The Refugee Reform Proposals Won't Solve the Problem
April 5, 2010
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has introduced proposals to reform Canada’s badly broken asylum system.1 The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Government's hand had been forced. Claims have mushroomed 60 per cent after 2006 reaching over 37,000 in 2008. The backlog of claims awaiting decisions by the Immigration and Refugee Board is now over 60,000. It takes on average 19 months for a claimant to get a hearing. And even if a claim is refused as unfounded, which takes on average 4 1/2 years, it still often proves impossible to remove the claimant. Currently, there are over 53,000 failed asylum claimants that need to be removed from Canada. Only 15,000 of these are locatable and ready for removal. The remaining 38,000 have apparently disappeared and face outstanding immigration warrants.
The Government estimates that each failed refugee claim cost Canadian taxpayers $50,000, mostly to cover provincial social service and health costs, but also to cover legal costs. This means that the refused claims in 2008 alone cost us an estimated $1.07 billion dollars (37,000 claims times the 58 per cent refusal rate times $50,000 for rejected claimant). The cost of Canada's refugee system has spiralled out of control. Adding in the cost of approved claims, the total cost of Canada's refugee program must approach the $1.850 USD billion spent by the UNHCR in 2008 and certainly dwarfs Canada's $42.8 million USD contribution to the UNHCR in that same year.2
Another problem was that burgeoning refugee claims had forced the government to put visa requirements on the Czech Republic and Mexico. This threatened to damage our relations with these important trading partners and in the case of the Czech Republic, the European Union as well. Something obviously had to be done.
The question that obsesses those concerned with refugee policy is always how to determine who is a refugee under the UN Convention definition or whatever looser definition is currently in favour.3 It has also been accepted since the Supreme Court 1985 Singh decision that everyone who sets a foot in Canada has a right to make a refugee claim and is entitled to the full protection of the law under the Charter and due process right up to an appeal to the Supreme Court. This is why it takes so long to deport a refugee claimant whose claim is refused and why it currently costs the Government so much per failed claimant. It is also why so many people find it so attractive to make asylum claims in Canada.
The Government's response is a series of half measures designed to prevent a further deterioration, while at the same time seeking to placate Canada's refugee lobby. They include, most notably:
The establishment of a list of safe countries, increasing resources, initial review of claims by public servants, and the other proposed steps to expedite review will be helpful in stemming the growing backlog of refugee claimants from countries that do not normally produce "real" refugees. But the establishment of another level of appeal, which will be available to a large proportion of refugees, could easily negate any improvements produced by measures designed to reduce refugee claims and deal with them more expeditiously. And raising the refugee target is just an attempt to appease refugee advocates likely to oppose other aspects of the Government's proposals.
A key question is: whether Canada is meeting its international obligations to take in refugees? Any way you look at it the answer is yes. According to the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, Canada resettled more refugees than any other countries than the United States and Australia (Table 1). And Canada took in more than a sixth as many immigrants as the United States, which was the number one country for refugee resettlement and ten times larger. No one can convincingly argue on the basis of the evidence that Canada is not doing its part and needs to do more.
Resettlement arrivals of refugees, 2008
|Country of arrival||Total|
* United States: refers to US Fiscal Year.
Source:, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2008 Global Trends.
Asylum seekers are those who come to Canada to gain admittance as refugees. A very strong case can be made that it is the ease of securing admittance to Canada and remaining for a considerable period of time in conjunction with the generosity of Canada's social welfare and health programs for refugees that is behind the high share of claims for asylum that are made in Canada. Canada's acceptance rate for asylum claims in 2009 was higher than in the other main countries receiving claims except for the United States (Table 2). And, until that year, it was even higher than the United States.
Acceptance rate of asylum claimants in 2009
Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada,
Backgrounder How Canada’s proposed reforms to the asylum system compare internationally.
The high acceptance rate in combination with the difficulty of deporting failed claimants has resulted in Canada having the third greatest number of asylum claims in the world in 2009, only falling behind the much larger United States and France (Table 3). Asylum claims in Canada were two-thirds of those in the United States and much higher than in many larger countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. In 2008 refugee claims in Canada were even higher. Then Canada was ranked second in the world in the number of refugee claims.
Asylum claims submitted in 10 major receiving countries in 2009
Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees,
Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries 2009:
Statistical Overview of Asylum Applications Lodged in Europe and Selected Non-European Countries.
An issue that has been totally neglected by the Conservative Government and even by commentators in the current discussion of refugee policy is its implications for Canada’s security. It's always taken as given that Canada has to accept refugees as an international obligation under the UN Convention on Refugees. Otherwise Canada will be looked down on by other countries, most of which, of course, do not take as many refugees proportionally unless they are forced on them by wars and other events spilling across their borders.
