Research on Refugees

Much has been written about Canada’s extensively-abused refugee system. Here are four important items on the issue. We provide a link to the first and complete articles for the remaining three.

(1) Canada’s Dysfunctional Refugee Determination System (By Stephen Gallagher)

(2) A Defence of The Safe Country Concept (2002)By James Bissett

(3) Stop Bogus Refugees Before They Get In (2007) By James Bissett

(4) Fixing The Refugee Mess (2002) By Daniel Stoffman


(1) Canada’s Dysfunctional Refugee Determination System
Canadian Asylum Policy from a Comparative Perspective (Dr. Stephen Gallagher, Professor Of Political Science, Concordia University, Montreal)

Executive Summary

Long Paper


(2) A Defence Of The Safe Country Concept by James Bissett, Retired Canadian Ambassador and Former Executive Director, Canadian Immigration Service, 1985 to 1990


In late June of this year, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and United States Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, announced a thirty point smart border plan designed to improve security along the US/Canadian border.

Included in the plan is a provision to declare the United States a safe country for refugees. This provision if approved by the legislators of both countries will mean that some of the people arriving at Canadian land border points from the United States will no longer be allowed to make a refugee claim in Canada.

This is a long overdue first step in the direction of reforming Canadas dysfunctional inland refugee system.

The possibility of the United States being declared a safe country for refugees has outraged refugee activists, immigration lawyers and non-governmental organizations that receive Government funding to look after refugee claimants after their arrival in Canada.

These groups protest that the United States is not a safe country for refugees, despite the fact that country is also a signatory to the UN refugee Convention and accepts 53 percent of refugee applicants compared to Canadas acceptance rate of 57percent. These traditionally staunch defenders of an open door policy for people claiming flight from persecution further insist that anyone entering Canada should have the right to make a claim for refugee status.

These groups also have been highly successful in ensuring that Canadas asylum system has remained resistant to any attempt at badly needed reform. It was primarily through their lobbying efforts that the Mulroney government failed to enact the safe country section of the 1989 refugee legislation, thus effectively negating that legislation and opening Canada up to thousands of illegal immigrants posing as refugees [ more than 400,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada since 1989.]

These same groups lobbied hard for passage of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act approved in November 2002. This legislation made it easier for people to claim refugee status and more difficult to remove those who were found not to be genuine. This was done by broadening the definition of refugee accepted by the United Nations; adding yet a further level of appeal for refused cases at the Immigration and Refugee Board [IRB]; and formalizing and requiring a pre-removal risk review before anyone could be removed from the country.

Even before this new legislation was introduced Canada had the most generous asylum system in the world. Consequently, there did not appear to be any rational reason for making the most generous system even more generous- but strong lobbying by the special interest groups managed to convince a willing Government to proceed. The timing was ill advised and the legislation itself bordered on the irresponsible. Notwithstanding hard evidence that Canada was rapidly becoming the country of choice for human smuggling by criminal organizations and despite strong evidence that a number of asylum seekers were known to be associated with al Qaeda terrorists, our Members of Parliament showed no concern. The Bill proceeded through the House of Commons unchanged.

Surprisingly, the legislation did not even stimulate any serious debate nor did it meet with any effective opposition in Parliament. The Bill was under debate before the House of Commons when the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place. Later, during hearings in the Senate, a former Assistant Clerk of the Privy Council and three former Ambassadors appeared before the Senate Committee. They argued the Bill was seriously flawed and asked, in the light of the September events, that it be returned to the House of Commons to strengthen the security sections. The Senate Committee ignored this plea and rapidly approved the Bill, with little public fanfare.

Quite apart from the events on September 11, it was evident that the new Canadian legislation was out of step with the other asylum receiving countries. While Western European countries, the United States and Australia were tightening up their asylum systems, Canada was moving in the opposite direction.

Countries that are signatories to the United Nations Convention Relating to Refugees are thereby obliged to protect people fleeing persecution. Experience has demonstrated that if a country uses a quasi-judicial system to determine refugee status then there is every chance numbers will overwhelm the system. Backlogs build up and the process becomes so lengthy that it may take up to two years for a case to be heard. The system then becomes vulnerable to wide scale abuse and becomes a target for human smugglers. This is what has happened in Canada.

