Refugees and Immigrants: A glossary

Many different terms are used to describe refugees and immigrants.  Some have particular legal meanings, some are mean and offensive.  Using terms properly is an important way to treat people with respect and advancing an informed debate on the issues.


Refugee – a person who is forced to flee from persecution and who is located outside of their home country.

Convention refugee – a person who meets the refugee definition in the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This definition is used in Canadian law and is widely accepted internationally. To meet the definition, a person must be outside their country of origin and have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Refugee claimant or Asylum Seeker – a person who has fled their country and is asking for protection in another country. We don’t know whether a claimant is a refugee or not until their case has been decided.

'Claimant’ is the term used in Canadian law.


Resettled refugee a person who has fled their country, is temporarily in a second country and then is offered a permanent home in a third country.  Refugees resettled to Canada are selected abroad and become permanent residents as soon as they arrive in Canada. 

Resettled refugees are determined to be refugees by the Canadian government before they arrive in Canada. Refugee claimants receive a decision on whether they are refugees after they arrive in Canada.


Protected person – according to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, a person who has been determined to be either (a) a Convention Refugee or (b) a person in need of protection (including, for example, a person who is in danger of being tortured if deported from Canada).

Internally displaced person – a person who is forced to leave their home, but who is still within the borders of their home country.

Stateless person – a person that no state recognizes as a citizen. Some refugees may be stateless but not all are.  Similarly, not all stateless people are refugees.

You may also hear… Political refugee, Economic refugee, Environmental refugee – these terms have no meaning in law. They can be confusing because they incorrectly suggest that there are different categories of refugees.


A refugee is forced to flee for their lives. An immigrant chooses to move to another country.



Immigrant – a person who has settled permanently in another country. 

Permanent resident – a person granted the right to live permanently in Canada.  The person may have come to Canada as an immigrant or as a refugee.  Permanent residents who become Canadian citizens are no longer permanent residents.


Temporary resident – a person who has permission to remain in Canada only for a limited period of time.  Visitors and students are temporary residents, and so are temporary foreign workers such as agricultural workers and live-in caregivers.

Migrant – a person who is outside their country of origin.  Sometimes this term is used to talk about everyone outside their country of birth, including people who have been Canadian citizens for decades.  More often, it is used for people currently on the move or people with temporary status or no status at all in the country where they live. 

Economic migrant – a person who moves countries for a job or a better economic future.  The term is correctly used for people whose motivations are entirely economic. Migrants’ motivations are often complex and may not be immediately clear, so it is dangerous to apply the “economic” label too quickly to an individual or group of migrants.

Person without status – a person who has not been granted permission to stay in the country, or who has stayed after their visa has expired.  The term can cover a person who falls between the cracks of the system, such as a refugee claimant who is refused refugee status but not removed from Canada because of a situation of generalized risk in the country of origin. 

You may also hear... Illegal migrant/illegal immigrant/Illegal – these terms are problematic because they criminalize the person, rather than the act of entering or remaining irregularly in a country.  International law recognizes refugees may need to enter a country without official documents or authorization.  It would be misleading to describe them as “illegal migrants”.  Similarly, a person without status may have been coerced by traffickers: such a person should be recognized as a victim of crime, not treated as a wrong-doer.

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Distinguishes between common terms used to talk about refugee and immigrants in Canada and around the world, 2 pages. 2010.


Key refugee and immigration issues for women and girls

There have been many recent changes in immigration and refugee policies in Canada. How might these changes affect women and girls?

