Refugee Claimants in Canada: Some Facts


There has been considerable recent media coverage about refugee claimants arriving in Canada.  The following information is provided in order to give more context and correct some misinformation. 

  • Canada is not being “inundated” by refugee claimants.  There is neither a “tsunami” nor a “flood” of refugee claimants entering Canada.  Inflammatory and hyperbolic rhetoric like this distorts the truth and does a disservice to those who are fleeing human rights abuses and need Canada’s protection.  In reality the number of claims has gone up in recent months, but this is normal: numbers always fluctuate from month to month and from year to year:
    • In 2001, there were close to 45,000 claims made.  In 2005, there were fewer than 20,000. 
    • Numbers fluctuate seasonally.  In each of the last three years, the months of August and September saw more claims than June and July.
    • A bus filled with 40 people wishing to make claims is insignificant in relation to the overall number of claims.  It represents only a small fraction of 1% of the total number of claims likely to be made in the year.
    • Most claims in Canada are made from within Canada at an immigration office (62% in 2006).  About a third of all claims are made at the Etobicoke office (which covers Toronto).  Claims at the land border represented only 1 in 5 claims made in 2006.
    • The number of claimants in Canada is trivial compared with many other countries.  Syria is hosting over a million Iraqi refugees.  This is equivalent, on a per capita basis, to Canada receiving over two million refugees.
  • Very few Mexicans have come to Canada from the U.S. to make a refugee claim.  Prior to the arrivals of Mexicans from the U.S. in the last few weeks, there were virtually no Mexicans making refugee claims at the U.S-Canada border.  The overwhelming majority of the Mexican claimants in Canada have been coming directly from Mexico.
  • Some Mexicans have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country and need Canada’s protection.  There are significant human rights abuses occurring in Mexico.  In fact, Canada has been criticized by the UN Committee Against Torture for failing to offer refugee protection to a Mexican survivor of torture, Enrique Falcon Rios. [See release]
  • Some people make a claim in Canada after having been abused and exploited by unscrupulous agents who sell false information.  Some have been told that there is a special program for people of their nationality or that they can apply for a work permit and then proceed to permanent residence.  Having arrived in Canada and found that the information is false, they are often in a much worse situation than before they came to Canada. [See notice warning against false information]
  • Many refugee assistance organizations in Canada and the U.S. are working hard to ensure that people have accurate information about Canada’s refugee programs.  Unfortunately, they are now feeling threatened by the Canadian government, which has sent a strong message of intimidation by arresting a representative of such an organization, Janet Hinshaw Thomas, and charging her with “aiding and abetting” refugees.  [See release]  Meanwhile, people known to be taking money in exchange for false information about Canada’s programs are not facing prosecution. 
  • There is a growing backlog of claims in the refugee determination system because of a longstanding failure by the Canadian government to appoint sufficient Board members to make decisions.  The Immigration and Refugee Board is short more than a third of its members.  The backlog not only causes hardship for refugees who must wait years to receive protection, but also acts as an incentive for people to make a claim in Canada, even if they expect that their claim will eventually be refused. [See release]
  • U.S. policies and practices have an impact on claims made in Canada.  Although the Canadian government has designated the U.S. as a “safe country” for refugees, many refugees are not in fact safe in the U.S.  The failure of the U.S. to provide asylum to many refugees who need it leads some refugees to turn to Canada for protection.  Similarly, the failure of the U.S. to address the problem of its undocumented population leads some to grasp at promises of something better in Canada.  In late 2002 and early 2003, the U.S. Special Registration program (NSEERS), which targeted males from mostly Muslim countries, led to a significant increase in claims in Canada from nationals of those countries.  Some claimants arriving in Canada have U.S. citizen children, but feel they have no prospect of achieving status in the U.S.  Some report having fled to Canada because of rumours that they would be deported and their children taken away from them.
  • Since December 2004, the U.S. has been designated by Canada as a safe third country for refugees.  This means that most asylum seekers are ineligible to make a claim at the U.S.-Canada land border.  If they attempt to do so, they are immediately returned to the U.S. where they may be detained.  This has been the fate of some of the people given wrong information about Canada’s programs.  There are some exceptions to the safe third country rule, including for Mexicans and Haitians.  [See FAQs]
  • Like all other countries, Canada has international human rights obligations towards refugees.  Canada must not, directly or indirectly, send a refugee to face persecution or torture.  In order to comply with this obligation, Canada must make an individual determination of whether a person claiming refugee status would face persecution or torture before removing the person.
  • Refugee claimants in Canada are eligible for basic social assistance and emergency health care.  This is a matter of basic human dignity: no one wants to see people starving or bleeding to death on the streets.  However, under current law, refugee claimants are entitled to only the bare minimum: they do not, for example, receive full health coverage or child tax benefits.  Many claimants do not want to rely on social assistance and find work as soon as they can.  They pay taxes, which go towards services for Canadians to which they themselves are not entitled.
  • Refugees are persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country.  Refugee claimants are persons who are asking for protection: they may or may not be refugees.  A refugee claimant is not an “illegal immigrant”, a term that is in any case demeaning as it transfers the illegality to the person and no one is illegal.  There is no such category as “economic refugee”.  [See glossary]