Asylum seekers in Canada who fled Trump now trapped in legal limbo

TORONTO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Thousands of people who fled to Canada to escape President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal migrants have become trapped in legal limbo because of an overburdened refugee system, struggling to find work, permanent housing or enroll their children in schools.

Refugee claims are taking longer to be completed than at any time in the past five years, according to previously unpublished Immigration and Refugee Board data provided to Reuters. Those wait times are set to grow longer after the IRB in April allocated "up to half" of its 127 tribunal members to focus on old cases. The number of delayed hearings more than doubled from 2015 to 2016 and is on track to increase again this year.

SEE ALSO: Iraqi migrant trains at US border patrol academy

Hearings are crucial to establishing a claimant's legal status in Canada. Without that status, they struggle to convince employers to hire them or landlords to rent to them. Claimants cannot access loans or student financial aid, or update academic or professional credentials to meet Canadian standards.

Canada's refugee system was struggling to process thousands of applications even before 3,500 asylum seekers began crossing the U.S. border on foot in January. It lacks the manpower to complete security screenings for claimants and hear cases in a timely manner. Often there are not enough tribunal members to decide cases or interpreters to attend hearings, the IRB said.

More than 4,500 hearings scheduled in the first four months of 2017 were canceled, according to the IRB data.

The government is now focused on clearing a backlog of about 24,000 claimants, including people who filed claims in 2012 or earlier. That means more than 15,000 people who have filed claims so far this year, including the new arrivals from the United States, will have to wait even longer for their cases to be heard.

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Asylum-seeking migrants stuck in limbo in Canada
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Asylum-seeking migrants stuck in limbo in Canada
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, works out at the pool of a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Honduran migrants Raul Contreras, his mother Daysi Alas (C) and step-father Ananin Cruz, who are seeking refugee status in Canada, attend a church service held in Spanish in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 8, 2017. Picture taken April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, balances on the bars of an elevator at a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, works out at a gym at a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, looks at job-seeking materials provided by the YMCA at a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, looks at job-seeking materials provided by the YMCA at a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, shows a photo of his North Carolina high school graduation class while at a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Honduran migrants Raul Contreras (L), his mother Daysi Alas (R) and step-father Ananin Cruz, who are seeking refugee status in Canada, exit a subway car while travelling to attend a church service held in Spanish in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 8, 2017. Picture taken April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Honduran migrant Raul Contreras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, gives money to a subway entertainer while travelling to a church service held in Spanish in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 8, 2017. Picture taken April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Honduran migrant Raul Contreras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, balances on poles outside a bus station in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 8, 2017. Picture taken April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Raul Contreras, 19, of Honduras, who is seeking refugee status in Canada, works out at the pool of a long-stay hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 9, 2017. Picture taken April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Honduran migrant Daysi Alas (R) holds a bible and the hand of her husband Ananin Cruz while travelling to attend a church service held in Spanish in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 8, 2017. Picture taken April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
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​Asylum cases are already taking longer to finalize, on average, than at any time since Canada introduced a statutory two-month time limit in 2012. This year, it has been taking 5.6 months on average, compared to ​3.6 months in 2013.

Mohamed Daud, 36, left his family and a pending refugee claim in the United States and walked into Canada in February after hearing rumors of U.S. immigration raids. Daud, originally from Somalia, had been living and working legally in Nebraska but feared he would be detained and then deported at an upcoming check-in with immigration officials.

His May 8 hearing with a Canadian refugee tribunal was canceled three days beforehand. He has not been given a new date.

"I don't know when they will call me. I can't work. It isn't easy," said Daud. While waiting for a work permit, he gets approximately C$600 ($453) a month in government social assistance and shares a room in an apartment with six other asylum seekers.

Still, Daud doesn't regret abandoning his life in the United States.

"The worry, the fear is the same," he said.

To try to speed cases through, Canada's refugee tribunal has put people from certain war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen on an expedited track that requires no hearings.

​Border agents are working overtime to address the backlog in security screenings, said Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the Canada Border Services Agency.​

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Migrants fleeing to Canada from Minnesota
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Migrants fleeing to Canada from Minnesota
A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia follow railway tracks towards the Canada-U.S. border as seen from Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. Picture taken March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) vehicle approaches as a migrant stands on a residential street after crossing the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. Picture taken March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia walk along railway tracks after crossing the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. Picture taken March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A road sign pointing to Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, near the Canada-U.S. border, March 24, 2017. Picture taken March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Deer graze along railway tracks near the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 26, 2017. Picture taken March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A sign is seen on a fence on the U.S. side of the former Canada-U.S. border crossing in Noyes, Minnesota, U.S., March 28, 2017. Picture taken March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer waits in a van near railway tracks on the Canadian side of the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 25, 2017. Picture taken March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Fog blankets the area near railway tracks on the Canadian side of the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. Picture taken March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A train crosses the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 25, 2017. Picture taken March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
An international boundary marker is seen on the U.S. side of the Canada-U.S. border in Noyes, Minnesota, U.S., March 28, 2017. Picture taken March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A scarf lies on the ground on the U.S. side of the Canada-U.S. border near the former border crossing in Noyes, Minnesota, U.S., March 28, 2017. Picture taken March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A child's bottle lies on the ground on the U.S. side of the Canada-U.S. border near the former border crossing in Noyes, Minnesota, U.S., March 28, 2017. Picture taken March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A ski mask lies on the ground on the U.S. side of the Canada-U.S. border near the former border crossing in Noyes, Minnesota, U.S., March 28, 2017. Picture taken March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia walk along a residential street after crossing the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. Picture taken March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia place their belongings in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) vehicle after crossing the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. Picture taken March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
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INDEFINITE WAIT

Asylum claimants are eligible for work permits while awaiting hearings, but employers are often reluctant to employ people with temporary social insurance numbers whose future is uncertain, refugee lawyers told Reuters.

"How do you establish yourself when your status is unknown?" said Toronto-based lawyer Aadil Mangalji.

This year is on track to be the highest year for refugee claims since at least 2011, according to government statistics.

The stresses on the Canadian system mirror those of other countries with an open door policy. In Sweden, rising financial strains involved in resettlement ​were partly behind a move to introduce tough asylum laws.

Honduran Raul Contreras, 19, who walked across the Quebec border in March and whose hearing has been postponed indefinitely, is staying in a government-subsidized Toronto hotel with his mother, step-father and uncle. Contreras, who spends his days at a local library or working out in the hotel gym, says he has been repeatedly rejected by landlords.

"They just said that they didn't rent places to refugee claimants," he said. "(They) said that refugees don't have jobs and probably wouldn't pay."

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