Immigration and Refugee Facts

Media reports are swirling with contradictory stories about who immigrants and refugees are, why they’ve come to Canada, and what our response should be. But the Bible’s call is clear:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)

Welcoming refugee claimants at Canada’s borders is not only a legal requirement, it’s a faithful response to our Christian calling to love our neighbours from all around the world. Cut through the political spin and learn the facts about refugees and immigrants in Canada.

View a printable copy of this factsheet on the CRC Network here.


Want to know more about the biblical call to welcome refugees and what the Christian Reformed Church has said about it? We’ve got you covered.

View the backgrounder >

Who are refugees and immigrants in Canada today?

What is the difference between a refugee, immigrant, asylum seeker, migrant worker, etc?

The words we use matter. They have different legal implications, and using the correct words can clear up misconceptions, preventing divisive rhetoric and undue alarm about who people are and why they have come to Canada.

“Inaccurate and inflammatory language about refugee claimants risks harming people whose lives may depend on Canada treating them fairly. Refugee claimants are among the most vulnerable people in our society. They should never be used as a political football.” (Canadian Council for Refugees)

Some definitions:

Refugee - a ‘refugee’ is a person who has been forced to flee from their country of origin due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted or harmed for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion (CCR). Under Canadian and international law, refugees have the right to safe and dignified assistance, and should not be expelled or returned to places where their lives or freedom would be at risk (UNHCR). Once a person receives refugee status, they become a ‘protected person’ and can apply to become a permanent resident of Canada (UNHCR).

Immigrant - a person who has settled permanently in another country (CCR). Immigrants freely leave their home countries to seek work, be reunited with family, or simply because they choose to. Refugees cannot return home until it is safe, but immigrants can return home if they wish to (UNHCR).

Refugee Claimant - a person who has fled their country and is asking for protection in another country. The term ‘refugee claimant’ is used under Canadian law to refer to a person who is applying for refugee status in Canada, but their case has not yet been evaluated (CCR). The term ‘asylum seeker’ has increasingly been used in media reports, but has no basis in Canadian law. It’s better to use the term ‘refugee claimant’ as it is the correct legal term, and it doesn’t ideologically distance claimants from other resettled refugees (CCR). Canada sets its own laws on which claimants qualify for refugee status, and claimants must demonstrate that their fear of persecution in their home countries is well founded, and that they would face real harm if they returned (UNHCR).

Resettled Refugee – a person who has fled their country, is temporarily in a second country and then is offered a permanent home in a third country. Refugees resettled to Canada are selected abroad, are recognized as refugees by the Canadian government before they arrive, and arrive to Canada as permanent residents (CCR). Government Assisted Refugees and Privately Sponsored Refugees fall under this category.

Newcomer - A general term used to refer to people who have recently arrived in a new country, regardless of whether they are legally defined as immigrants or refugees. Many newcomers prefer to use this term in order to assert their agency in their own stories, to have an identity beyond a label, and to avoid the negative assumptions that immigrants and refugees are helpless or needy (Do Justice).

Migrant Worker - a person who has permission to be in Canada for a set period of time via the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program was created to allow people from other countries to come to Canada to work in low-wage, less-desirable jobs that were hard to fill with Canadians, such as agriculture workers or live-in caregivers (CCR). Migrant workers cannot apply to become permanent residents of Canada and they may have restricted access to social services. Some migrant workers report experiences of labour rights violations (KAIROS).

Stateless person- a person who does not have legal identity documents. A stateless person may have been born in a country that did not issue these documents, or reside in a country that does not recognize the person as a citizen. A stateless person lacks the human rights and access to services of those who have citizenship (UNHCR).

Are people illegally crossing the border into Canada?

Canada has an obligation under international law to accept refugees (Canada), and so it is not illegal to cross the border into Canada to make a refugee claim (Global). Whether a person arrives at an official Port of Entry or comes across at an irregular location, they have the right to identify as a refugee and receive all corresponding protections while their claim is evaluated (CCR).

While Canada does not authorize people to cross the border at irregular locations, when a person does so as a refugee claimant, it is not a crime (Global), there are no charges laid against them, and their claim is not any less valid (Citizen).

Using the term ‘illegal’ is problematic as it criminalizes the person rather than recognizing that those escaping harm may need to seek asylum in a safe country even if they don’t have official documents or authorization (CCR). Only the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada can determine whether a refugee claimant’s case is legally acceptable (Global).

