Where are all the refugees?

April 2014

When I was at the Ottawa Immigration Law Conference last month, I was chatting with a colleague about the decline in refugee claims.  She told me it had been over a year since she has had a call from a refugee claimant.


A year!  And she's not alone.  Most Ottawa immigration lawyers I've spoken to have seen drastic reductions in the number of refugee cases they have in their filing cabinets.


A recent United Nation report confirms what I've been hearing.  The report examines refugee claim intakes of 44 industrialized countries.  In looking at the past five years, the report states that:


An opposite trend has been observed for Canada where the country was the second and third highest destination country for asylum-seekers among the group of 44 industrialized countries in 2008 and 2009. The number of newly registered asylum-seekers dropped by two-thirds in subsequent years, potentially the result of recent reforms of asylum policies and the  introduction of visa requirements for some nationalities featuring among the major groups of asylum-seekers in Canada, notably the Czech Republic and Mexico. As a result, Canada's ranking dropped to 16th place in 2013.


For the year 2013 the report notes, "Canada, with its recent changes in asylum policies, received some 10,400 claims – half the number seen in 2012."


In contrast, the United States saw a 25% increase in the number of claims.


So why are refugees no longer coming to Canada?


There are two types of refugees.


The first group receive refugee status while still overseas.  They are then sponsored by the Canadian government, by private groups such as churches, or through a "Group of Five" individuals who can apply to sponsor a refugee.  Overseas refugees are affected by bureaucratic delays.  I recently listened to a CBC report on the 1,300 refugees Canada has promised to take from Syria.  Only 10 of that 1,300 have arrived, because it can take up to two years to process applications for overseas refugees.  This type of refugee is not the focus of the UN report, however.


The other type of refugee makes a claim after arriving in Canada.  These individuals often use a "human smuggler" to enter the country, because there is no other way for them to leave an unsafe situation.  The Canadian laws dealing with refugees who apply from within Canada have undergone tremendous change.


When the UN report mentions "recent changes in asylum policies," this is what they are referring to:


  • Refugees from "designated countries of origins" are given less time to prepare their claim, cannot get a work permit while they are waiting for their refugee hearing, and if their claim is denied, they are not given the right to appeal to the Refugee Appeal Division.


  • Health care benefits to refugees have been severely cut, which has particularly affected pregnant women and those with life threatening conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  Some provinces, including Ontario, have provided health care to refugees under provincial plans.


  • The ability to claim status in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds has been removed for many individuals.


  • The Canada Border Service Agency is more actively seeking the deportation of those without status in Canada, regardless of whether or not the individual has a humanitarian and compassionate application waiting for processing.


  • In Alberta, refugee claimants are no longer permitted to apply for drivers' licenses.


  • In Ottawa, the Immigration and Refugee Board closed the office on March 31st of this year.  All refugee claimants are now required to travel to Montreal for their hearing.


The current government of Canada used its legislative powers to make our Canadian refugee system less welcoming.  And it worked.



Read the UN news release summarizing the report:



Read the entire report (it takes a few minutes to load, be patient):