Legal aid cuts put refugees claimants, immigrants at risk, experts say

By Katie Derosa, Times Colonist |

Legal aid will no longer be provided to immigrants and refugees in B.C. due to a lack of funding, which immigration experts fear will put people at risk of deportation if their cases proceed without a lawyer.

Effective Aug. 1, the Legal Services Society of B.C. will not accept applications for immigration and refugee cases because government funding has not kept pace with the dramatic increase in refugee claims. The society’s executive director, Mark Benton, said unless the society receives an additional $1 million in federal funding, vulnerable individuals who have already experienced trauma will be forced to represent themselves during complicated hearings in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

“There will be a real risk to people, and that’s our biggest concern,” Benton said. “When we talk about people who come from a different culture, who don’t have a Canadian standard of education, who are likely not to speak any English, and do not have a network of support, [not having a lawyer] puts them at risk of their case not being heard fully and they risk being returned to the country where they face persecution.”

Benton said so far in 2017, the society is handling an average of 110 cases a month.

About half of the society’s refugee clients come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, and about a quarter come from Central and South America.

The society’s board of directors has written letters to federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould explaining why additional funding is desperately needed.

The society receives $1.7 million annually for immigrant and refugee legal aid — $900,000 from the federal government and $800,000 from the provincial government. Last year, the society received an additional $530,000 from the federal government as a result of increased demand from refugee claimants.

The federal Department of Justice told the Times Colonist that next year it will provide $1.1 million to B.C. for immigrant and refugee legal aid, which Benton said is still dramatically short of what the society will need to provide those services.

Under the legal-aid system, immigrants and refugees who are eligible for legal assistance are connected with private lawyers, who are funded by the Legal Services Society.

Alfred Okot-Ochen, a refugee from Uganda who applied for asylum in Victoria in 2003, said he would not have been able to navigate the complicated paperwork without a lawyer funded by legal aid.

Okot-Ochen now works as a case manager at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and often connects immigrants and refugees with legal aid.

“I’m very concerned [about the funding cuts] because I know I will always have clients who need legal aid,” he said.

For refugees who have made the arduous journey to Canada to apply for asylum, it’s a matter of life and death, said Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Vancouver-based Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

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