Refugees and asylum seekers flee their countries in hopes of safety abroad. Governed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, refugee status is a matter of both international and domestic law. Historically, Canada has assisted many refugees from all over the world. However, human migration is a complex phenomenon, and Canada's refugee policies are also not immune to the influence of political and popular opinion.

Vietnamese boat people, 1984
A woman and her baby at Chi Ma Wan camp, Hong Kong.

Refugees are those who flee their home countries to escape persecution or danger and seek safety elsewhere. Canada is a country with a long tradition of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world. However, this history is checkered with differing policies that impact the way refugees are treated in Canada and continue to affect thousands of people seeking refuge. Refugee policies are also impacted directly by popular opinion, current governments and media discourses.

Key Concepts

Migrant The definition of migrant varies among different sources and laws. Migrants are broadly defined as foreign-born or foreign nationals currently in a country other than their country of origin.

Forced migrant Forced migration is “a general term that refers to movements of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine or development projects.”[1]

Asylum seeker “Asylum seekers are people who have moved across an international border in search of protection under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.”[2] In Canada, asylum seekers are sometimes referred to as "refugee claimants."

Canada's Refugee and Asylum System

In Canada, people can gain refugee status and subsequent permanent residence in two ways. First, they can come to Canada on their own to seek asylum and must proceed through Canada's refugee determination system. They are referred to as "asylum seekers" or "refugee claimants" until they successfully prove before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) that they should be granted refugee status and permanent residence in Canada.

Second, people can be resettled to Canada with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations body in charge of forced migration responses and refugee resettlement. Refugees can either be resettled by the Canadian government, or else they can be privately sponsored by organizations or individuals. They are permanent residents upon arrival in Canada.

First Waves of Immigration to Canada

Canada is a nation of immigrants, including the original colonizers from Europe who began arriving on its shores in the 15th century and gradually took over Aboriginal territory. After the establishment of the colonies, the first great wave of immigrants to arrive in Canada came during and after the American Revolution (1775–83). The United Empire Loyalists are regarded as among Canada's first refugee contingents. However, most were not refugees under the modern definition, but instead were British settlers. Among them were some who would be termed refugees, mostly Quakers, Mennonites and other nonconformists who feared persecution by the new American government and fled northwards. Before 1860, thousands of fugitive American slaves also arrived in Canada, and the public recognition given to Canada as the final stop on the Underground Railroad reaffirmed that this country was indeed a sanctuary for those seeking protection from persecution. An estimated 30,000 African Americans came to Canada seeking protection.

Black Loyalists
After the War of 1812, over 500 black people were settled at Hammonds Plains. This painting shows a black family on the Hammonds Plains Road, with Bedford Basin in the background (watercolour by Robert Petley, 1835, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-115424).
Richard Pierpoint, Black Loyalist
An illustration of Black Loyalist Richard Pierpoint (artwork by Malcolm Jones, courtesy Canadian War Museum/1.E.2.4-CGR2).
Peter Verigin, religious leader
Verigin's powerful and imaginative personality enabled the Doukhobors to weather their difficult first decades in Canada (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-8882, photo 1902).
Russian Doukhobors
Russian Doukhobor settlers on a ship to Canada, 1898 (National Archives of Canada / C-5208).

Over the next generation, two groups of refugees, Mennonites and Doukhobors, arrived from Russia in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Both groups were persecuted under the Russian tsars. The Canadian government was searching desperately for farmers to settle in the West and resettled these groups mainly to the Prairie Provinces.

Canada's Policies of Exclusion

Not all migrants were similarly welcomed in Canadian society. Through policies such as the Chinese head tax at the turn of the century, as well as Japanese internment during the Second World War, certain groups of migrants were selectively excluded. Canada also turned away ships bearing refugees, such as the 376 passengers, most of whom were Sikhs, on the SS Komagata Maru in 1914, which was not allowed to dock in Vancouver. After a two-month stalemate, the Komagata Maru was forced to turn around and sail back across the Pacific Ocean, only to have some of its passengers massacred by the British Indian police upon arrival in India.

