lifted the visa requirement for Mexican nationals coming to Canada.

Chris Alexander, who served as immigration minister under Stephen Harper, said that was a mistake in an interview with Global News last month.

“The professional advice in the department was against it. The criteria we had set as a country for lifting visa requirements were against it,” said Alexander.

The PBO only reviewed the eTA stream, which accounts for 17 per cent of asylum claims.

The overall number of asylum claims has risen since 2016 and reached a record high of 144,860 last year.

The Immigration and Refugee Board, which handles cases, has seen a 75 per cent increase in applications during the first four months of 2024, compared to the same period last year.

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“I’m massively concerned about this,” said immigration and refugee lawyer Robert Israel Blanshay. “I’m eager to read something from the Immigration Refugee Board about how they plan on absorbing, this jump.”

The Liberals have set side nearly $750 million to try to clear the backlog.

“There could be an expedited stream to use. And I do think the Immigration and Refugee Board is looking at ways to do that,” said Blanshay.

“But I’m not so sure how close they are to a solution.”

— with files from Mackenzie Gray and Jillian Piper

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