In 2010 when rumours began to circulate about the possible arrival of one or more ships carrying as many as 500 Sri Lankan nationals, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada’s Vancouver regional office knew that if a large number of migrants were going to be detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the immigration division and operational support functions would be quickly overwhelmed.
Through innovation, cooperation and leadership, the IRB took the necessary steps to prepare for an extraordinary increase in workload, and ensure that it continued to fulfill its mandate of resolving cases efficiently, fairly and in accordance with the law.
In Canada, citizens and permanent residents have the right to enter and exit Canada and move freely about the country. However, this is not always the case for those who are neither permanent residents nor Canadian citizens.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) decides whether to allow foreign nationals to enter Canada, whether to turn them back at the border or whether to place them in detention.
The immigration division (ID) of the IRB, Canada’s largest independent administrative tribunal, schedules hearings, known as detention reviews, to provide an independent assessment of whether the person concerned should remain in detention. According to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the first review takes place within 48 hours of the referral from CBSA or without delay afterwards. If the detention is continued, a second review is conducted within seven days and additional reviews are conducted every 30 days thereafter until the individual is released from detention or deported.
Earlier, in October 2009, the MV Ocean Lady had arrived off the west coast with 76 Sri Lankan nationals on board. Because of the irregular mode of transport, as well as concerns that the Tamil Tigers – a terrorist organization – could have been involved in organizing the arrival, all 76 men on board were detained by the CBSA and their cases referred to the ID.
Within the first week, the ID finalized the 48-hour detention reviews. The ID then immediately started conducting the seven-day reviews. With a great deal of effort and cooperation from all parties, the ID maintained a timely schedule of detention reviews until the last of the Ocean Lady migrants were released from detention in March 2010.
When the 2010 rumours about the possible arrival of one or more ships carrying as many as 500 Sri Lankan nationals began, the IRB’s Vancouver Regional Office acted to acquire the necessary personnel and that logistical arrangements were in place, and worked with partners to ensure an efficient processing of the cases.
The five full-time members who preside over detention reviews and admissibility hearings for all of Western Canada, from Manitoba to British Columbia, would have been overwhelmed by this massive increase in work. To boost the number of members in anticipation of the ship’s arrival, the ID arranged the temporary return of four retired members and was able to put ID members in the Central and Eastern regions on standby to help either by going to Vancouver or by doing detention reviews by video or teleconference.
The expeditious scheduling of the detention review hearings is complicated by the requirement of the IRB to provide an accredited interpreter at each proceeding. To overcome this challenge the IRB took steps before the ship’s arrival, including: the pre-booking of local interpreters; the creation of an inventory of accredited interpreters available via telephone; and the launching of a recruitment and accreditation campaign for new Tamil language interpreters.
When it became clear that the CBSA would detain some of the persons concerned in the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre (FRCC), more than an hour from Vancouver, the IRB arranged to establish a satellite office on the premises to facilitate efficient processing of the detention reviews. Located within a fenced-in section of the prison yard, the satellite office contains five hearing room trailers, an operations centre, and offices for members, interpreters and duty counsel.
For Roslyn MacVicar, regional director of the IRB’s Western Region, the preparations made before the ship’s arrival in Canada were instrumental in the IRB’s success. “Our region’s experience with large arrivals, along with the steps made in conjunction with our provincial and federal partners prior to the ship’s arrival, allowed us to have all plans in place when the detention reviews for the migrants began,” she said.
The MV Sun Sea arrived in Victoria in August 2010. All 492 passengers identified themselves as Tamils from Sri Lanka and all made refugee claims. Those migrants over the age of 18 were placed in immigration detention by the CBSA. After the initial processing on Vancouver Island, they were transferred to three separate detention facilities in Metro Vancouver. The 380 men were brought to the FRCC, and the 63 women were detained in two separate detention facilities, depending upon whether they had children with them.
The detention review process for many claimants was a major challenge for IRB staff. While the women’s detention reviews were conducted at the Vancouver IRB offices, the on-site IRB facilities at the FRCC were instrumental to successfully meeting the statutory timelines; detainees there did not need to be transported, allowing for more effective and efficient administration of the hearings.
The challenge for the ID in making well-reasoned and fair decisions, despite an enormous increase in the volume of work under tight timelines, was exacerbated by intense media attention. This was further complicated by the fact that refugee protection claims had been made, which meant that the migrants’ detention reviews were not open to the public. The ID had to consider numerous applications from the media requesting access to the hearings. Members of the ID crafted orders allowing media access subject to a strict publication ban to protect the privacy of individual claimants.
The detention review hearings are ongoing for approximately 100 of the 492 migrants who arrived aboard the MV Sun Sea. The IRB continues to excel in processing this large number of detention reviews in addition to its regular workload. Meeting challenges through innovation has ensured that the integrity of Canada’s immigration system is maintained and the fundamental rights of the detained migrants are safeguarded. Through cooperation with partner organizations, the leadership of the management team and the dedication and enthusiasm of all IRB personnel, the IRB is succeeding under demanding circumstances.
As of February 1, 2011, the IRB has ordered the release of 324 of the migrants. Hearings for the remaining detained migrants continue every 30 days. “Despite the time pressure and vast numbers, we have managed to treat each person as an individual,” said ID director Fred Ringham. “Some were ordered released early on while others remain in detention, based on their particular situation. This has required intense and sustained effort by the members and staff, working long hours under intense public scrutiny.”
Conducting a large number of detention reviews under difficult conditions and tight timeframes required leadership, a collaborative effort and support from all IRB personnel. To put the enormity of what the IRB accomplished in perspective, 1,023 detention reviews were concluded in the Western Region the month the ship arrived, representing an increase of 718 percent over the pre