Phones are ringing off the hook at FCJ Refugee Centre and people are lining in the entrance. On the front door, a sign reads “My door is open for refugees.”
“The refugee claimants are going to be in a situation that we haven’t seen before,” said Francisco Rico-Martinez, the centre’s co-founder.
In its recently released budget, the provincial government cut funding to Legal Aid Ontario. Rico-Martinez said the impact on asylum seekers who have come to Canada seeking safety and protection is significant.
Legal Aid Ontario is a provincially funded non-profit organization providing legal assistance and representation to low-income residents of Ontario. These include refugee claimants who have come to Canada fleeing their countries of origin because of human rights abuses and life threatening circumstances.
“People flee their home country, they’ve often been traumatized, sometimes they don’t speak English and they’re totally unfamiliar with the culture — let alone the legal system that their facing,” Maureen Silcoff, the president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, explained.
She added budget cuts to the program mean claimants are now left to navigate the complex refugee legal system on their own and without legal representation.
Under the 1951 United Nations’ Refugee Convention, persons have the right under international law to make claims seeking refugee protection if they were facing persecution in their home countries. Canada’s Refugee Protection Division ensures the refugee claims are processed and heard, but the process is an arduous one and without legal guidance Silcoff argued it will be very difficult.
“I think it’s devastating because when people come to Canada they enter the system. They need representation. It’s almost impossible for people to understand how to prepare and how to represent themselves,” Silcoff said.
She explained that the recent cuts mean legal assistance actually funded by Legal Aid Ontario is now limited to filling out the administrative forms for filing a refugee claim at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) offices. But the most essential part of the refugee process, the hearing, is no longer covered and claimants are now having to walk into courtrooms unrepresented.
“If you can imagine that you’ve broken your leg, you go to a hospital and the medical staff… points you to the surgery room and says, ‘Here you go, do your own operation,’” Silcoff said.
For the co-directors of the FCJ Refugee Centre, Rico-Martinez and his wife Loly Rico, they said it is difficult explaining to clients who have come to them for help that they will no longer have the funding for a lawyer.
“We are the organization helping and we need to explain to them.”
Rico-Martinez explained that the budget cuts come at an inopportune time when international destabilization has resulted in an influx of asylum seekers from all over the world.
“It’s very unfair what they are doing … The immigration and refugee system is very complicated,” Rico said.
Liduvina Castillo Zavala fled Mexico with her daughter after she claims her her husband was murdered and attempts were made to kidnap her daughter. She arrived in Canada with her daughter and “with $30 only.” Zavala sought help at the FCJ Refugee Centre and was able to retain a refugee lawyer thanks to Legal Aid Ontario.
“Legal Aid helped me a lot because with $30 I never could pay a lawyer,” she said.
Her case was even more complex. The first time she applied for protection her claim was rejected. She had to appeal the appeal the decision, which meant another complex legal application.
But even with the recent cuts, Rico-Martinez said he still has hope.
“It’s a feeling of frustration but my father told me when you are in a crisis the best thing is to put your bread in the river and let it go,” he said.
However, Rico-Martinez acknowledged that the already packed centre will be even more so.
“We will be swamped but we are not going to close the door,” he said.
“When you enter … it says the door is open to refugees and we are doing to protect that sign and to keep it as open as we can for the time that we can.”