To protect the asylum system from abuse and to ensure that only credible cases get to the refugee board, most refugee receiving countries implement pre-screening procedures. There are a variety of methods used to achieve this purpose,but the most common technique is the safe country concept.

The rational for this concept is that if an individual is a citizen of a country that is democratic, a signatory to the UN refugee Convention and has a good human rights record, then the person concerned is unlikely to be a genuinerefugee. If the claimant is not a citizen of a safe country but has arrived from one that is safe, then the person concerned can be returned to that country to have the claim considered there. Therefore, refugee applicants who are citizens of safe countries or who arrive via safe countries are deemed ineligible to make a refugee claim and are treated as illegal entrants. This form of screening- out ineligible applicants puts a stop to asylum shopping and leaves the Refugee Board free to adjudicate the most credible cases.

In the current system, anyone arriving in Canada, however, is entitled to claim refugee status and almost every one who applies is entitled to a full refugee hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board [IRB]. They are also entitled to a full range of social benefits while waiting for their claim to be heard including free legal representation. The costs to the Canadian taxpayer of this system have been estimated to be in the neighborhood of 2 to 3 billion dollars each year.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] estimates there to be close to twenty five million refugees under the jurisdiction of his office. These poor people are living in desperate conditions in refugee camps around the world.

The UNHCR, with a budget of about $ 1 billion US, lacks funds to adequately feed, house, or in some cases, even to afford these refugees basic protection from armed attacks by marauding bands.

Canada gives the UNHCR a meager 20 to 25 million dollars annually. Yet our refugee activists and immigration lawyers see no contradiction in the amounts spent on asylum seekers as compared to what is given to help genuine refugees in the camps.

Last year 44,000 asylum seekers arrived in Canada: the year before the figure was 38,000. Almost all of these people came to Canada from or through safe countries, mainly from Western Europe or the United States. Few, if any came directly form the country where they claimed to be persecuted.

The highest numbers come from countries that provide Canada with most of its legal immigrants: China, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Obviously these people are not coming to Canada to flee persecution but to avoid having to meet normal immigration requirements including medical, criminal and security checks.

Many thousands of these entrants arrive without documents or with false or altered ones. These are the people using the services of professional smugglers. Arriving in Canada without documents is not a barrier to admission and very few of those who do so are detained. Most are fingerprinted, photographed and released on the day they arrive. Security and criminal checks are started upon their arrival but often such checks take many months to complete. In the meantime they are on their own and free to reside anywhere in Canada. Since there is no tracking system there isnt any way of knowing where these people have gone. What is known is that 20% or more never bother to show up for their refugee hearing. So far the Canadian Government has not seemed to consider this a security concern.

In the first four months of this year, almost 11000 people arrived claiming to be refugees fleeing persecution. They were citizens of 152 different countries. Among them were citizens of the United States, Costa Rica, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Portugal, Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, India, Turkey, Venezuela, Philippines, and Barbados as well as claimants arriving from France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands! These are the people we are epected to believe are fleeing torture and death at the hands of their malevolent government!

It is highly unlikely that any of these claimants would have been permitted to apply for refugee status in the United States or Western Europe. They would have been screened out as coming from safe countries or subjected to accelerated procedures as manifestly unfounded claimants. Not so in Canada. The refugee activists would be outraged and would charge that these people, if not allowed to submit a claim, would be forced to return to certain torture or death.Such charges are of course ridiculous but the media usually gives credence to whatever is said by immigration lawyers and refugee activists on the assumption they are acting on behalf of genuine refugees

Ironically, perhaps the greatest threat to the well being of the 25 million refugees around the world is the immigration lawyers and refugee activists.These self- proclaimed protectors of the refugee devote most of their time and energy in advocacy work on behalf of the thousands of asylum seekers coming to Canada each year. They express little interest in the global plight of refugees in the camps.

The special interest groups have become the acknowledged experts on refugee matters. They exert influence far beyond their numbers or their importance in Canadian society. They are the organizations that receive Government funding for their activities. They are the organizations that regularly appear before Parliamentary Committees. They are invited to make presentations during Government consultations on refugee issues. The Minister of Immigration and the media consult them whenever refugee matters are to be discussed. The obvious conflict of interest involved is overlooked or ignored.

