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.


Myths and Facts - Protecting Refugees from Bill C-31

On February 16, 2012, the government introduced Bill C-31, an Act to Protect Canada’s Refugee Determination System. Fierce rhetoric accompanied the launch of a bill that protects systems, not refugees. Here is what you need to know.

Myth 1: Bill C-31 strengthens the fairness and integrity of Canada’s immigration and refugee programs.


  • It creates a discriminatory two-tier refugee determination system, making it difficult for “irregular arrivals” and refugees from “designated countries of origin” to receive a full and fair hearing of their claim’s merits and denying an appeal.
  • It places broad discretionary powers in the hands of the Minister of Immigration and the Minister of Public Safety, rendering decisions about irregular arrivals and designated countries of origin vulnerable to political, trade or military considerations, and to individual bias.
  • It imposes strict, unrealistic new timelines, denying time for refugees to understand the process and to prepare cases. Women victims of sexual violence and LGBTQ refugees who find it difficult to relay their experiences will be especially vulnerable.
  • It provides for minimum 1-year detention, or until claims are decided, for irregular arrivals who will now face triple punishment – by their countries, their smugglers, and Canada.
  • It separates children under 16 years of age from their parents, placing children among irregular arrivals in foster care or detaining them, thereby hurting families.
  • It imposes a 5-year bar on applying for permanent residence for “irregular arrivals”, prolonging uncertainty and separating spouses and children until applications are processed (thus, more than 5 years).
  • It renders humanitarian and compassionate consideration ineffective, imposing a 1-year delay (after an unsuccessful claim) on applications for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds – refused claimants will be deported in the meantime.
  • It contains new measures to revoke a person’s permanent resident status, allowing Canada to deport refugees years after they were granted protection.

Myth 2: Canada’s refugee system is broken and refugees are to blame.


The high number of vacancies at the IRB had a significant impact on its capacity to process cases on a timely basis. The inventory of unresolved cases reached an exceptionally high level - the IRB vacancy rate in March 2008 was 35%.[1] Under-resourcing the system has created backlogs.

Myth 3: Bill C-31 meets Canada’s Charter and international obligations.


As a party to both the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Against Torture, Canada must protect refugees from persecution and torture and every case must be examined on its merits. Applying accelerated timelines to groups of people and denying them an appeal will thwart fair decisions and prevent the correction of mistakes.
The Supreme Court of Canada decided in 2007 that unreviewed, lengthy detention violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[2] Bill C-31 provides mandatory, unreviewed detention of “irregular arrivals” for a minimum of 1 year, or until claims are decided.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 9.1) prohibits arbitrary detention (i.e. without judicial review). Canada also has obligations to protect the family under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 12), the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (art. 10) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 9). Bill C-31 will separate families.

Myth 4: Europe doesn’t produce refugees.


UN experts say, “Roma people are still widely excluded from the public and political life of many countries. Access to justice is hampered for Roma people who are also vulnerable to the rise of extremism in Europe. Racist violence by private and public actors, including the police is also of concern.”[3] Human Rights Watch has “documented racist and xenophobic violence directed particularly against Roma and migrants – and inadequate police protection – in a number of EU member states, including Italy, Greece, and Hungary.”[4] France has deported thousands of Roma to their home countries. Italy has, as well, and demolished their encampments.
The acceptance rate in 2008 for Roma refugee claimants in Canada was 43%;[5] today they are afraid they won’t get a fair hearing from a government that loudly insists they are “bogus.”

Myth 5: Provisions in Bill C-31 will save tax dollars.


Provisions in Bill C-31 will be very costly. Mandatory detention of “irregular arrivals” for a minimum of one year could cost $70,000 per claimant.[6] Refugee claimants from “designated countries” won’t be able to apply for work permits for at least 6 months, forcing them onto social assistance. And, mandatory detention will incur long-term mental health costs.

Myth 6: Harsh policies will stop smugglers and asylum seekers arriving by boat.


