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User experience is an afterthought: Vulnerable refugees and others forced to troubleshoot IRCC’s experimental online portals

By CILA on March 23, 2022

This guest article was authored by Chun He, Student-at-Law, Gerami Law Professional Corporation.

In August 2021, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced a September 2021 release for its new online portal for Permanent Residence Applications. Without prior notice, in October 2021 IRCC caught lawyers and other advocates off guard when it launched a newly revamped refugee portal (the CRPP) that became the only way to file apply for refugee claims from inside Canada.

Since these portals’ introduction, lawyers and other advocates have had some time to interact with these portals and may now provide user-feedback based on their own experiences. To sum it up, the portals are glitchy; costly; work inconsistently; and ultimately, hurt vulnerable claimants.

Advocates have raised the following concerns:

1) Refugee portal frustrates and risks prejudicing claimants

The new refugee portal does not work well, and it definitely does not ensure that refugees get quicker access to work permits. In addition to lawyers’ report about the portal’s frequent and spontaneous error messages, the portal also requests refugee claimants answer never-before-asked questions.

Most of these novel questions appear in the portal’s “Claim Details” section. At this section, Claimants are given 100 characters to briefly answer prompts related to why they did not seek refugee protection sooner and move to another part of their country first. These additional questions invite claimants to provide short and often speculative answers, which can result in prejudicial responses that lead to adverse credibility findings at a claimant’s refugee hearing. On January 25, 2022, with its latest program delivery update, IRCC released a new guide to its online portal. While the guide does help claimants answer certain questions by providing lists of the required elements to one’s responses, the Claim Details section – which contains the bulk of the portal’s novel questions has not added more clarity.

Advocates have requested that IRCC bring back the old Portal and expedite the processing of work permits so that claimants may support themselves and position themselves for successful establishment in Canada.

2) Webform platform fails to meet a basic level of customer service

IRCC’s appetite for automation has led to numerous mistakes and dehumanizing experiences for folks trying to come to Canada. While seeking to increase awareness about these difficult-to-use portals, several lawyers report that Members of Parliament are also not answering phone calls as often as they used to. Further, it is also nearly impossible to speak with a human being when you dial IRCC’s call centre at 1-888-242-2100. Clients are redirected to IRCC’s online interface and are then required to file resource intensive inquiries via the webform page. This process is a hit-or-miss exercise as the responses are often either a boiler plate auto-reply or minimal information is conveyed back to the inquirer. Afghan Canadians that have made inquiries via webforms to help their fellow Afghan nationals in Afghanistan receive the same automated emails that non-Afghans receive.

Recently, IRCC no longer references their need to address the crisis in Afghanistan in their replies to inquirers. Rather, a boiler plate reply about the volume of inquiries and the need for ongoing patience is sent. Inquirers are often receiving what appears to be an auto reply as follow:

“We’re experiencing a high volume of requests, so our response may be delayed. We’ll respond to your inquiry as soon as possible. Our agents do not have access to more information about your case status or processing times than you can access online. The processing office will contact you if further information is needed.  We understand that timely access to client support is important. Thank you for your patience.”

The lack of meaningful replies to webform inquiries from IRCC have placed countless foreign nationals in Canada in a state of limbo and has resulted in the Department delivering the poorest client service ever experienced by newcomers and their representatives.

Ironically, while key sectors continue to suffer acute labour shortages, most work permit applicants wait in excess of 4 months for work permits to processed and issued from inside Canada.  This has also led some eligible applicants to travel to the Canada-USA border to make work permit applications through the Canada Border Services Agency, during a time where the government of Canada is discouraging non-essential travel.

IRCC urgently needs to address work permit processing issues that hold refugee claimants and temporary foreign workers hostage to IRCC processing delays; and, consequently, hamper our economic recovery.

3) Multiple rapidly designed electronic portals implemented without adequate testing or stakeholder feedback results in poor functionality and user frustration

Advocates note that they have never experienced so many portals not working. The authorized representative portal has been out of order for days at a time. These glitches and kinks in the system have created huge problems for clients, as it has forced some of them to file applications at the last minute, lose their status, or even stop working.

IRCC’s rush to launch of multiple half-baked portals is reminiscent of the failed government payroll system, Phoenix. With IRCC’s host of new portals, individual users are less apt to complain about these systems as the bulk of the clients are foreign nationals or one-time users.

Overall, the primary outcome of this never-before-seen multi-portal experiment is ongoing distress for clients and their representatives.

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