The inland refugee system has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry in Canada. Non-Governmental organizations receive millions of dollars each year to care for asylum seekers. Immigration lawyers receive millions in legal fees to represent asylum seekers at hearings before the IRB. The 180 or so members of the IRB, all of whom are political appointees and few of whom have any relevant refugee experience, receive annual salaries in the 80,000 to 100,000 dollar range.

The processing costs alone for asylum seekers last year was 150 million dollars. This does not include the far greater costs for housing, welfare and medical care.

Direct costs are not the only price Canada pays for its outmoded and misguided asylum system. Because of its refusal to enact a sensible safe country provision, Canada has been forced to impose visitor visa requirements on a great many democratic and friendly countries [excepting visitors from Western Europe and the United States], fearing that their citizens will submit refugee claims after their arrival. Such action not only is a barrier to free travel it has an adverse impact on our international trade and tourist industry. Furthermore, the imposition of visa requirements is always interpreted as an unfriendly act by the country affected, damaging our bilateral relations.

Canadas asylum system is not serving the interests of refugees. It inhibits us from doing our share to help resolve the serious global refugee problem. It encourages and rewards human smuggling. It undermines every effort undertaken to improve the security of North America against terrorist infiltration. It impairs our international trade and tourist industry. It has strained our bilateral relations with many friendly nations. It makes a mockery of our regular immigration programme at the cost of millions of dollars that might better be spent in other, more essential areas. In short, it is an area of public policy that cries out for urgent reform.

Reform should not be difficult. As a first step all that is needed is to enact the safe country provision that is already incorporated in the Immigration Act. The Government has the legislative power to list countries that aresafe for refugees and to declare persons from those countries ineligible to make an asylum claim. All of the countries of the European Union have such a provision and the UNHCR has approved this method of pre-screening.

There is some difference of opinion about whether Canada can decide unilaterally if a country is safe for refugees, or if this must be negotiated with the country concerned. I am firmly of the view that the legislation enables the Canadian government to decide this unilaterally and without negotiation, as European countries do. What can be negotiated are arrangements for the return of illegal immigrants. Such return arrangements have proven useful in the European context

It is time that Canada once again played a leadership role in refugee issues. We can only do that by recognizing the difference between illegal migrants entering the country in the guise of seeking asylum and the real refugees, who are living in refugee camps. We must first, however, devise policies that are in the best interests of the refugee and of Canada. Perhaps the first tentative step taken by Mr. Manley will lead to further and more significant reform.

James Bissett

[Mr. Bissett is a former Canadian Ambassador and from 1985 to 1990 was the Executive Director of the Canadian Immigration Service.]



James Bissett

Canadians must be asking themselves why our government seems powerless to stop the thousands of Mexican refugee claimants who are pouring across the U.S. border. Few, if any, are genuine refugees. Most are living illegally in the United States, and are being lured to Canada by unscrupulous immigration agents.

With few exceptions, anyone who reaches Canadian territory is entitled to stick around and make a refugee claim. In 2004, citizens of 152 different countries claimed refugee status here. The very act of “claiming” that status entitles the claimant to enter our country and attend a hearing before the independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

This is the heart of the problem. We are the only Western country that does not have some form of pre-screening procedure to sort out obviously fraudulent and unfounded refugee claims. As a result, the refugee route has become the preferred means for those migrants who don’t want to face the hurdles, cost and paperwork associated with the normal immigration process.

The countries of the European Union refuse to accept claims from people coming from countries considered to be “safe” for refugees — i.e., people coming from other countries that follow civilized norms, such as the U.S. or Mexico. Canada did have such a provision in the Immigration Act of 1989, giving Cabinet the power to list countries considered to be “safe.” But this provision was never enacted because of opposition from the refugee lobby. Current law provides for a “safe” country list, but only if the country to be listed agrees. Since it is not in the interest of countries to enter into such an agreement — nations have little interest in having fraudulent refugee claimants returned to their shores — this provision has proven ineffective.

Because of the high volume of claimants in Canada, it can take a year or more before a refugee hearing takes place. In the meantime, the claimant is permitted to work or receive welfare and other benefits. This is a costly process. It is estimated the cost of maintaining one refugee is approximately $10,000-$12,000 per year. Even if the IRB finds the claimant is not a genuine refugee, there still is a good chance of the person remaining in Canada. Refugee claimants are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and can use dilatory legal processes to delay removal for years.

