Refugees 'in the crosshairs' as Legal Aid Ontario battles for government funding, advocates warn

May 25, 2017

Immigration advocates are sounding the alarm as Legal Aid Ontario moves to slash services for refugees — saying the measures threaten to hold vulnerable asylum seekers hostage amid the organization's fight for added government funding.

The mounting concern comes as the arm's-length provincial agency launches a consultation process to look into what it calls the "difficult choice" to temporarily suspend some of the services, beginning July 1.

But while it's not known yet exactly which services will be cut to address the organization's 40 per cent shortfall in its immigration and refugee program, many are worried about the impact on refugees as the organization makes its case for additional provincial and federal support.

"When I say that the cuts will be devastating, I mean that literally they could result in a return to persecution, torture or death," Osgoode Hall law professor Sean Rehaag told CBC Toronto. "LAO is using a really problematic negotiating tactic here."

Rising demand for refugee services a 'reality'

Legal Aid Ontario disputes that.

"LAO would never bargain with a vulnerable population. We are well aware of the humanitarian impact of our refugee work," Graeme Burk, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.

The organization points to what it calls a dramatic rise in the demand for its refugee services, saying that despite the increase, the federal government's contribution has remained relatively static, in the $7-million range. While the program has cost about $20 million annually for the past several years, those costs ballooned to $27 million last year and are projected to jump to $33.6 million in 2017-2018.

That's about seven percent of Legal Aid Ontario's operating budget of $455 million.

And while the federal government did boost funding to $13.7 million in 2016-2017, the funding falls back to $8.9 million for the next two years and back down to $7 million for the three years after that.

In the meantime, the number of refugees coming into Ontario continues to climb.

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