Reformed refugee determination system

Significant changes have been made recently to Canada’s refugee determination system, mostly taking effect on 15 December 2012. Key features are:

  • Very short timelines for filing forms and for the refugee hearing – many women will find they don’t have enough time to prepare for the refugee hearing. It takes time and trust to be ready to speak about traumatic experiences, especially sexual violence. Documentation of human rights abuses against women is not always readily available. It is also more difficult to meet short timelines if you are juggling childcare.
  • Barriers to legal representation – more claimants will be left unrepresented in the new system. Negotiating the refugee process without a lawyer is particularly difficult for women who have had limited access to education or relevant professional experience.
  • Designated countries of origin – some countries have been designated “safe” and claimants from these countries have even shorter timelines, no right of appeal and virtually no access to health care. Women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution will be among the worst affected by these discriminatory rules, since women’s rights are routinely violated in many countries that may appear generally “safe”.
  • Implementation of the appeal – more than ten years after Parliament passed a law giving refused refugee claimants a full appeal on the merits, this provision has finally been implemented! Unfortunately, many categories of claimants are denied this right. This means that, in some cases, a woman fleeing gender-based violence or persecution based on her sexual orientation will have her fate determined by a single decision-maker, with no opportunity for a second look to ensure a mistake was not made.
  • One-year bar on Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA) after a refugee claim has been refused – sometimes women’s grounds for fearing persecution are not properly heard when they make a claim together with their husband (who is often considered the “principal applicant”). The same applies to girls arriving with their families. The PRRA used to be an opportunity for women and girls to bring forward new evidence of risks they face, but now they can be deported without access to the PRRA.
  • Bar on refugee claimants making an application on humanitarian grounds (H&C) –in the past many women, including many who had suffered gender violence, were accepted under H&C after being refused in the refugee claim process. The new rules mean that most women will be deported before an H&C application can be reviewed.
  • Mandatory detention for designated “irregular arrivals” – some mothers detained long-term under these new provisions will face the painful choice of keeping their children incarcerated with them in detention or handing them over to a child welfare agency.

Cuts to refugee health care

Cuts made in June 2012 by the federal government to its Interim Federal Health (IFH) Program have left many refugees, refugee claimants and certain other non-citizens without coverage for essential health care services. Some people are without any coverage at all.

  • The cuts leave some pregnant women facing huge bills for prenatal and postnatal care, as well as deep anxiety about giving birth without access to medical care.

Resettlement and refugee family reunification – long delays

In many regions, particularly in Africa, processing is extremely slow for resettlement to Canada or for reunification with family members who are refugees in Canada.

  • Women and girls are forced to wait in precarious situations, where they are vulnerable to sexual assault, due to very long processing times.
  • Mothers in Canada separated from their children overseas experience extreme anguish during the long wait for reunification. Requests for DNA testing prolong the delays and impose a huge financial burden on recently arrived refugee women.

Conditional Permanent Residence

In October 2012, the federal government introduced “conditional” permanent residence for some sponsored spouses and partners for a period of two years. If they don’t remain with their sponsor throughout this period, their permanent residence could be revoked, and they could be deported.

  • Conditional permanent residence exposes women to increased power imbalance in the relationship and heightened risk of domestic violence.
  • There is an exception for sponsored partners in situations of abuse or neglect, but there are multiple barriers to accessing this exception.

Migrant workers in Canada

Canada has in recent years shifted dramatically towards temporary migration. At the end of 2012, there were over 300,000 Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, an increase of 70% over the past five years.

  • Workers in “low-skilled” streams of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, who include many women, are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including trafficking.
  • While the Canadian Experience Class offers a pathway to permanent status for some workers, statistics show that the class is less accessible to women.
  • By requiring workers to live with their employers, the Live-in Caregiver Program leaves women isolated and vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual abuse.


Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in persons, and new barriers to access to status in Canada only increase risks.

  • Despite the many recent changes in legislation, there have been no amendments to assure protection for trafficked women and girls. The existing mechanism of Temporary Residence Permits is not fully effective.

March 2013


There have been many recent changes in immigration and refugee policies in Canada. How might these changes affect women and girls?


Year in Review: Changes in 2012 for refugees and other newcomers to Canada

2012 brought many important and difficult changes for resettled refugees, refugee claimants and other newcomers to Canada. These changes mean that Canada is slipping in its respect for the basic rights of refugee and newcomer families. The mostly negative rhetoric accompanying the changes also makes Canada a less welcoming country.

