What is a refugee?
A refugee is someone who faces persecution or a well-grounded fear of torture, cruel treatment or death in their home country because of who they are. The persecution or threat must be specific to that person and not because of general conditions like war or famine. It is an international legal term that is based on the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. Canada, like most countries in the world, is a signatory to this convention. Because of this, we have a duty to recognize and protect those people who meet the definition.
In general, there are two types of refugees. Resettled refugees are recgonized first by the United Nations, and are then brought to Canada with permanent status as refugees. Sometimes, the government chooses refugees to resettle (what are called Government Assisted Refugees) and sometimes they are sponsored by individuals or organizations (Privately Sponsored Refugees.)
Others come to Canada without permanent status and asked to be considered refugees once they are here. These are what we call Refugee Claimants. They are individuals who feel that their persecution is so dire that they cannot wait for the United Nations to protect them. Often their lives are at serious risk if they stay in their home country.
Resettled refugees have permanent status - they have a clear pathway to Permanent Residency and Citizenship as long as they fulfill the criteria for these statuses. Refugee claimants have temporary status and must first prove that they meet the legal definition of refugee before they are allowed to stay.
The refugee claim process
Refugee claimants must undertake a formal legal process to be accepted in Canada. They must make the request to be considered a refugee either at the border or one of the Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices in Canada. They are then interviewed to determine whether they are eligible for the process - international criminals and folks who have status in a safe third country, for example, will not be eligible. If they are eligible, they will be referred for a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board. It is the IRB's job to determine whether there is sufficient evidence that the person faced specific persecution in their country of origin and could not find safety there.
Why do refugee claims fail?
There are many reasons why a person's claim might fail. Insufficient evidence is a common reason. People who are fleeing for their lives usually do not stop to gather documents that describe the persecution that they are facing. This can be a problem when they are trying to prove that their claim is legitimate. Refugee claimants also must prove that they cannot live safely in another part of their country, and sometimes this is very difficult to do. Finally, many refugee claimants receive bad advice at every stage; unfortunately, there are individuals (lawyers or otherwise) in Canada and abroad whose recommendations lead to claims being denied.
Myths about refugees
Myth: Refugees are queue-jumpers for the immigration system
Truth: The refugee system and the immigration system are completely different. The refugee process is one where Canada recognizes its commitment to international law to protect individuals facing personal persecution in their home countries. They have often faced severe trauma. Very few come to Canada for economic reasons, and those few who do are generally refused at the Immigration and Refugee Board level and deported back to their country of origin.
Myth: Refugees are either a "drain on the system" or "take jobs from Canadians."
Truth: Many refugees work as soon as they are able to when they get to Canada. Canada recognizes that people with legal status here should be allowed to work, and so issue them work visas. They often take jobs that no Canadians want, including the dirtiest, most dangerous and most poorly paying ones. Some refugees, however, are not able to work right away. They need to attend to the issues that will help them get started with life in Canada, including learning English or French, getting settled in new homes and new communities, and dealing with the medical and psychological outcomes of their past traumas.
Once they are established, refugees are often highly successful in Canada. It is very difficult to come to Canada, and the kind of motivation and persistence that it takes are useful skills in our society. Former refugees have contributed to Canada through politics, sports, literature, music, health, and countless other domains. Some of our most beloved Canadians came to this country as refugees!