The Federal government’s refugee laws and policies are shrouded by myths and misinformation.

The circulation of these myths is one of the biggest barriers to understanding the issues affecting asylum seekers and refugees in Canada. This page highlights some common myths about refugees to correct the record and provide accurate information.

Common myths about refugees:

By any standard, per capita or total number of refugees received, Canada comes somewhere in the middle of host countries, neither the largest nor the smallest. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that at the end of 2011, there were 42.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, of which 15.2 million were refugees, which, by definition, means someone outside of their home country, seeking refugee protection. The overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees are situated in the developing world, countries like Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Kenya and even tiny Ecuador. Most refugees flee to their neighbouring countries, and are unable to travel overseas to make refugee claims. Given Canada’s geographic location, it is exceedingly difficult for refugee claimants to reach Canadian territory. In 2011, Canada accepted approximately 13,000 refugees through the UNHCR resettlement program, the second highest number after the United States of America.

In 2012, Canada received slightly fewer than 25,000 refugee claims. Although the number of annual claims can go up or down, 25,000 claims has been the approximate annual average for more than 20 years. Similarly, the number of accepted refugees who became permanent residents in 2011 was approximately 13% of the total number of immigrants. This is a stable number that has not changed significantly in 20 years.

Refugees are, by definition, people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted. It is often impossible or too dangerous for them to obtain passports or proper travel visas to leave their countries of origin. Often they must cross borders without any documents. The United Nations Refugee Convention, to which Canada is a signatory, allows refugee claimants to use false documents or no documents to escape persecution. In Canada, refugees cannot be prosecuted for using false travel documents or arriving without any documents.

Refugee camps are not the “regular” or “normal channels” for refugee claimants to seek protection. Refugee claimants need not faithfully go to refugee camps and “wait their turn”. The United Nations system of international refugee protection allows refugees two primary means of seeking protection: going to a refugee camp or asking for protection from any country signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, such as Canada. Refugee camps are not orderly processing centers where claimants arrive, take a number, and are processed in a systematic fashion. Many refugee claimants cannot reach refugee camps, and those that do, are not guaranteed protection. In fact, most refugee claimants who end up in refugee camps are never resettled.

The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has repeatedly referred to failed, abandoned, or withdrawn refugee claims as “bogus”. This is a gross misrepresentation. Many rejected claimants have a real fear of persecution but may not satisfy the refugee definition for technical reasons. Most rejected claimants do not understand why they have been refused. Claims are sometimes abandoned or withdrawn by well-intentioned claimants who are unable to get legal assistance, who receive bad legal advice from lawyers or consultants, or who are victims of smuggler organizations. This does not make them “bogus”. Their search for protection is genuine. In addition, too many claims have been incorrectly decided by the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board with no right of appeal to correct the mistakes. A new Refugee Appeal Division has been introduced into the law but will not begin to hear appeals until March, 2013.

Under Canada’s new refugee system, passed in June, 2012, designated groups of refugees, men, women and children over the age of fifteen can be mandatorily detained for up to one year as a means to deter specific refugee flows. The government has said that the new mandatory detention policies will help combat human smuggling. Mandatory detention is an irrational, ineffective, and expensive response to human smuggling. The detention provisions in the new law do not target human smugglers, as they require no wrongdoing, or even suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the people who will be detained. Imprisoning persecuted and vulnerable people – who have committed no crime and are often the targets of criminal activity – is not the correct way to combat human smuggling.

Refugee claimants who arrive in Canada by boat are not “jumping the queue” or bypassing the “proper” process of applying for refugee protection. Refugees have an internationally protected right to seek asylum, whether they arrive by boat, plane, or foot. There is no queue.

The Canadian government has frequently characterized Roma refugees as “bogus”. This characterization is unfounded and incorrect. Canadian and international human rights experts, scholars, courts, and government bodies have documented deep and longstanding violence and discrimination against Roma people in Europe and around the world. Some Roma, 17% of claims heard in 2012, were found to be Convention refugees by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Refugee claimants do not pose threats to Canada’s national security – they are seeking security and protection from threats to their own lives. Canadian law excludes refugee claimants if they are found to be inadmissible on the basis of national security, serious criminality, organized criminality or human rights violations. Refugee claimants go through a front-end security screening, in place since November 2001.  Through this process, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service checks all refugee claimants on arrival in Canada.  Since the screening was put in place, the number of claimants found to represent any kind of security concern has been statistically insignificant.

The new system implemented December 15, 2012, imposes unrealistic time limits for refugee claimants to prove their claims. Claimants will not have enough time to find a lawyer, get legal aid, provide a written explanation of their claim, and get the evidence to prove their claim. Many claimants will have to prepare the paperwork and appear at their hearing without legal representation. They will not have enough time to appeal bad decisions. They will be unable to ask for a humanitarian exception to their removal. The time limits are unjust, unrealistic, and devoid of fairness. They do nothing to ensure fast, fair and efficient refugee decisions, and will result in grave injustices.

Under Canada’s new refugee system, refugees from “designated countries of origin” – which the government declares to be “safe” countries for refugees – will be subject to extreme restrictions and denied rights. This system is flawed and unfair. There are no “safe” or “unsafe” countries for refugees. There are only “safe” or “unsafe” circumstances. In many countries that seem peaceful and safe, certain minority groups are subject to persecution, discrimination, and violence, often with the participation of state officials, even in allegedly democratic countries. The Minister’s broad powers to designate certain countries as “safe” not only risks denying protection to genuine refugees, it also makes Canada’s refugee protection system vulnerable to inappropriate political, trade, military and diplomatic influences.

Refugee claimants have never enjoyed a “gold-plated” health care system as alleged by the federal government. Before July 1, 2012, refugee claimants did not receive better health care than Canadians. They received health care roughly similar to that of welfare recipients in most provinces. On July 1, 2012, the federal government drastically cut health care benefits to all refugee claimants and to privately sponsored refugees. None receive preventative health care or medications. Some receive care and medication benefits for serious health risks only. Others receive health care only if their condition threatens the health or security of Canadians.

The changes to Canada’s refugee system, implemented by the government under the new law, violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, undermine Canada’s humanitarian traditions, and contravene Canada’s international refugee protection obligations. The law is bad policy: it creates a manifestly unfair system and marks an attack on refugee rights of the kind not witnessed since the “none is too many” era. The law does nothing to protect the integrity of Canada’s human right record. It fundamentally undermines it.