Aditya Rao at an event welcoming refugees. Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik
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University continues to show commitment to serving refugees

The University of Ottawa will be offering up  its Ian G. Scott courtroom, free of charge, for hearings to determine refugee status.

Currently, refugee applicants in Ottawa must travel to Montreal for hearings, adding to an already stressful situation. This extra travel comes with a host of additional hurdles.

“Some people, to avoid accommodation costs, have taken very early bus and train rides. They have to take public transit to get to these (hearings), so you know, they’re not sleeping the night before and this affects the way that they might present themselves at a hearing,” said Jamie Liew, professor at the U of O’s Faculty of Common Lawand a practicing immigration lawyer, as well as a strong advocate for the U of O’s decision to offer the courtroom.

Not only that, but the entire family, children included, must travel to attend the hearing.

While the offer may seem perfectly timed with the imminent arrival of the first wave of Syrian refugees to Canada, Liew says there is no relation and they will not go through these proceedings. Rather, the offer’s re-submission is more closely related to the recent change on Parliament Hill.

“We believe that this government is more willing to listen to stakeholders about challenges that could be facing immigration applications that are going to Immigration Review Board (IRB),” said Liew.

The U of O opened the Ian G. Scott courtroom in 2013—becoming the first Canadian university to have a fully functioning courtroom on campus. It has an adjoining classroom so that students can learn from the proceedings.

The university had previously offered its courtroom to the IRB in 2014 after it closed its Ottawa office, though their offer was rejected at the time.

Liew believes the IRB’s previous concerns and reasoning for not taking the offer are unfounded, as the Ontario court of appeal and the federal court have used the courtroom with no issue.

“They had indicated to us concerns with regards to whether or not the courtroom was technically built to accommodate the IRB and security concerns,” she said. “It’s our understanding that if it’s good enough for the federal court, which hears judicial reviews or appeals from the IRB, then it shouldn’t be a problem for this administrative tribunal.”

The IRB confirmed that they had “received correspondence from the Law Faculty at Ottawa University stating its intention to renew an offer to hold refugee hearings at a location on campus,”but they did not wish to comment further.

While the university’s offer is not affiliated with the current Syrian refugee crisis, refugee law is a prominent area addressed by faculty and students.

Aditya Rao, second-year student in the U of O-Carleton joint M.A./LL.B program, is interested in specializing in refugee law and cites the faculty’s reputation in the area as one of the reasons he chose the U of O.

Rao has been an active figure in the Ottawa branch of the Refugees Welcome movement, a Canadian organization that seeks justice for refugees and displaced people. Rao co-hosted two rallies in September and a panel discussion on Nov. 27.

“I’m not the least bit surprised that the University of Ottawa has offered the courtroom up because they’ve been just absolutely phenomenal in taking a leadership role in this community to keep up,” he said.

The U of O has created a number of initiatives to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, including offering legal counsel through the Faculty of Law, a postsecondary certificate program for refugees, and scholarships.