Refugees in Canada: History of Refugees

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There is a long-standing tradition in many cultures of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution. In Europe during the Middle Ages people could seek sanctuary in a church and giving sanctuary was considered a sacred act. Americans fleeing slavery were given protection in Canada in the days before the US Civil War.

Although there have always been people fleeing oppression, it wasn’t until after WWII that world governments recognized the need to create formal legal obligations for countries to accept refugees. Prior to World War II there was no legal distinction between immigrants and refugees, and even today many people are unsure of the difference between the two.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone who has well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.

Major regional bodies have attempted to refine and extend the concept of refugee. In 1969 the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and in 1984 the Organization of American States (OAS) extended the refugee definition to people fleeing generalized violence in those regions.

Today the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international organization that safeguards the rights of refugees, estimates that there are 12 million refugees and over 6.3 million “internally displaced” people who are in need of protection.

In recent years Canada has enjoyed a relatively strong reputation as a welcoming country for refugees. In the past, this has not always been the case.

Anti-Semitic immigration policy proved deadly in the years leading up to World War II, when European Jews were refused entrance into Canada. In 1939 the ship, “St. Louis”, left Germany carrying over 900 European Jews seeking refuge and protection on the other side of the Atlantic. They were refused entry everywhere, including Canada. The ship had to return to Europe, where most of the passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps.

After the Second World War, Canada began accepting displaced persons. For the next twenty-five years, many refugees were admitted in groups under ad hoc arrangements. It was not until 1967 that Canada ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Cold war politics greatly influenced the selection of refugees. People seeking refuge in the West had a greater chance of finding protection if they were fleeing from Communist countries. People fleeing countries with close military or political ties to the West had a much more difficult time.

The 1976 Canadian Immigration Act formally distinguished between refugees and immigrants and set out a claim determination system for refugees. It also established a program through which Canadians could privately sponsor refugees.

Canada was awarded the Nansen medal in 1986 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its contribution to the protection of refugees. This award acknowledged the support by individual Canadians of the private refugee sponsorship program, which enjoyed huge popularity in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Over 700,000 individuals have been offered refugee protection in Canada since World War II.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act replaced the Immigration Act on June 28, 2002. In 2003 Canada took steps to implement a “safe third country” agreement with the United States which will effectively deny claimants the right to make a refugee claim in one country if they have already passed through the other.

As these changes are newly-created or not yet implemented, the true effect of changes to Canadian refugee law remain to be seen.

Please note that the following information requires updates and changes due to the passing of Bill C-31 which has amended the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Updates are coming soon. Please contact the Halifax Refugee Clinic for current information:

Refugee claims in Canada—Who can apply

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Canada offers refugee protection to people in Canada who fear persecution and are unwilling or unable to return to their home country. People who are subject to a removal order cannot make a refugee claim.


Some people are not eligible to claim refugee protection in Canada. Officers receiving your refugee claim will decide whether it is eligible for referral to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), an independent administrative tribunal that makes decisions on immigration and refugee matters. The IRB decides who is a Convention refugee or a person in need of protection. Your refugee claim may not be eligible for referral to the IRB if:

  • You have been recognized as a Convention refugee by another country to which you can return;
  • You have already been granted protected person status in Canada;
  • You arrived via the Canada-United States border (see Safe Third Country Agreement below);
  • You are not admissible to Canada on security grounds, or because of criminal activity or human rights violations;
  • You made a previous refugee claim that was found to be ineligible for referral to the IRB;
  • You made a previous refugee claim that was rejected by the IRB; or
  • You abandoned or withdrew a previous refugee claim.

Safe Third Country Agreement

Under an agreement with the United States, refugee claimants must seek asylum (protection) in the first safe country where they arrive. For example, if you entered Canada at a land border from the United States, you will not be able to claim refugee protection in Canada. Sometimes there are exceptions (such as those who already have family in Canada).


Refugee claims in Canada—How to apply

There are two ways to apply for refugee protection in Canada:

  • You can make a claim when you arrive in Canada, at the port of entry. This could be at an airport, a seaport or a Canada-United States border crossing. At ports of entry, claims are received by officers of the Canada Border Services Agency.
  • You can also make a claim from within Canada at a Citizenship and Immigration Canada office.

Make sure you bring all the identification you may have with you, including your passport, driver’s licence and any other documents.

The officer receiving your refugee claim will assess whether your case is eligible to be referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) for a decision.

You will be given a Personal Information Form, which must be completed and sent to the IRB.

