Seeking refuge: challenges and changes in the Canadian refugee system

For many Canadians, Canada Day translates to a long weekend of backyard barbeques, firework displays and red and white face paint. But for thousands of refugee claimants, awaiting decisions from the Immigration and Refugee Board, the significance of Canadian citizenship goes far beyond July 1 festivities.

The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, over 24,900 people came to Canada and made a refugee claim in 2011.

Since ratifying the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1969, Canada has established an internationally acknowledged record of accepting refugees. At various times in history, Canada has been at the forefront of legislation protecting refugees. For example Canada was early to accept fear of gender-based coming-of-age-rituals as a legitimate reason for fleeing a country.

“That became a landmark moment in refugee arbitration,” said Joshua Labove, a PhD student specializing in border security and immigration, and member of Simon Fraser University’s Geography department.

Refugees make their way to Canada in one of two ways. Through the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, refugees living in impermanent situations (often refugee camps) are selected by the government or private organizations, and moved to Canada, where they can settle permanently. Through the In-Canada-Asylum program, refugees arrive in Canada and claim asylum. This can prove to be a lengthy process.

Refugees entering Canada must make their claim for asylum when they first enter the country. A member of Citizenship and Immigration Canada hears this claim. If Citizenship and Immigration Canada find the claimant eligible to enter Canada, the case is forwarded to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, who reviews the claim either through a full hearing or an expedited process.

While the procedure appears relatively simple, it is often financially and emotionally difficult. According to a Toronto Star article, the average claim in 2008-09 took 16.5 months, and cost $4,100.

Arrival in Canada is made particularly difficult by the unique “safe third country” agreement with the United States. This unique arrangement requires refugees to claim asylum in whichever country they first arrive.

This arrangement is problematic: while the United States is more accessible, the Canadian system is more desirable for asylum seekers. “The refugee process in Canada is long and protracted, but not nearly as politicized and criminalized as in the United States. In the US, refugees are often incarcerated,” explained Labove.

Even refugees who arrive directly in Canada are faced with what Labove calls a "draining" procedures. 

Asylum-seekers may be greeted with skepticism from the government, public, and media. Labove referred to the August 2010 arrival of the MV Sun Sea, a boat carrying nearly 500 Tamils seeking asylum in Canada, as an example of this skepticism.

“The province [BC] did a frighteningly thorough job of chronicling the Tamil refugees.”

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