A Refugee System In Need of Overhaul

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Appeared in the National Post, 09 March 2006

On Feb. 28, the Fraser Institute published Canada’s Inadequate Response to Terrorism: The Need for Policy Reform, a report authored by former Canadian diplomat Martin Collacott. This week, the National Post has published three edited excerpts from that report. In today’s final instalment, Mr. Collacott documents the flaws in Canada’s refugee system.

In recent years, there has been increasing public concern that our refugee system is being abused. One recent poll indicated that 71% of Canadians believe the refugee system needs a major re-think.

One problem is that Canada has stretched the definition of refugee. The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, and the Protocol which followed in 1967, define a refugee as a person who, owing to a 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.

But in Canada, a large proportion of refugee applicants are believed to simply be economic immigrants looking for a more prosperous life -- individuals who either would not have qualified as regular immigrants, or who have jumped the queue.

Canada has a much higher rate of refugee acceptance than other nations. A further measure of our generosity is that we take in far more claimants per capita than other Western countries. Whereas our approval rate was close to 50% in 2003, the average for 17 other Western countries that receive refugees for permanent resettlement was 13%. In addition, the total number of refugees we accepted was five times the average for other nations as a proportion of population size.

A key reason for the refugee system’s disarray is that it will consider a claim from virtually any non-Canadian who sets foot on our soil. James Bissett, a former head of the Canadian immigration service, has pointed out that the only way to bring order to our refugee determination system is to limit access to those who have a reasonably good case. To achieve this, he says, Canada must put into effect safe-country-of-origin and safe-third-country provisions, as other countries have done.


Safe countries of origin are those that are democratic, have a good human rights record, and have signed the UN convention on refugees. Most refugee-receiving nations refuse even to consider refugee claims from nationals of such countries. Canada, however, has no such restrictions. We are, in fact, the only country in the world where Americans can make refugee claims. ( In 2003, we allowed 317 to do so.)


Under international guidelines, it is expected that people genuinely fleeing persecution will ask for asylum in the first country they reach where they are safe. Those who choose not to do this can generally be assumed to be asylum shopping, i.e., looking for a country with a high acceptance rate and the most generous resettlement arrangements. The concept of safe third country refers to a country through which a refugee claimant has passed through and in which they should have made a request for asylum while en route.

Canada did recently conclude a safe third country agreement with the United States. Prior to this, one third of those seeking refugee status in Canada made their claims at the U.S. border. The implementation of the new agreement has reduced to a fairly substantial extent the numbers of asylum shoppers who can access our refugee system. The agreement does, however, include some questionable exceptions (detailed in my report). Designating more countries as safe third has, moreover, become more difficult.

Until the passage of the current immigration and refugee legislation in 2002, Ottawa could simply declare that it regarded a particular country as a safe third. But we have now imposed on ourselves a requirement that we first obtain the agreement of the country in question to be so designated, making the process more cumbersome.

The fact that many refugee claimants whose cases have little merit are able to enter Canada and almost immediately begin receiving benefits is manifestly unfair to the thousands of people who pay their fees and apply to come here through the normal immigration channels. It is also unfair to genuine refugees, whose processing is slowed by a multitude of cases that should not even be considered.

Former immigration officials have estimated that refugee claimants cost Canadians several billion dollars a year. Meanwhile, we pay only a pittance to the millions of refugees languishing in camps in developing countries.

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