Backgrounder — Overview of Canada’s Refugee Programs

Since World War II, Canada has provided refuge to over one million people from all over the world.
There are two ways to receive refugee status in Canada:

Resettling Refugees from Abroad

The resettlement program brings refugees from abroad to Canada.  Refugees are referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or are privately sponsored for resettlement to Canada.

Canada sets annual targets to accept a specific number of refugees each year through this program. Canada is recognized as a world leader in refugee resettlement; it resettles 1 in 10 of the refugees resettled globally, more than almost any other country in the world. As part of improvements to Canada’s refugee system, the government is increasing the total number of refugees and other persons in vulnerable circumstances that this country resettles each year by 20%.

By 2013, Canada will resettle up to 14,500 refugees and other persons in vulnerable situations.

Refugee Claims from within Canada

The in-Canada asylum system reflects Canada’s international and domestic obligations in relation to persons in need of protection.

People arrive in Canada and make an asylum claim either at a port of entry or at a CIC office. There is no limit on the number of asylum claims that can be made each year.  All eligible claims are decided by the independent Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB).

With the passage of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act in June 2010 and the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act in June 2012, a new asylum system has been created.

While some of the changes of the new system have already come into force, most of them will come into effect on December 15, 2012.

These changes will accelerate the processing of asylum claims which will allow for faster protection will deter abuse of the system.

Faster Decisions

Faster decisions on asylum claims are central to an improved system. With these new measures, decisions on claims will be made by public servants at the Refugee Protection Division (RPD) of the independent Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), and the time lines for conducting hearings will be accelerated.

Wait times for hearings for asylum claimants will shorten from the current average of 18 months to 30 to 45 days after referral of the claim to the IRB for claimants from designated countries of origin (DCOs), depending on where the claim is made, and 60 days for all other claimants.

Designated Countries of Origin

DCOs are countries that do not normally produce refugees, and respect human rights and offer state protection. Claimants from a DCO will have their asylum claim heard faster and will not have access to the new Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) at the IRB.

Eligible claimants from designated countries will continue to receive a fair hearing at the independent IRB and will be able to ask the Federal Court to review a negative decision.

No countries will be automatically designated. Countries are triggered according to either quantitative or qualitative criteria for a review leading to potential designation. Once triggered, countries are reviewed based on a set of human rights and state protection criteria.

The Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism will make the final decision on whether to designate a country.

See the separate backgrounder on DCOs for more information on the designation process.

Refugee Appeal Division

A new RAD at the IRB is being created at the IRB. It will:

  • give most claimants a chance to prove that the RPD decision was wrong in fact or law or both; and
  • let new evidence be introduced that was not reasonably available at the time of the RPD hearing.

The appeal will be paper-based, with oral hearings in exceptional cases.

Appeals will be decided by Governor in Council appointees at the RAD.

Decisions on appeals are expected within 90 days following submission of all final documents (known as perfecting an appeal) for cases when no oral hearing is held.

Most claimants will have access to the RAD.  However, a number of claimants will not, including:

  • claimants from DCOs;
  • claimants, who according to the RPD, have manifestly unfounded claims;
  • claims, which according to the RPD, have no credible basis;
  • claimants who were subject to an exception to the Canada –U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement at a land border;
  • claimants who arrive as part of a designated irregular arrival (e.g. a human smuggling event);
  • claimants who have their claims re-heard at the IRB if the claim is ordered back to the IRB by the Federal Court on judicial review; and
  • claimants whose claim was referred to the IRB before the coming into force of the new system (i.e., claimants in the backlog).*

In addition, if the IRB finds, following an application by the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, that an individual’s protected person status should end because they re-availed themselves of protection in their home country in which they claimed they would face persecution, or provided false information in their asylum claim, the individual cannot appeal this decision to the RAD. Those whose claims are rejected because of an order of surrender under the Extradition Act or are determined to have abandoned/withdrawn their claim at the RPD also cannot appeal to the RAD.

All failed asylum claimants will continue to have the option of asking the Federal Court to review a negative decision.

Timely Removals

In order for the system to be effective, faster decisions must be complemented by faster removals.

Limits on accessing a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) and on submitting an application for humanitarian and compassionate (H&C) consideration, are already in effect.

PRRA

  • Most claimants will not have access to a PRRA for one year following a final asylum claim decision from the IRB or a final PRRA decision; and
  • For claimants from DCOs, the bar on accessing a PRRA will be extended to 36 months.