Refugee claimants who enter Canada from the US are subject to the ‘Safe Third Country Agreement’ which states that most non-Americans are unable to enter Canada from the US to make a refugee claim, as the US is already considered a safe country and a person seeking protection should make their claim there first. Because of this, some refugee claimants who feel unsafe in the US or believe that their claims will not be approved there are entering Canada at irregular locations where there is no border station, as the Safe Third Country Agreement requires that they automatically be turned back if they arrive at an official Port of Entry (CBC). When refugee claimants cross at irregular locations, they are intercepted by the RCMP and presented to border security in order to make their claim, which is the only way they can legally receive the protection they are seeking (UNHCR). 91% of irregular refugees are met by the RCMP and immediately declare themselves to authorities.

These refugee claimants are not crossing ‘illegally’ but rather ‘irregularly’ and they cannot be punished for entering at an irregular location if they feel that it is necessary for their safety (CCR, Citizen).

Are refugees flooding across the border beyond what we can handle?

The number of refugees crossing the border into Canada is increasing, but it’s not out of line with statistics from past periods of global instability. In 2001, there were 44,460 refugee claims made in Canada (UNHCR), of which approximately 11,250 were made at the border (CCR).

That average is again increasing; in 2016 and 2017 there were 7,355 and 11,400 refugee claimants processed at land-based crossings of the US/Canada border. As of June 2018 there had been 9,480 (Canada).

Canada has a sophisticated process for accepting refugees, including security screenings and eligibility examinations. While it has been reported that over 20,000 refugees arrived irregularly in Canada in 2017, only a little over half of their claims were accepted (UNHCR).

Canada has not ‘lost control of the border’, in fact, 91% of incoming irregular refugees are crossing at one location (Roxham Road in Quebec where there is a full time RCMP outpost) (UNHCR), and are immediately declaring themselves to authorities (Citizen).

Canada also processed over 50,000 refugee claims in 2017; those arriving at the border are a modest percentage of that total number (UNHCR).

Canada has employed contingency plans to respond to increases in refugee claimants (Canada), such as additional border officials to process claims, more shelters in destination cities, and mobile processing units (UNHCR, CBC).

Do immigrants and refugees take jobs away from Canadians?

Immigrants and refugees actually create jobs, increase tax revenue, and help the economy grow. “According to OECD research, they create a job for every one they occupy.” (CCR)  

At the start of 2018, Canada’s unemployment rate was the lowest it’s been in 40 years (Post). Many job sectors are encountering labour shortages and seeking out newcomers to fill vacant roles (Post).

Canada receives between 250,000-300,000 immigrants per year, one fifth of whom are refugees. The Canadian government hopes to increase that number in forthcoming years; population growth in Canada is decreasing, and Canadian-born people alone cannot keep up with the demands of the labour force. Not only are immigrants a blessing because of the diversity and cultural gifts that they bring to our country, they are actually vital to the future of Canada’s economy (CBC).

However, newcomers have often reported challenges in finding work in Canada: their foreign credentials are often not accepted, and many employers require ‘Canadian experience’, which puts them at a disadvantage (Spectator). If you are an employer, or are involved in hiring, you can make a difference by giving a newcomer a chance!

Do refugees use more healthcare or social services than other Canadians?

Many refugees left behind good jobs, have applicable skills, and are eager to work when they arrive in Canada, but may need time to learn English or French in order to enter the workforce. Many of them also wait months for the government to issue work permits. Until they are able to work, eligible refugee claimants can apply for the same income assistance that any other Canadian would receive (CCR, CBC). This amounts to less than 5% of the total social assistance payments made in Canada (StatCan). In areas such as Quebec where there has been a large influx of refugees, the government has responded by streamlining the process for refugees to begin working, helping them to become self-sufficient sooner (Star).

Government Assisted Refugees are part of a humanitarian program that provides support for up to one year upon arrival, after which they are expected to become self-sufficient (CBC). This program has existed and been budgeted for in Canada for over thirty years (CH), and does not take away funds budgeted for domestic social assistance.

Privately Sponsored Refugees are supported for one year by a relative, a church, or a group. Privately sponsored refugees are not eligible for and do not receive government assistance (CBC).

Refugees only use a fraction of the cost of healthcare compared to other Canadians. Most refugees arrive in Canada at a young age, while the aging population of Canada uses thousands of dollars more per year in healthcare costs (CCR).

