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Globe editorial: The Trudeau government is failing refugee claimants, and Canadians

Our neighbour to the south has taken a pronounced nativist turn in recent months, and the government of Canada's response has been to throw the doors open – rhetorically, at least.

Last January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to social media and proclaimed, "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada."

As political marketing goes, it was nicely timed. But to be completely insulated from truth-in-advertising complaints, it should have included a disclaimer – "Offer available only to genuine refugees, as defined by law. As we are experiencing an unusually high number of claimants at this time, it could take many years for our government to decide whether you are legally entitled to welcome, or removal."

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According to the latest federal statistics, more than 14,000 people have registered their intention to seek asylum in Canada through the first five months of 2017.

That number doesn't include refugees from Syria, who are being fast-tracked, and it adds upon the 23,900 who arrived in 2016 – itself a sharp increase from the 16,000 who came in 2015.

Last month, the federal government offered a modicum of good news to 5,500 people whose claims had been shunted to the back burner by the former Conservative government. Most have been waiting in limbo since at least 2012; their cases are expected to proceed in the fall.

Unfortunately, this will barely dent the application backlog, which is estimated at close to 40,000 cases.

The wait faced by refugee claimants – legitimate or otherwise – is too lengthy, and also unfair. It is well known that the longer an application is delayed, the lower the chance of it being accepted.

Meanwhile, the influx of asylum-seekers is unlikely to abate. There's been a surge in the number of claimants showing up at Canada-U.S. border crossings since President Donald Trump took office in January, but even that is not the whole story.

The United Nations' Refugee Agency calculates there are more displaced people on the planet right now – 65 million – than at any point since the Second World War.

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A government analysis obtained by the Canadian Press forecasts the number of refugee claimants in Canada will hit 36,000 this year, and rise by as much as 20 per cent a year after that.

If the current trends hold, the time required to process an application will reach 11 years in 2021, and could cost $3-billion in social support payments. This must not be allowed to happen.

Hiring more staff and expanding budgets are an unavoidable aspect of correcting the situation, but it isn't a matter of applying a simple fix.

The new federal appointments process announced earlier this year, billed as independent and competence-based, has been a disaster for the Immigration and Refugee Board. Dozens of key jobs remain vacant, while the number of claims is rising rapidly.

On June 21, the IRB announced its Western Canada immigration appeal division – which deals primarily with applications involving family members and dependents abroad – would be working at reduced capacity "for at least the next six months" because of staffing shortages.

The re-appointment of two outgoing members to one-year terms, announced that same day, won't do much to ease the bottleneck. There should be 11 on the job, but there are currently only four.

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Across all regions, the IRB's refugee and immigration appeals divisions have a shortage of at least 29 members, and the terms of another 29 are set to expire at the end of this year, according to one news report.

The vacancies, and the slowness with which the Trudeau government is filling them, have led to accusations that Ottawa is culling IRB members who were appointed by the Conservatives in order to replace them with Liberal supporters.

Whatever the reasons, the IRB is unable to handle the load because Ottawa is allowing members' terms to end while failing to appoint new people in a timely fashion.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen recently announced a third-party review to examine resource levels and the various bureaucratic mechanisms involved. However, it won't be concluded until next year, and that's not good enough.

The IRB has raised the alert about under-staffing for years. An overwhelmed immigration and refugee process, already buffeted by an ill-advised overhaul under the Harper government, has real-world impacts. It's bad for asylum seekers, and undermines public confidence.

Ottawa must move quickly to show Canadians that their government is doing more than drifting in its response. Tweeting "#WelcomeToCanada" is an empty gesture by the Prime Minister, if it's not accompanied by action.

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