Furthermore, there is little effort by enforcement officials to find and deport rejected claimants. Four years ago, the auditor-general reported to Parliament that there were 36,000 outstanding warrants for the arrest of rejected claimants. Since then, that number has undoubtedly increased.

The current Mexican influx has plenty of precedents. The first large-scale assault on the system was in 1980, when large numbers of Sikhs from India arrived as visitors and then submitted refugee claims. To stop the flow, the government imposed a visitor visa requirement on all citizens of India.

Since that time, the visitor visa has been the weapon of choice used by Canada to prevent country-specific floods of refugee claimants. Following the India example, visitor visas have been imposed on a number of countries, including: Portugal, Turkey, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Slovakia and Costa Rica.

These countries have not been happy about being targeted in this way. Some have retaliated by imposing visas on Canadians. More recently, the European Union has warned that it will take “appropriate measures” if Canada does not exempt its eight new members from a visa requirements. Obviously, visitor visas are not an ideal fix for our refugee problem.

A far more comprehensive long-term solution would be for Canada to overhaul the refugee system itself. Our government needs to have the power to unilaterally declare certain countries as “safe.” That way, our country would not have to pick up the tab every time racketeers in some foreign country decide to flood our shores with bogus refugees.

-James Bissett is a retired ambassador and former head of the Canadian Immigration Service.


(4) FIXING THE REFUGEE MESS (By Daniel Stoffman, December 16, 2002, Maclean’s Magazine)

Fixing the refugee mess (Macleans, Dec 16, 2002)

Daniel Stoffman

The best way to understand what is wrong with Canada’s refugee policy is to compare it with a truly compassionate one. Norway’s program is all about helping the poorest refugees , the millions stranded in refugee camps in the Third World.

How poor are these people? A fund-raising appeal mailed to Canadians by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, asks potential donors for $30 to provide four blankets to keep a family’s children warm. Or $60 to buy a shelter kit including wooden beams, plastic sheeting, a hammer and nails.

Norway, with a population less than that of Greater Toronto, gave $84 million last year to help meet such basic needs. Canada gave a measly $51.2 million.

On the other hand, Norway’s acceptance rate for people who show up at its doorstep and ask for sanctuary within Norway itself is a minuscule two per cent compared with Canada’s lofty 58-per-cent approval rate of in-Canada refugee claims.

Norway has decided to focus its humanitarian efforts on the vast majority of refugees: those who have neither the means nor the desire to relocate to a rich country. Some 20 million people one out of every 300 humans on the planet fall into this category. That number includes refugees forced to flee their homelands and others displaced within their own countries.

Canada has made the opposite choice. In contrast to its tight-fisted attitude to refugees in the camps, it spends lavishly on the comparatively small group 44,000 last year — who show up on their own to claim asylum in Canada. Dealing with refugee determination and integration costs Ottawa about $100 million a year, while millions more are spent on legal aid, health care, dental care, welfare, and other support programs for in-Canada refugee claimants.

Canada’s unique generosity to uninvited refugee claimants creates what migration experts call a pull factor that entices economic migrants out of their homes because they see our system as a way to gain quick entry into a developed country. It also gives a big boost to criminal gangs, which charge up to $50,000 a head to smuggle migrants into Canada.

No one country can help all refugees. The goal, therefore, should be to do the most good for the greatest number of the neediest refugees. Norway achieves this. Canada, by encouraging dubious claims here and shortchanging the millions stranded in camps, doesn’t even attempt to.

No reform of our system is possible without a recognition that the millions in the camps and the thousands who make their own way to Canada are two distinctly different groups. The people in the camps are desperately poor, most are women and children, and most want to return home. Those who arrive in Canada on their own are mostly men who do not want to return home. Many arrive without any identity documents, often having discarded those used during their voyage. Some wind up as indentured slaves to repay the criminals who brought them here. Others are wealthy, including the likes of Lai Changxing, the gambler and businessman who is claiming refugee status in Canada to avoid facing charges of smuggling and bribery in China.

Both Norway and Canada decide claims on the basis of the Geneva Convention which defines a refugee as someone with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion. Norway rejects most claims because it interprets the Geneva Convention strictly.