Housing shortages are a long-term problem for all Canadians. Shelters in cities across Canada have been overcrowded for years, and waitlists for affordable housing were at record highs before the current influx of refugees (CBC). Refugee claimants do account for a recent spike in demand for already depleted housing supports, but this simply reveals how chronically underfunded adequate housing in Canada is, rather than being a ‘refugee problem’ (Citizen, CPJ). In situations where cities are struggling to house high numbers of refugees, nearby municipalities with available capacity are stepping in to help (CBC).

Do refugee claimants ‘jump the queue’ to be processed ahead of others?

Canada has separate programs for refugees and immigrants (Canada), and the processing of refugee claimants at the border does not slow or reduce the processing of immigrants or resettled refugees from overseas (Citizen). Canada also presets separate numbers of resettled refugees and refugee claimants that will be processed each year, and so an increase of one group does not affect the processing of another (Canada).

It has also been shown that the processing times for refugees (approx. 34-46 months) far exceed that of immigrants (approx. 20 months) (CCR).

Refugees are fleeing violence and therefore may need to enter Canada and claim asylum quickly to ensure their safety. Each refugee claim is assessed on an individual basis, and, similar to a hospital emergency room that admits critical patients ahead of less critical ones in the waiting room, Canada may expedite entry for claimants or privately sponsored refugees who require immediate protection (IRB). These claimants may gain entry to Canada sooner than other immigrants or refugees awaiting resettlement. The difference is that their lives would be at risk if they were denied entry. Their claims are processed while they are protected in Canada, while others who are safe in their current locations await entry until they are processed (CCI).

Long processing times are a reality faced by both immigrants and refugees, and with rates of refugee claimants rising, it is putting a strain on Canada’s refugee program (Post). However, rather than suggesting that Canada should close our borders to vulnerable people seeking protection, we would advocate that the government increase funding to better support this system.

Do refugees pose a security risk to Canada?

Refugees, by definition, are fleeing situations of violence and persecution. They come to Canada seeking protection. Resettled refugees and refugee claimants all go through rigorous security checks before being granted entry to Canada, much more so than the millions of visitors who enter Canada every year (CCR).  

The Canadian Border Services Agency found that less than 1% of refugee claimants who had crossed the border irregularly had a serious criminal background (UNHCR).

It’s far more complicated to enter Canada as a refugee than to come as a visitor, and anyone making a refugee claim or applying for resettlement who is found to have a history of criminality will not be permitted to enter the country (CCI). In all of Canada’s long history of welcoming refugees, not one has committed an act of terrorism (Refugee Alberta).

Public Health reports show that the children of newcomers are statistically less likely to be involved in substance abuse and criminal activity than Canadian-born children (CCI).

Shouldn’t we “take care of our own” first?

Government funding to support refugees, veterans, people facing homelessness, etc are all in separate streams and it’s simply untrue that helping one population would mean fewer supports for another. It’s also problematic to compare groups of vulnerable people and say one is more deserving of help than another. All of these populations need equitable support, and it’s reasonable to ask the government to provide adequate funding for all of them.

All people in Canada who are not Indigenous come from immigrant origins. Welcoming immigrants and refugees, in the context of the greatest crisis of displacement since World War II, is the right thing to do (CRCNA).

Furthermore, the cost of supporting refugees is not extreme. In Ontario, for example, funding to help municipalities integrate refugee claimants would be less than one-tenth of 1% of the total spending in the 2018 provincial budget. However, if these basic supports are not provided upon arrival, it can lead to much higher health and social costs (Star).  

Isn't Canada a nation of immigrants? Shouldn’t we welcome newcomers the same way we were welcomed?

That's partially true. Extending hospitality to newcomers is certainly appropriate, especially since the majority of Canadians were once newcomers or descendants of newcomers themselves. But it’s important not to gloss over some realities of Canadian history:

  • Indigenous peoples have lived in Canada from time immemorial. Immigrants and refugees, whether they are recent arrivals or their families have been in Canada for hundreds of years, need to acknowledge that the history they inherit as settlers. As settlers, we live as guests on land that was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples, and in many cases, was unscrupulously taken from them (Star). You can learn more about acknowledging Indigenous lands through our CRC partner, the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee.
  • Not all immigrants and refugees receive a warm welcome when they arrive in Canada. Historically, many newcomers faced systemic discrimination in Canada, such as the denial of voting rights, labour inequalities, forced displacement, and blatant racism, the results of which still affect minority groups today (CCR).