The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB, or the Board) carries out its work within a global environment of increasing migration flow and shifting mobility patterns. Over the past few years, these changing migration patterns and increased intake have had a significant impact on the number and complexity of refugee cases received in Canada. However, this trend was most recently impacted by the COVID‑19 pandemic, which reduced mobility around the world due to factors such as closed borders. As a result, the IRB recorded lower intake levels in 2020–21 across all four of its divisions. While it is expected that intake will continue to be lower than usual in the first half of 2021–22, assuming that COVID‑19 restrictions are lifted and as borders continue to reopen in the second half of 2021–22, the IRB expects intake to return to or surpass previous volumes, at levels that will exceed the Board's funded capacity going forward.
The global pandemic was the most significant factor influencing the Board's operating context over the course of 2020–21. Prior to the pandemic, the IRB, like many Canadian and international courts and administrative tribunals, was predominantly paper based and conducted proceedings mainly in person.
As such, during the first four months of 2020–21, the IRB suspended hearings (excluding detention review and detained admissibility hearings) and immediately adjusted its plans. Guided by the dual objectives of protecting the health and safety of IRB employees and those appearing before the Board and of ensuring meaningful access to justice, the Board put in place the necessary health and safety measures to be able to resume in-person hearings, while at the same time accelerating its digital transformation to enable remote work and virtual hearings. The Board invested in digital tools to support remote work for employees whose jobs could be done remotely and worked on all the steps necessary to enable virtual hearings and then shift the operating model to a predominantly virtual one. Shifting to becoming a digital organization was already part of the IRB's plans, but it accelerated its transformation efforts and began piloting virtual hearings in July 2020. Building on the success of these pilots and in light of continued efforts to stem the transmission of COVID‑19, in January 2021, the Board transformed its operating model from an in‑person, paper‑based hearings model to one that is digital and virtual, with in‑person hearings being conducted only in exceptional and urgent circumstances. This model prioritizes the health and safety of IRB employees and those appearing before the Board, while maximizing access to justice to the extent possible.
Refugee claims and appeals
Border closures resulted in significantly less intake of claims for the Refugee Protection Division (RPD). The adoption of a virtual hearings model for most claims and a focus on less complex claims, coupled with overall lower intake levels throughout the year, permitted the RPD to reduce its inventory of claims by 24% by the end of fiscal year 2020–21. The Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) experienced limited pandemic‑related disruptions to its operations, given that most RAD decisions are rendered without a hearing. This, combined with lower intake levels, resulted in a 41% reduction in the pending inventory by the end of fiscal year 2020–21. While this is encouraging, this is seen as temporary as intake is expected to rise as RPD output increases as borders continue to reopen.
Despite these achievements, the COVID‑19 pandemic will continue to impact the IRB's operating context until such time as the restrictions on in‑person presence in IRB offices are completely lifted. While the adoption of a virtual hearings model has been quite successful in increasing the IRB's productivity and offering access to justice for many, limitations still exist, including access to technology for some parties and hearings involving highly sensitive matters. The decrease in inventories across the Board, while positive overall, created new challenges for the RPD, including a higher proportion (compared to 2019–20) of more complex and older claims in the inventory, which take more time to resolve. The IRB will continue to respond to these challenges by leveraging its Growth and Transformation Agenda and working with asylum system partner organizations. While the IRB secured nearly $600M in additional temporary funding until March 31, 2023, the gains the Board has made against the backlog are at risk due to the possible post-pandemic surge and the sunsetting of funding in 2022–23. To address longer-term funding issues, the Board continues to work closely with the Government.
Admissibility hearings, detention reviews and immigration appeals
Despite the impacts of the pandemic, the Immigration Division (responsible for conducting admissibility hearings and detention reviews for permanent residents and foreign nationals who are detained for immigration reasons) continued to keep pace with intake and meet legislated time limits for detention review hearings. The Immigration Appeal Division resumed operations in the second quarter following the temporary suspension of in‑person hearings. This, along with a decrease in intake due to COVID‑19, resulted in a 25% decrease in its inventory by the end of fiscal year 2020‑21.
Within this challenging operating context, the IRB's Growth and Transformation Agenda—centered on the pillars of improved productivity, strengthened quality and consistency in decision‑making, along with strengthened management—will continue to shape the Board's plans and priorities. In particular, this agenda continues to support the IRB's vision of being a high‑performing, competent and increasingly digital tribunal, contributing to an accessible, fair and efficient immigration and refugee determination system.