By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada is on track to receive its highest number of refugee claims since record-keeping began nearly three decades ago, the latest data shows, as the government's handling of immigration comes under scrutiny ahead of next year's federal election.
Despite cooler weather, the number of refugee claimants jumped past 6,000 in October, the highest monthly tally this year, the data released on Thursday showed.
That takes total claims in the first 10 months of 2018 to 46,245, putting the country on track to surpass last year's record even as the quasi-judicial body that adjudicates claims struggles to work through a 64,000-person backlog.
The Immigration and Refugee Board started tracking refugee claimant data in 1989.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government faces a widely held belief that Canada has been overwhelmed by immigrants pressing asylum claims, even though it receives far fewer than many other countries. The government has struggled to balance Canada's reputation as a haven for those fleeing persecution with warnings that filing refugee claims is no "free ticket" to remain in the country.
The governing Liberals have come under fire for their handling of the more than 37,000 people who have walked across the Canada-U.S. border seeking asylum since January 2017 -- many of whom told Reuters they did not feel safe in President Donald Trump's United States.
About 1,400 crossed the frontier in October, down from 1,600 the month before. But most refugee claimants enter the country by other means, and their numbers are growing.
"There are 65 million refugees in the world, and there are many desperate people trying to find safety and refuge in western countries," said Toronto-based lawyer Lorne Waldman. "I think we're going to see 50,000-plus (refugee claims annually) for the foreseeable future."
A spokesman for Immigration and Refugees Minister Ahmed Hussen noted that this year's budget included an additional C$74 million (£43.8 million) for the Immigration and Refugee Board "to speed up the processing of asylum claims." The hiring of 248 new staff "is under way," spokesman Mathieu Genest wrote in an email.
About 56 percent of refugee claims finalised in the first three quarters of 2018 were accepted, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board, with lower acceptance rates for border-crossers.
Border-crossers from Nigeria and Haiti, who made up the largest groups of border-crossers, had relatively low acceptance rates compared with other nationalities, at 29.3 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively.
Canada's government is trying to hasten the deportations of border-crossers whose refugee claims are not successful, classifying them with criminals as a top deportation priority.
The government should also prioritise integration of successful applicants, said Canadian Council for Refugees head Janet Dench, and ensure that tens of thousands of people are not left waiting years for permanent resident status.
"The longer you keep people in this limbo state, the longer before they can contribute fully to Canadian society."
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Tom Brown)