Immigrants and Refugees: The Fears and the Reality

By Smith, Julia | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

Immigrants and Refugees: The Fears and the Reality


Smith, Julia, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


A long with the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Canada has long been an anomaly as a country with a national identity centring on immigration. This is changing. According to recent polls, positive attitudes toward immigrants are at their lowest levels since polling started in the 1970s.

Since the Second World War, North American and European countries have used immigration to smooth out demographic booms and busts, fill labour shortages and compete for global talent. For many Western countries, managed migration fuelled prosperity, and communities of new arrivals quickly transitioned from outsiders to community leaders.

Canada's refugee system is guided by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a response to the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. Postwar Europe faced a new crisis: a combination of postwar displacement and dislocation caused by the dawn of the Cold War. Before then, Canada had traditionally taken in large numbers of refugees--Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, Irish fleeing the Famine, and Doukhobors and Mennonites fleeing religious persecution--yet they were almost always Christian, European and white, often with explicit exclusions for those who were different. There were dark moments: Canada turned away boatloads of Jews escaping Nazi repression and, before that, refused or limited entry to many based on race, religion and national origin.

Over time Canada eliminated those race-based elements. To become a refugee in Canada today you must fear persecution based on your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group as outlined in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Coming from a country enduring human rights abuses or war makes you a refugee only if you, personally, can show you are at risk if your return.

Everyone has the right to apply for refugee status from within Canada. Nevertheless, the number seeking asylum has remained stable and low, ranging between 10,000 and 45,000 annually since the Immigration and Refugee Board was created in 1989. Boats filled with refugees do sometimes appear on our shores, rousing fears of a massive influx, but the reality is of a relatively predictable number of refugees crossing at recognized points of entry. Many are granted asylum, but rates vary. Just under 50 per cent were accepted in 2003, while 2017 saw an acceptance rate close to 70 per cent. In the first six months of 2018 the acceptance rate fell back to 56 per cent.

The limited number of asylum seekers is partly due to our unfriendly geography, with cold oceans on three sides and the United States, a country even more attractive to refugees and immigrants than Canada, to the south. Add to that the fact that citizens of countries likely to generate credible refugee claims usually need visas to travel to Canada, visas that are hard to get and checked by airlines prior to boarding. Moreover, those who enter Canada at a legal overland port of entry are covered by the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The agreement requires that you claim refugee status in the first country you enter--either Canada or the United States--unless you have family members in Canada, are an unaccompanied minor or have been charged with or convicted of a crime carrying the death penalty.

The term refugee is a legal construct. A man who fled gang violence in El Salvador may not be a refugee if he was not personally targeted because of his race, religion, nationality or political affiliation. A Syrian woman may have seen war destroy her business but, if the damage was done when her neighbourhood became a battleground and not because she was personally targeted, she has no clear claim to refugee status. It is necessarily an intrusive process that requires telling and retelling one's worst and most intimate moments to strangers. The traditional refugee paradigm presents the refugee as the perfect victim--vulnerable, without agency and without options. …

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