A new Toronto organization is hoping to support legacy refugees as they go through the claims process.
The year Sebastian Commock spent waiting for his refugee hearing was the most “agonizing, frustrating” year of his life.
“I’m still not fully recovered from that year, and that was just one year,” he said.
With his own experience of being in limbo behind him, Commock has turned his attention to refugee claimants who’ve been waiting five years — or in some cases more — for hearings to decide whether they can remain in Canada.
As of March, there were 5,514 so-called “legacy” refugee claimants whose cases haven’t been decided. Their claims were filed before Dec. 15, 2012, which means they aren’t subject to tighter timelines established by the former Conservative government.
Over the last five years, the Immigration and Refugee Board has worked through more than 26,000 of those claims. More than 13,000 were rejected, almost 8,700 were accepted, and the rest were either abandoned or withdrawn.
In September, the board’s legacy task force will embark on a two-year process to decide the remaining claims.
To help support legacy claimants through that process, Commock founded a new advocacy and support group in March. Four months later, the Canadian Legacy Refugee Advocacy and Alliance (CLRAA) is working to support more than 150 legacy claimants. They’ve been able to reach hundreds of others through the 519, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion, where Commock and another member of the executive committee work.
While the organization is mostly supporting LGBTQ legacy refugee claimants, the group is open to legacy claimants who have come to Canada for any reason, Commock said.
Last week, Commock and another member of the CLRAA executive met with the head of the Immigration and Refugee Board’s legacy task force to discuss the upcoming process and get the wheels turning.
In the next week about 450 legacy claimants will be given a date for their hearings, Commock said. It’s news they’ve been waiting years to hear.
Though the head of the task force, Gaétan Cousineau, could not agree to offer amnesty to legacy refugees, he did commit to look through the remaining claims to determine if any could be decided based on their paper application, Commock said.
The Immigration and Refugee Board has an expedited policy which allows claims from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Burundi, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen to be decided without a hearing and a process to allow certain “straight forward” claims to be addressed through shortened hearings, a spokesperson for the board explained.
With hearings finally within reach, Commock said the task force is urging legacy claimants to touch base with their lawyers and legal aid.
Legal aid case files automatically close after three years if no work has been done of them, said Graeme Burk, a communications adviser for Legal Aid Ontario.
That means any refugee claimants who were relying on legal aid for support through their claims process need to be have their financial eligibility reassessed.
While Commock reported there is momentum from the legacy task force, Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, remains concerned about the whole process.
It’s “deeply disappointing” and “grossly unfair” to refugees who have been waiting years for Canada to decide if they can stay, she said.
The Canadian Council for Refugees, like CLRAA, wanted to see a simplified process, with minimum criteria, that would have allowed refugee claimants to become permanent residents without going through the hearing process.
“This is a population that has been seriously neglected by the government, which brought into effect a process where they were basically put to the back of the queue.”
For Lucas, a legacy refugee claimant whose name has been changed to protect his identity, the years of waiting for a hearing have made him question whether he made the right choice in coming to Canada.
In Saint Lucia, “fear and shame” took over his life. As a gay man, “you’re considered nasty, you’re a nasty person,” he told the Star.
He was forced to leave his home community when his family was attacked with machetes, but the threats followed him when he moved to a larger centre.
“I left home every day with fear, fear and shame.”
Though challenges in Canada aren’t the same, his life hasn’t been easy since he came here.
“Sometimes honestly I feel like I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire,” he said.
As a gay person in Canada, he doesn’t feel the same fear and shame that he felt at home, but his unsettled refugee claim means he still can’t be open about it, for fear he may have to return.
The waiting game has taken on a toll on his professional life as well. His status as a refugee claimant has left him unable to pursue higher education and better job opportunities, he said.
It’s an emotional roller-coaster Commock knows too well.
As a gay man in Jamaica, Commock said he faced “shame, ridicule and scorn.” He felt constant fear for his safety.
“I wanted to be able to live free, express myself, love who I wanted to love, and I wasn’t given that opportunity in Jamaica,” he said.
So he came to Canada.
But the uncertainty he faced as he waited for his hearing made his first year here, “the worst year of my life.”
For those still waiting for certainty, Commock and the rest of the CLRAA executive hope their support can make it a little bit easier.