In contrast to the attention paid to the rights of refugees and Canada's international obligations, the impact on Canada of admitting refugees has been totally neglected in the recent discussion of the reform of refugee policy. One obvious overlooked negative impact is the increased risk of terrorism that has resulted from admitting refugees from countries with terrorism problems. While the claimants themselves may not pose a problem if properly screened (and there are real questions of whether this is indeed the case), the refugees admitted almost always serve as a catalyst for family class and more refugee claims from their countries of origin, thus augmenting the size of their diaspora communities. And it can't be denied that these communities often get involved in some pretty nasty terrorist activities in their home countries.
The list of former refugee claimants from Muslim countries who turned out to be terrorists in disguise is long and sordid. Ahmed Ressam, the notorious Millennium bomber, was admitted to Canada as a refugee. And some Somalis, whose presence in the country stemmed from a refugee claim, either their own or one of their relatives, have gone back to Somalia to participate in the jihad and there is a real risk that they may bring it back with them to North America. Sikh refugees from India were involved in the Air India bombing a quarter century ago. Many Tamil Tiger leaders also gained entrance to Canada as refugees.
Real refugees should be fleeing conflicts in their homelands and should not be allowed to continue to participate, from a distance by providing material support for terrorist activities or worse by returning to fight. This should be made clear to all refugee claimants when they are admitted to Canada. Indeed, they should be required to sign a pledge to that effect. Any serious violations should be punishable by deportation and revocation of Canadian citizenship.
It is a sad fact that our standing in the international community has not been enhanced by Canada's generous refugee policy as is alleged by many refugee support groups. Instead, it has been severely tarnished by the participation of so many new Canadians, many, but not all, of whom gained access as refugees, in terrorist acts overseas. These include: the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing in New York; the 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa; the 1995 blast at the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad; the murder of 58 tourists in Egypt in 1997; the 1997 truck explosion in Sri Lanka that killed 100; the bloody Bali night club bombings in 2002; and the 2003 attack on the housing compound in Riyadh; the Mumbai attack in 2008. It is incredible that Canada, a country that takes so much pride in its role in promoting international peace and security, can be linked to so many grisly events. The reputation of no other country has been besmirched by a similar infamous litany. It is the result of inadequate security screening of all immigrants, including refugees.
And there’s still more. Nur Chowdhury, who was convicted of participating in the assassination of Bangladesh's founder, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, in 1976, came to Canada as a refugee claimant. And now he can't be sent back home as requested by the Bangladesh government because of a pending death sentence. This is just another striking example of how Canada's policy of refusing to deport convicted terrorists tarnishes its international reputation. Taking these events into consideration, it is hard to see how anyone can argue that Canada's overly generous refugee policy has done it any good in the international arena.
Another risk (which is impossible to document except anecdotally because of the Government's failure to collect crime statistics based on ethnicity and origin) is the increase in criminal activities and gangs traceable to refugees from particular countries. If Canada is going to effectively protect its own citizens from terrorism and crime, it is going to have to find some way to take into account the risk of contributing to the growth of criminal activity in its assessment of refugees.
Under the UN Convention for Refugees anyone who has been convicted of a serious crime or is a terrorist is not even eligible to apply for refugee status. Yet the Government still proposes to let anyone apply before doing a serious security check. After 9/11 arrivals who claimed persecution started to be subjected to computer checks, but the checks are only superficial. The Americans are well aware of Canada’s vulnerability and our refusal to take security seriously and have responded accordingly to our disadvantage by tightening the border.
Canada's police and intelligence agencies needs to monitor terrorist and criminal behaviour in diaspora communities. And those communities that cause more serious problems need to be subjected to much more careful scrutiny when making refugee claims.
It is ironic that Canada is now proposing to make it more difficult for refugees from certain safe countries, and provide an additional avenue of appeal (the new RAD) for refugees from countries that have contributed so much to Canada's terrorism and crime problems. And in an otherwise excellent article on the proposed reforms, Margaret Wente implied that Somalis were the real refugees who deserve our compassion and whom we should be seeking to admit. This view obviously does not take into consideration the tendency of many of Somali refugees and their children to remain involved in their countries internal struggles and even to return home, after being admitted to Canada as refugees.
The Government has demonstrated that Canada's refugee policy is careening off the rails and that something needs to be done. However, it has failed to recognize that Canada also needs to take steps to make sure that its refugee policy does not compromise our security from both from terrorism and crime. Minister Kenney's proposed changes, not only do nothing much to improve the situation, but paradoxically could even make it worse by adding in another costly legal avenue of appeal that could make the process of deporting failed refugee claimants from countries with terrorism problems more lengthy and costly. And ironically it's not even clear that his proposed remedy will prevent the further escalation of claims and costs it is designed to stop.
1. This paper talks of the reform of refugee policy. This concerns both asylum status and refugee status, which are closely related and only differ in the place where a person asks for the status. Resettlement as a refugee must be arranged outside of Canada, whereas asylum must be requested in Canada. However, all people who are granted asylum are supposed to meet the definition of a refugee. But in Canada, this definition has been very liberally applied to cover many people who would not strictly qualify as a refugee under the UN Convention definition.
3. Under Article 1 of the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, "the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who:...owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."