In the event of a sudden and significant change in country conditions, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism may exempt nationals from a country from the bar on accessing a PRRA.

Regulations outline criteria which must be considered when determining whether or not an exemption should be granted. This exemption provides a safety net for failed asylum claimants who may face new risks in their home countries as a result of recently changed country conditions following a final decision by the IRB or a PRRA decision.

H&C

  • An H&C application cannot be submitted while an asylum claim is pending. Claimants have the option of withdrawing their claim in order to apply for H&C, but this must be done prior to substantive evidence being heard at the hearing before the IRB;
  • In general, CIC will not consider H&C applications from persons for whom less than one year has passed since the final IRB decision on the asylum claim was made. Exceptions to the one-year bar will be made in cases where removal would subject an applicant to a risk to life caused by the inability of their country of nationality to provide adequate health or medical care, or where removal would have an adverse effect on the best interests of a child directly affected;
  • A person cannot have two H&C applications pending at the same time;
  • In examining H&C requests made in Canada, decision makers may not consider risks that are assessed within the refugee protection process, i.e., risk of persecution based on grounds set out in the Refugee Convention or risk of torture, or of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment; and 
  • The new measures also confirmed in legislation the existing policy that an H&C application is not considered complete until the appropriate fees have been paid.

In addition, to further ensure that delays in removals are minimized:

  • The RPD and the RAD are prevented from re-opening previously decided asylum claims and appeals once a final decision has been made at a higher level (e.g., no re-opening of claims by the RPD once the RAD has made a final decision);
  • The authority to make regulations that outline the factors that may or must not be considered when a request to defer a removal is received by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have been established;
  • The automatic stay of removal for certain groups of failed asylum claimants upon filing an application for leave for judicial review at the Federal Court has been removed. This includes:
    • claimants from DCOs;
    • claimants with manifestly unfounded claims and those found to have no credible basis;
    • claimants who were subject to an exception to the Safe Third Country Agreement at a land border; and
    • claimants who arrive as part of a designated irregular arrival.

This means that these failed asylum claimants can be removed from Canada pending the Federal Court’s review of a negative decision, unless they receive a judicial stay of removal upon application to the Federal Court; and

  • There is a concurrent loss of permanent resident status when the IRB finds, upon application by the Minister, a person has ceased to be a Convention refugee or a person in need of protection because, for example, they have re-availed themselves of protection in their home country in which they claimed they would face persecution. In cases where an individual’s protected person status has ceased due to a significant change in country conditions, loss of permanent resident status is not automatic.

The Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) pilot program will also help to remove failed asylum claimants more quickly. This program further enhances efforts to reduce the number of people awaiting removal from Canada. The pilot program, which was launched on June 29, 2012, is open to unsuccessful asylum claimants in or around the Greater Toronto Area who voluntarily leave Canada. This includes those whose claims are processed under the current system (i.e., claims made before December 15, 2012), as well as those who will be processed under the new system.

More information on the AVRR pilot program is available on the CBSA’s website.

Removals Backlog Reduction

In addition to the AVRR, the CBSA has successfully implemented a plan to reduce the number of pending removals as part of the government’s Balanced Refugee Reform Initiative.

Under this plan, the CBSA received temporary funding to increase its removals capacity in order to reduce the number of active cases of failed asylum claimants. The overall goal was to remove an additional 4,232 unsuccessful asylum claimants over a three-year period, ending March 31, 2013. The CBSA has already surpassed this goal and as of October 31, 2012, had removed 5,187 unsuccessful asylum claimants. Removing these failed asylum claimants will save tax payers millions of dollars on social assistance programs, health care, and other taxpayer-funded services.

Serious Criminals

The new measures will also further bar access to the asylum system for those who have committed a serious crime, regardless of the length of their sentence. These changes mean that a person who is convicted of a serious crime will be denied access to the RPD. They will, however, be entitled to a PRRA.

Backlog Reduction at the IRB

As of October 2012, the IRB has reduced its backlog of pending asylum claims to just over 33,000 claims. That is down by about half from 60,000 claims in 2009. The government remains committed to a further reduction.

Under the new system, public servants will decide asylum claims. In addition, current Governor in Council appointees at the IRB will continue to decide asylum claims referred to the IRB prior to the new system coming into force until the end of their term, to further reduce the backlog.

*See notice on the Refugee Appeal Division

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