Passengers from the SS Komagata Maru, 1914.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives/James Luke Quiney fonds/AM1584-: CVA 7-127\r\n
<em>Komagata Maru</em>
In 1914 the arrival of the Komagata Maru in Vancouver with East Indian immigrants touched off violent demonstrations in Vancouver. As a result they were refused entry (courtesy Vancouver Public Library).
Passengers aboard the SS Komagata Maru in 1914. Image: James Luke Quiney fonds/City of Vancouver Archives/AM 15984-:CVA 7-122.
St. Louis Passengers
Refugees aboard the St. Louis as they arrive in Belgium, 1939
Jewish Refugees
These Jewish refugees were the victims of violent religious persecutions in Russia in 1903. This group has just been treated in a Québec hospital before being moved west for settlement (courtesy PAM).

A major test for Canada in defining itself as a country of refuge for the persecuted occurred in the 1930s, when German Jews were seeking admission to any country that would receive them. However, Canada's borders were not open. In 1939, hundreds of Jewish refugees on board the ship SS St. Louis were turned away, and had to return to Germany and face death. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism permeated Canada, and there was little public support for, and much opposition to, the admission of refugees. While Canada eventually accepted some 4,000 Jewish refugees from Europe, the US welcomed 240,000, Britain 85,000, China 25,000, Argentina and Brazil over 25,000 each, and Mexico and Colombia received some 40,000 between them.

This attitude of exclusion did not change until after the Second World War. With Europe full of "displaced persons," Canada became much more receptive, largely due to its booming economy and the necessity to increase its workforce. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons came to Canada, their journeys often subsidized by the Canadian government. Canada also began to play an increasingly active role in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) organization in resettling refugees.

Refugees, the Cold War and the Vietnam War

In 1956, within months of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet occupation, the Canadian government succumbed to domestic pressure, especially from ethnic and religious groups, and announced that it would accept a large number of Hungarian refugees. Almost 37,000 arrived. Not only did these refugees bring some badly needed skills, but their acceptance while Cold War tensions and anti-communism were rising, provided the West with an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet Union. In 1968, 11,000 Czechs, following the Soviet invasion of their country, settled in Canada. Most were highly skilled and integrated rapidly into Canadian society. In 1972, Canada also accepted 7,000 highly trained and educated Ugandan Asians who were fleeing the notoriously repressive regime of Idi Amin (see African Canadians).

Hungarian Refugees
Hungarian refugees arriving in 1957 after the democratic revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets (Archives of Ontario 476).

A more controversial group of refugees were the American war resisters (or "draft evaders"), who fled across the border to escape service in the Vietnam War. Though some returned home after the war, many took up new lives in Canada. Equally controversial were the Chilean and other Latin American refugees forced out of Chile by the September 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende's Marxist government by Augusto Pinochet's coup. Fearing that most of these political refugees were too left wing, and not wishing to alienate either the American or new Chilean administrations, the Canadian government restricted the numbers, resettling approximately 7000 Chileans during the 30-year conflict.

Vietnamese boat people, 1978
The flight of Vietnamese refugees began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In spite of the dangers of unfriendly waters and piracy, tens of thousands took to the South China Sea, and by 1978 the exodus had grown to dramatic proportions. This group of 162 persons arrived in Malaysia on a small boat which sank a few meters from the shore.
Pulau Bidong Refugees Camp, 1979
Pulau Bidong, MRCS boat with camp residents (refugees), 1979
Vietnamese boat people
Boat people in the South China Sea, Indonesia, 1979.
Cambodian refugees, 1981
Children at Khao I Dang camp, Thailand, 1981.
Cambodian refugees
Situated on the sparsely wooded plains in eastern Thailand a few miles from the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center was established in November 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Administered by the Thai Ministry of the Interior and the UNHCR, it was intended to serve as a temporary holding centre for refugees who would either be repatriated to Cambodia or resettled to third countries.
Vietnamese Refugees
Vietnamese refugee women carry children off the plane at Montreal's Dorval airport. A group of 161 refugees arrived from Malaysia after languishing on the ship "Hai Hong" to take up residence in Canada 1978.
Vietnamese Refugees
Vilien Chen and her father are pictured in a Vancouver Province article from 1979 that discusses the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in Vancouver from Hong Kong. Vilien was three years old in the photo.
Reception of Southeast Asian refugees at CFB Griesbach, August 1979
Griesbach Military Base in Edmonton, one of the arrival points for Southeast Asian refugees.
Reception of Southeast Asian refugees at CFB Griesbach, August 1979
Griesbach Military Base in Edmonton, one of the arrival points for Southeast Asian refugees.
Reception of Southeast Asian refugees at CFB Griesbach, August 1979
Griesbach Military Base in Edmonton, one of the arrival points for Southeast Asian refugees.
Resettlement and integration of Vietnamese refugees in Canada, 1979
In order to facilitate the integration of newly arrived refugees, the Canadian C.O.P.I (Centre d'orientation et de formation des immigrés) organizes language classes and outings during which refugees can get to know their new country, the people and the local customs.