If you arrive at a land border, you may not be eligible to make a refugee claim because of an agreement between Canada and the United States known as the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Refugee claims in Canada—After applying

If a Citizenship and Immigration Canada or a Canada Border Services Agency officer decides that your refugee claim is eligible, it will be referred to the Refugee Protection Division of the IRB for a hearing. You will have to complete and return your Personal Information Form to the IRB by the deadline you are given. The IRB will contact you with the date and location for your hearing.

Please consult the IRB website for information about hearings.

If your claim is accepted

If the IRB accepts your claim, you will receive the status of “protected person.” This means you can stay in Canada and you can apply to become a permanent resident of Canada.

If your claim is rejected

If your claim is rejected, you have 15 days from the day you get the notice that your claim was rejected to apply to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of the IRB decision.

Refugees: Refugee claims in Canada—Pre-removal risk assessment

Canada is committed to making sure that people are not sent back to a country where they would be in danger or where they would face the risk of persecution.

If you are told to leave Canada, you will be given a notice that the removal order is being enforced. In most cases, if you are given a removal order, you can apply for a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) if you have been in Canada for one year after the date of your negative refugee decision. During the PRRA process, an officer will review the documents related to your case and any other evidence that you provide. If you had made a refugee claim, the evidence that will be considered will be limited to any new or different evidence that was not presented when you had your hearing at the Refugee Protection Division. In some special cases, you will be asked to attend an interview before a decision is made about whether you can stay in Canada.

If you are eligible for a PRRA, you will be sent an application form and guide.

When you receive your PRRA forms, your removal order is stopped for 15 days. The removal order will not be in effect until:

  • you notify Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) that you do not intend to apply for a PRRA, or you abandon or withdraw your application for a PRRA
  • the 15-day deadline passes (if you do not send an application to CIC for a PRRA) or
  • you apply for a PRRA and the decision is negative.

Note: Seven days will be added to the 15-day deadline if the PRRA notice was mailed to you, and not delivered in person. This is to allow time for the notice to be sent to you.

You can submit written evidence to help explain the risk that you would face if you are removed from Canada.

In reviewing your case, the officer will consider:

  • the risk of persecution as defined in the Geneva Convention
  • the risk of torture and
  • the risk to your life or the risk that you may be subjected to cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

Some people are not eligible

Some people are not eligible for a PRRA. You are not eligible if you are:

  • subject to extradition (extradition is a formal request that Canada return you to another country because you are a suspected or convicted criminal)
  • ineligible for a hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board because you came to Canada from a safe third country (find information about the Safe Third Country Agreement in the Related Links section at the bottom of this page)
  • a repeat refugee protection claimant who is being removed from Canada less than six months after you previously left
  • already recognized as a protected person or
  • recognized as a Convention Refugee by a country to which you can return.
  • received a negative decision for your refugee claim less than one year ago

If your claim is accepted

If the PRRA officer accepts your claim, you may receive the status of “protected person.” This means you can stay in Canada and you can apply to become a permanent resident of Canada. You can find out more about becoming a permanent resident of Canada in the I Need To… section on the right-hand side of this page.

If your claim is not accepted

If the PRRA officer rejects your claim, you will receive a written notice. Your removal order comes into effect again and you may receive a reasonable period of time to ensure your departure from Canada.

What you can do if your claim is not accepted

You can apply for a review of the decision by the PRRA officer to the Federal Court of Canada. You can find more information on appeals to the Federal Court in the Related Links section at the bottom of this page.

Refugees: Refugee claims in Canada—Humanitarian and compassionate review

Any person can apply to stay in Canada on humanitarian or compassionate grounds. This includes refugee protection claimants whose claims are not approved by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Applications to become a permanent resident on humanitarian and compassionate grounds are approved only in exceptional circumstances. It can take many years to process an application.

If you have received an order to leave Canada (this is called a removal order), you can still apply to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Your application will not prevent or delay your removal from Canada—you must leave on or before the date stated on your removal order. Your application will still be processed even if you have to leave Canada. Citizenship and Immigration Canada will notify you in writing about the decision on your case.

There is no guarantee that your application will be approved. There is no right to appeal a refused application for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. In some cases, however, you can ask the Federal Court of Canada to review the decision. You can find more information on reviews by the Court in the Related Links section at the bottom of this page.

You can get more information and an application kit for humanitarian and compassionate review of your case in the Related Links section at the bottom of this page. You can also obtain an application kit by contacting the Citizenship and Immigration Canada Call Centre (see Contact Us at the top of this page).