Changes to refugee protection in Canada

Significant changes to Canada’s refugee determination system were introduced on 15 December 2012. Under the new system:

  • Refugee claimants face very short timelines to present their claims.
  • Claimants from 27 ‘Designated Countries of Origin’, so-called ‘safe’ countries, face even shorter timelines and have no right of appeal.
  • Refused refugee claimants cannot apply for pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) or humanitarian and compassionate consideration for one year.

All refugee claims should be treated fairly and equally, based on merit and independent of political considerations.

In addition, the law now allows the Minister of Public Safety to designate groups of two or more people, based on mode of arrival. Individuals designated face mandatory detention and a 5 year bar on family reunification, among other rights restrictions. Five groups were designated on 4 December.

On the positive side, some refused refugee claimants finally have access to a full appeal on the merits (although many are denied this right) and accepted refugees no longer face a 180-day time limit to apply for permanent residence, which complicated procedures and delayed family reunification for some in the past.  

Refugee resettlement: towards the transformation of refugee sponsorship?

A series of changes combine to suggest that Canadians will have less say over which refugees are resettled to Canada, but will be asked to pay for more. 

Private sponsorship of refugees in Canada must:

  • Be available to refugees everywhere in the world, without discrimination
  • Engage Canadians as true partners through private sponsorship
  • Have the government do its part to resettle refugees, based on need
  • In 2012, Sponsorship Agreement Holders for the first time faced caps on the numbers of refugees they could sponsor. Applications to four visa offices (Nairobi, Cairo, Pretoria and Islamabad) were under especially severe limits.
  • Since October, Groups of Five can only sponsor refugees who have already been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR or a State. Some vulnerable or marginalized refugees will be excluded.
  • More resettlement spaces are being allocated to priorities decided by the Minister, without consultation.
  • Private sponsors are being asked to provide partial support for refugees selected by the government, and for whom the government had previously committed full support (blended sponsorships).



Changes to refugee healthcare

On June 30, 2012, the federal government implemented cuts to its Interim Federal Health Program, which covers basic health care for refugees, refugee claimants and certain other non-citizens.

Everyone who lives in Canada should be entitled to an acceptable level of healthcare. Canadians are at their best when they treat refugees fairly and with respect.

The cuts have led to:

  • Confusion and anxiety for refugee claimants and others affected
  • Confusion for health care providers about patients' entitlements
  • Some people left without any health care coverage, including those waiting for an appointment in order to make a refugee claim
  • Some people left without any means of paying for necessary medications
  • The loss of psychological support services for refugees who are survivors of torture, rape or other organized violence
  • Groups sponsoring refugees now responsible for extra medical expenses, potentially deterring sponsors
  • Extremely divisive rhetoric pitting Canadian citizens against refugees


Precarious status, vulnerability to violence

Canada must return to a policy of permanent immigration to Canada. Special attention must be paid to situations of inequality between spouses and of potential violence and exploitation due to precarious status.

In 2012, the federal government implemented a period of “conditional permanent residence” for some sponsored spouses and partners. Under the new rules, if an affected spouse leaves his or her sponsor within two years of arrival in Canada, he or she could be stripped of permanent resident status and deported. This change increases the risk of conjugal violence.




Shifting from permanent to temporary labour

2012 has seen a series of changes, which reduce migrant workers’ rights:

Canada must return to a permanent immigration policy for all migrant workers, regardless of skill category, to address long-term employment needs. External oversight of employers must be mandatory. All migrant workers should gain access to settlement services.

  • Migrant workers can now legally be paid up to 15% less than their Canadian counterparts, for the same work.
  • Migrant workers applying for permanent residence through the Provincial Nominee Program must satisfy minimum language requirements, posing a significant barrier to many.
  • Migrant workers will be unable to access to Employment Insurance benefits, despite their contributions to the program.

There are increasing concerns that migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and even trafficking. 



Changes to Canadian citizenship applications

Citizenship should be accessible to all permanent residents, including refugees and stateless persons who have no other State to protect them.

Starting 1 November 2012, applicants for Canadian citizenship must provide proof of their English or French skills, at their own expense. Previously, the government assessed applicants’ language competencies.

The CCR is concerned that these new citizenship language requirements will place additional burdens on refugees and other vulnerable newcomers.