It is unfair and immoral to punish refugees to deter smugglers - and it won’t work. Refugees fleeing desperate situations do what is needed to save their lives and their families. They rarely know the policies at their destination.
Australia tried “Temporary Protection Visas” to stop unauthorized arrivals, requiring refugees to reapply for protection years later, limiting services, and barring family reunification. In 2008, they were abolished. “TPVs did not have any deterrent effect. Indeed, there was an increase in the number of women and children making dangerous journeys to Australia.”[7] TPVs are almost exactly what Bill C-31 proposes.

Myth 7: Reform is necessary.


Bill C-31 overturns a positive consensus among all parties reached in 2010 in Bill C-11, which the Minister of Immigration described as ‘a remarkable spirit of cooperation.”[8] Arrivals of refugees by boat - like the MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady - attract sensational media attention and create logistical challenges, but don’t constitute a crisis. They represent a small percentage of claims made in Canada (just 2% in 2010). Laws are already in place to deal with such situations.

[1]Office of the Auditor General of Canada,, 2009.

[2]Charkaoui v. Canada,, 2007.

[3]Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,, June 2011.

[4]Human Rights Watch,, March 2012.

[5] Lives in the Balance,, June 2009.

[6]Office of the Auditor General of Canada,, May 2008.

[7]Government of Australia, Department of Immigration and Citizenship,, August 2008.

[8]Min. Jason Kenney on the Balanced Refugee Reform Act,, June 2010.

A two-page brief to address myths circulating about refugee claimants in Canada, especially regarding Bill C-31, a bill that protects systems, not refugees.

What We Want for Refugees: Four faces, four values


We want refugees to be treated fairly and honourably, in a process that is independent and affordable. These are Canadian values and treating refugees in this way is good for Canada and good for refugees. Check out this two-page overview to find out more about our vision for refugees in Canada and what we can do together to achieve this. 2 pages, 2011.

Myths and Facts 2011


Myth 1: Refugee claimants are “queue jumpers”.

False. There is no queue for refugees. International law guarantees to people fleeing persecution the right to go to another country and seek asylum – that is why we have a refugee determination system.

If your life is in danger, you run. You don’t stand still and wait for help to come to you. Different rules apply to refugees because their lives are at stake.

These different rules were adopted following the Second World War when many countries, including Canada, had closed the door on Jewish refugees. Canada recently commemorated the tragic turning away of the MS St Louis, many of whose passengers were killed by the Nazis after Canada denied them entry. We do not want to go back to those days.

Myth 2: Refugees are required to make a refugee claim in the nearest or first country they reach.

False. International law says nothing about where refugees must claim. Refugees do whatever they can to reach a country they hope will be safe – and that country has an obligation to protect any refugees on their territory.

In the case of Sri Lankan refugees, almost none of the countries in their own region have signed the Refugee Convention and many of them offer little or no protection to refugees. In Thailand, for example, Sri Lankan refugees face at best a precarious life without status, or else arrest, detention and possible return to Sri Lanka. Staying in Thailand is not a solution.

Since Canada is far from most places that refugees are fleeing, very few refugees can make it here. It would be unfair to suggest that even those few should not come here, but rather go to other countries that already receive many more refugees than Canada.

Myth 3: People who use smugglers are less likely to be refugees in need of protection.

False. People fleeing persecution often have no choice but to turn to smugglers to help them escape. What would you do if your life was threatened and you needed to get out?

How people arrive in Canada tells us nothing about why they left. To decide if they need our protection we need to know why they left and what dangers they would face if they returned.  We have a refugee determination system to find this out.

Many –  maybe most – refugees have used smugglers to get to Canada. This is true whether they came by plane, land or boat. There has been a lot of focus on the fact that passengers on the MV Sun Sea may have paid smugglers. But this is just as much the case for refugee claimants who did not arrive by boat – so why the fixation on the boat?