This is in sharp contrast to Canada's humanitarian action during the Vietnamese "boat people" crisis of the late 1970s. Touched by the plight of the hundreds of thousands who escaped the communist regime by taking to the high seas in leaking, unsafe boats, many Canadians offered to sponsor their journey to Canada, and the government admitted some 70,000 refugees.

Canada's Refugee Regime: Changing Policies and Laws

In 1962, a Canadian government order officially abolished racial discrimination in the selection of immigrants (see Immigration Policy) and Canada adopted an official multicultural policy in 1971. In April 1978, the new Immigration Act came into effect and established four new classes of immigrants who could come to Canada: refugees; families; assisted relatives; and independent immigrants who were coming to Canada for economic reasons.

The Immigration Act was also amended to avoid any explicit mention of preferred nationalities of migrants. The Immigration Act also adopted the comprehensive definition set out in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which are the main international legal instruments governing the protection of refugees. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,is unable to return to their country of origin. The 1976 Immigration Act was replaced by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in 2002.

Nansen Award
UNHCR's Nansen Medal, awarded annually in recognition of exceptional commitment to helping refugees on the part of an individual or association.
Governor General of Canada Jeanne Sauvé accepting the Nansen Award, 1986
The Nansen Medal awarded to the People of Canada in 1986, in recognition of their essential and constant contribution to the cause of refugees within their country and around the world.
Governor General of Canada Jeanne Sauvé accepting the Nansen Award, 1986
The Nansen Medal awarded to the People of Canada in 1986, in recognition of their essential and constant contribution to the cause of refugees within their country and around the world.

In 1986, in recognition of its exceptional contribution to refugee protection, Canada was awarded the Nansen Medal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, during the 1990s, Canada enacted a number of policies aimed at curtailing the number of refugees, creating problematic linkages between refugees, criminality, and terrorism. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the increased focus on national security, more resources have been diverted to strengthen border enforcement and to decrease numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, rather than aid in resettlement and integration.

In 2012, the Canadian government passed Bill C-31, or the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which drastically restructured Canada's refugee and immigration policies. Bill C-31 introduced a number of problematic changes and was widely protested by lawyers, doctors and refugee advocates in Canada.

For example, Bill C-31 made it easier to exclude political prisoners and activists from the refugee definition. Bill C-31 also enacted mandatory detention provisions for certain groups of refugee claimants and incorrectly linked refugees fleeing persecution to human smuggling offences. This is in spite of wide recognition in international refugee law that refugees often have to use smugglers to escape danger and exercise their right to seek asylum in countries that are signatories to the Refugee Convention.

The anxiety over human smuggling also impacted how Canada received groups of refugees arriving by boat. The Canadian government detained hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil refugee claimants on the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea in 2009 and 2010 under the guise of protecting Canada from terrorism, including women and children. Some families were detained for years, far away from access to community supports, lawyers and psychosocial supports. The Tamil refugees were also publically linked with terrorism threats and human smuggling, and were presented as not being ‘legitimate’ refugees. However, many of the claimants have been found to be refugees through Canada's refugee determination system on the grounds that as passengers on the ships, they were at risk of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government. A large number of cases are still being processed in 2016.

Bill C-31 also created a list of designated countries of origin, or "safe countries," which denied appeal procedures and significantly shortened timelines. These countries were determined to "not likely produce refugees," without taking into consideration the differences in experience based on a person's gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation in any particular country. The safe country provision was successfully challenged at the Federal Court in 2015, when the lack of appeal procedures for refugee claimants coming from these countries was deemed unconstitutional.