Canada accepts most because its arbiters members of the Immigration and Refugee Board employ the world’s broadest interpretation. For example, in 2000, Canada recognized 1,600 Pakistanis and 2,000 Sri Lankans as refugees while the rest of the world together approved only 500 claims from each of these countries.

Other refugee-receiving countries routinely reject claims on the basis that the claimant comes from a safe country or could have found safety simply by moving elsewhere in his own country. The IRB does not apply these criteria which helps explain why its acceptance rate is the world’s highest.

In addition to the refugees who make it to Canada on their own, another group is chosen in the camps by Canadian officials and brought here to start a new life. This is a cost-efficient way to resettle refugees in Canada because such people, having attained refugee status before their arrival, do not need lawyers or IRB hearings. During the 1980s, Canada resettled about 200,000 refugees in this manner. However, now that its focus has changed to the IRB-approved refugees, the government brings in fewer people from the camps about 13,000 a year.

Every independent analysis of Canada’s refugee system comes to the same conclusion we’ve got it backwards. We are spending too much on refugee claimants in Canada and not enough on the real refugees in the camps. If our in-country system were less inviting, fewer people would take advantage of it and the money saved could be diverted to the Third World where it belongs.

We cannot afford to waste scarce protection resources on those who should be applying for our immigration programs, concluded a 1997 report to the federal government, Not Just Numbers , prepared by an independent advisory group that studied the immigration and refugee system. Not Just Numbers recommended that the IRB, whose members include defeated political candidates, ex-party workers, and refugee advocates, be scrapped in favour of a new Protection Agency staffed by professional experts who would apply the same criteria to refugee selection in Canada as abroad.

More recently, Concordia University political scientist Stephen Gallagher, in a report last year for the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, made the same recommendation. Calling the current system dysfunctional, he wrote that aiding a large number of refugee claimants to become Canadian accomplishes little, if anything, for the masses left behind.

Another prominent voice for reform is that of former ambassador William Bauer who had long experience with refugees while serving in Southeast Asia. Bauer, winner of the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award, later served on the IRB but quit because of pressure within the organization to approve claims. Now writing a book on the international asylum system, he calls Canada’s policies massive corruption of the noble concept of political asylum.

This system is perpetuated because it has been captured by those who profit from it. The lawyers are well-organized while ordinary Canadians who want a just refugee system are not. Moreover, federal politicians love the IRB because of its $100,000-a-year jobs for party stalwarts.

When Roslyn Kunin, one of the authors of the Not Just Numbers report, told a group of Toronto lawyers of the commission’s plans for reforming the refugee system one of them blurted out: You can’t do that. I have to pay for my swimming pool. In the peculiar world view of those who defend the current system, it is anti-refugee to propose reforms that might result in less money for Canadian lawyers to build swimming pools and more to pay for water buckets and medical supplies in African refugee camps.

Defenders of the status quo object to any reform that might stem the tide of fee-producing claimants to Canada. That is why they oppose the recently concluded Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S. Under this agreement, people already in the U.S. who show up at the Canadian border to claim refugee status will be told to make their claims in the U.S. instead.

U.S. expert Mark Krikorian calls the Safe Third Country principle a morally necessary part of any asylum system. That is because a refugee claimant is asking a country to forego its right to decide who to admit in order to offer immediate protection to someone in desperate need of it. But countries cannot be expected to make this sacrifice of their sovereignty unless the need is genuine.

Asylum is analogous to offering a drowning man a berth in your lifeboat, and a genuinely desperate man grabs at the first lifeboat that comes his way, writes Krikorian in an essay published by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. A person who seeks to pick and choose among lifeboats is, by definition, not seeking immediate protection. Without the Safe Third Country concept, any so-called asylum’ system is really nothing more than an alternative avenue of immigration.

Some of the people who make their own way to Canada are genuine refugees and have a right to Canada’s protection. But the inescapable fact, proven by the much lower acceptance rates of all other countries, is that the majority are not refugees by international standards. If they are not refugees by international standards, they are not refugees period because it is beyond belief that the dysfunctional IRB is the only organization in the world that knows how to identify a refugee.

It is time for Canada to decide what it wishes its refugee program to achieve. If the goal is to perpetuate a lucrative legal industry in Canada and allow the smuggling gangs to thrive, then the current system is ideal. But if we want to do the most good for the largest number of the world’s neediest refugees, then a drastic overhaul of our system is essential and long overdue.