Coronavirus: Toronto refugee claimant anxious about future as hearings on hold

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Toronto refugee claimant anxious about future as hearings on hold
WATCH ABOVE: Measures to contain COVID-19 have put the brakes on Canada’s refugee claims process. All hearings have been suspended since mid-March. As Albert Delitala reports, for a woman working on the frontlines in health care the uncertainty is adding more stress to a difficult time. – Apr 30, 2020

A Toronto personal support worker from Nigeria says indefinite delays to her refugee claim due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left her fearing for her family’s future.

Oluwafunmi (a pseudonym) has been working long hours as a personal support worker at several health care facilities in the Toronto area, she said, but uncertainty surrounding her refugee status is adding to an already stressful time.

“It’s scary because you don’t know your fate,” said Oluwafunmi, who arrived in Canada in February 2018 with her two-year-old son to claim asylum.

Global News has agreed to withhold her identity due to security concerns and fears of repercussions from people in Nigeria.

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More than two years after entering the country, she continues to wait.

The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) suspended all in-person hearings and mediations as of March 17 until further notice, citing the need to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.

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“It’s an extremely difficult time, obviously, for so many reasons,” said Mario Bellissimo, the principal lawyer of the immigration law firm Bellissimo Law Group.

Bellissimo said assessing the credibility of a claimant is best done in a courtroom in person, but if COVID-19 containment measures continue for the longer term, alternatives such as virtual hearings may be necessary.

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However, he said it could be strategically difficult for a lawyer to decide whether to proceed virtually out of concern the technology could affect the outcome.

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“There’s one shot, one opportunity to present your claim, and if that’s not where it needs to be, that could compromise the entire claim and ultimately people’s lives,” he said.

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The IRB has introduced some “temporary procedural accommodations” for its refugee protection and appeal divisions, spokesperson Anna Pape told Global News in an email.

“[The IRB] is aware of and sensitive to the challenges the current situation poses for claimants, appellants, parties and their representatives,” she wrote.

“Nevertheless, the personal health, safety and security of IRB personnel and the people who come before the Board is paramount. ”

For Oluwafunmi, she said she hopes to resolve her refugee status soon, with plans to then sponsor her husband — now in the United Kingdom — to join her in Canada.

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“I don’t want to live a single mother,” she said. “I just want to be with my family.”

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