Myth 4: Smugglers are increasingly targeting Canada.

Where is the evidence for this?  Refugees using smugglers to get to Canada is nothing new.

The number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada has been going dramatically DOWN (10,000 fewer in 2010 than in 2009).

Myth 5: Harsh policies will stop smugglers and asylum seekers arriving by boat.

It is unfair and immoral to punish refugees in an attempt to deter smugglers. It is also not going to work. Refugees are fleeing desperate situations and will do whatever they need to do to save their lives. They rarely know anything about the policies in place in the country they arrive in – sometimes they don’t even know where they are going.

Australia tried the strategy of punitive measures to discourage refugee arrivals: it didn’t work. When the Australian government abolished their “Temporary Protection Visas” in 2008 they explained that they had not achieved their intended purpose: “The evidence clearly shows, however, that TPVs did not have any deterrent effect. Indeed, there was an increase in the number of women and children making dangerous journeys to Australia.”[1]

“Temporary Protection Visas” are almost exactly what is proposed in Canada’s Bill C-49. Why would we want to adopt a policy that has already been shown to fail elsewhere?

Myth 6: We have to be particularly cautious with the Sri Lankans arriving by boat because they might be terrorists or criminals.

There is no reason to think that wrong-doers are more likely to arrive by boat than by other means. No sophisticated terrorists are going to put themselves on a long and uncomfortable boat trip, knowing that they will be subjected to intense scrutiny by the government.

The government is putting a lot of time and resources into investigating the passengers who arrived on the MV Sun Sea. It is not clear that this is rationally justified. The long-term detention and disproportionate investigations are costing the tax-payer a lot of money.

Myth 7: The UN has said that Tamils are no longer at risk in Sri Lanka.

False. In July 2010 the UNHCR issued new guidelines that recognized the evolving situation in Sri Lanka.[2] They advised that it is no longer necessary to presume that Tamils from the north are at risk, but they also said that all claims by Sri Lankans must be examined on their individual merits. They note that groups potentially at risk of persecution in Sri Lanka include journalists, human rights activists, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and persons suspected of having links with the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).

Myth 8: Canadians are asking for harsh measures against people who arrive by boat.

The harsh measures in Bill C-49 have been rejected by all opposition parties and condemned as illegal and punitive by a wide range of faith, rights, labour, community and legal groups.[3] The government did no consultation prior to tabling the bill and many of the groups said to support the bill were later revealed not to be fully behind it or to be extremely marginal.[4]

Most Canadians of course want to be tough on smugglers, but Bill C-49 punishes refugees. The Canadian Council for Refugees firmly believes that most Canadians do not want refugees, including children, to be jailed as punishment for seeking protection.

What is really going on?

The arrival of almost 500 claimants by boat certainly represents a logistical challenge, but it is not a crisis. The boat arrivals represent only 2% of the claims made in Canada last year. We have laws in place to deal with such situations. The long-term detention of the passengers, including mothers with children, is not justified by the facts.

Unfortunately we are seeing in Canada a pattern of anti-refugee rhetoric, familiar to many other countries. In Australia and in Europe politicians have promoted myths and fear-mongering about refugees as a way of tapping into racist and xenophobic popular sentiments, in order to win votes. This is a short-term strategy that is destructive to society. Why would Canada follow such a negative example?

Governments have a responsibility to defend our legal obligations towards refugees and promote the positive value of a welcoming refugee policy.


[1] Fact Sheet 68 - Abolition of Temporary Protection visas (TPVs) and Temporary Humanitarian visa (THVs), and the Resolution of Status (subclass 851) visa, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Canberra. Revised 9 August 2008.

[2] UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka, 5 July 2010,

[4] Globe and Mail, “Human smuggling bill endorsements not all they seem”, November 7, 2010, Heather Scoffield,


A two-page brief to address myths circulating about refugee claimants in Canada, especially the passengers of the MV Sun Sea who arrived in 2010.