The Canadian government also made troubling public statements about legitimate refugee claimants being "bogus" or fraudulent. Casting refugee claimants as bogus before their case is decided does not accord with the tenets of Canada's refugee determination system, which allows for people to arrive in Canada and prove that their case meets the criteria for refugee protection. The Federal Court also addressed this rhetoric when it released its decision on the unconstitutionality of safe country provisions denying appeal rights.

Healthcare for refugees was also drastically cut under the Conservative government. This policy was also successfully challenged at the Federal Court in 2015, with Justice Anne Mactavish going as far as to describe these cuts as "cruel and unusual treatment." In February 2016, the Liberal government reversed these cuts and fully reinstated healthcare for all refugees.

Recent Changes to Canada's Refugee Responses

Canada's response to the conflict in Syria highlights how a change in government can have profound effects on refugee policies domestically and internationally.

The ongoing Syrian crisis (in its fifth year of active conflict in 2016) has been called one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time. More than 4 million people have been displaced by the conflict and, in addition, more than 7 million continue to be internally displaced inside Syria.

However, the former Conservative government’s response to the Syrian crisis was insufficient to meet Canada’s international obligations. Until the fall of 2015, it was unclear how many Syrian refugees had been resettled in Canada, and the policies implemented by the former government caused significant delays that compromised the health and safety of refugees awaiting resettlement.

All this changed with the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi's body washed up on the Turkish shore. Kurdi’s family was hoping to come to Canada to join their aunt. The toddler's death galvanized the public — much like the plight of Vietnamese refugees did in the 1970s — and turned Canada's response to the Syrian crisis into a federal election issue. In November 2015, the new Liberal government unveiled its resettlement response to the Syrian crisis. It committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by early 2016, and the first families started to arrive in Canada from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The government's efforts have been lauded internationally. Ordinary Canadians also increased their support, including privately sponsoring refugees, aiding in resettlement activities, and setting up refugee health and legal clinics.

In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees than any other country. According to the annual global trends report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canada took in 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees who were resettled across 25 countries. The report also shows that over 18, 000 refugees became Canadian citizens that year, making it the country with the second highest rate of refugees to gain citizenship. 

New governments, powerful pictures and shifting popular opinions reveal the speed with which policy responses towards refugees change. Forced migration is a highly complex phenomenon, and refugee and immigration policies highlight the intersections between politics, domestic and international law, and civil society responses. The many recent changes also show the fragility of Canada's response to refugee crises, and how refugee policies have waxed and waned throughout Canada's history.


[1] International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM), as quoted in “What is forced migration?” Forced Migration Online, last modified 27 January 2012,

[2] International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM).

Further Reading

  • Sharryn J. Aiken, "Of Gods and Monsters: National Security and Canadian Refugee Policy," Revue québécoise de droit international vol. 14, no. 1 (2001): 1–51.

    Karen Bravo, "Do Refugees have a ‘Right’ to Hospitality?," The Conversation, 5 November 2015.

    Gerald Dirks, Canada's Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978).

    Charles Foran, "True Test of Canadian Citizenship is in How We Welcome Syria’s Refugees," The Globe and Mail, 18 December 2015.

    Gary Gutting and Joseph Carens, "When Immigrants Lose Their Human Rights," New York Times, 25 November 2014.

    Jennifer Hyndman, "Second-Class Immigrants or First Class Protection? Resettling Refugees to Canada," in Resettled and Included? The Employment Integration of Resettled Refugees in Sweden, P. Bevelander, M. Hagström and S. Rönnqvist, eds. (Malmo: Malmo University, 2009), 247–65.

    Ali Khazimi, Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru (Toronto: Douglas &McIntyre, 2012).

    Eva Mackey, House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada (Florence, KY: Routledge, 1998).

    Audrey Macklin, "Canadians Have a Decision to Make That Will Affect Syrian Refugees," New York Times – Room for Debate, 15 September 2015.

    Petra Molnar Diop, “The “Bogus” Refugee: Roma Asylum Claimants and Discourses of Fraud in Canada’s Bill C-31”, Refuge vol. 30, no. 1 (2014): 67‒80

    A. Richmond, "Refugees and Racism in Canada," Refuge vol. 19, no. 6 (2001): 12‒20.

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