Humanitarian and Refugee Immigration to Canada

Every year, millions of refugees are forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution or violence. Canada has a long tradition of welcoming refugees, and it has a variety of programs to resettle refugees.
Canada’s History of Support for Refugees

Canada’s support for refugees began in the 1770s, when more than 3,000 Black Loyalists, among them freemen and slaves, fled the colonies in the wake of the American Revolution and came to Canada. They were the first but definitely not the last formerly enslaved Black people to find a new home in Canada over the next century.

During the 19th century, thousands of Poles fled Eastern Europe after Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed Poland in 1793, beginning a period of brutal occupation and oppression. The Polish refugees continued to immigrate to Canada and by 1910, Poles represented 0.5 % of the Canadian population.

In the 20th century, Canada became a haven for many immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe. Many Jewish people came to Canada to escape religious persecution, revolution, and the social and economic changes brought about by industrialization. Among the largest groups of refugees in the first half of the 20th century were those from Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians fled to Canada, seeking refuge from religious and political oppression, and to escape the ravages of civil war. In 1932, a massive and devastating famine in Eastern Europe, called the “Holodomor,” forced even more Ukrainians to seek the safety and prosperity of the Canadian Prairies. The second wave of Ukrainian immigration began after the Second World War. Ukrainian immigration to Canada peaked in 1949, and by 1951, there were nearly 400,000 Ukrainians in Canada, contributing significantly to the cultural fabric of the nation.

Canada shaped its reputation for welcoming refugees during the Cold War. In 1969, it signed on to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which regulate international law regarding refugee rights. During the 1970s, Canada welcomed nearly 13,000 Chilean refugees who fled to Canada to escape the authoritarian rule of General Augusto Pinochet and hundreds of victims of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Notably, Canada welcomed refugees from Southeast Asia, including Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Laotian "boat people" in the late 1970s and 1980s. The creation of a private sponsorship program allowed ordinary Canadians, touched by the plight of the hundreds of thousands escaping from communism by taking to the high seas in unsafe boats, to sponsor the resettlement of these refugees in Canada. Some 200,000 Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in Canada.

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).

In the 21st century, Canada has maintained its position as a refugee-friendly country. In November 2015, a new Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed up on a campaign promise by launching a robust resettlement program in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. By 2017, Canada had welcomed about 54,000 Syrian refugees. In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees overall than any other country.

Who Is Considered a Refugee in Canada?

According to current Canadian legislation, refugees are immigrants granted permanent resident status on the basis of a well-founded fear of returning to their home country. The status of refugee can be granted to persons who:

  • Have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group (which may include claims based on sexual orientation or gender identity) or for political opinion;
  • Have been seriously and personally affected by civil war or armed conflict;
  • Have suffered a massive violation of human rights.

Depending on the particulars of the asylum claim, there are two categories of refugees:

  1. Protected persons in Canada or dependents abroad: This includes immigrants who applied for refugee protection status after arriving in Canada and were granted permanent residence on the basis of a well-founded fear of returning to their country of origin, as well as their family members abroad who have also been granted permanent resident status. The term “refugees landed in Canada” is sometimes applied to these persons.
  2. Resettled refugees: This includes refugees who were selected abroad, while outside of their country of origin, and were granted permanent resident status on the basis of a well-founded fear of returning to that country. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or a private sponsor referred them for resettlement to Canada.
How to Make an Asylum Claim in Canada?

There are two ways to make an asylum claim in Canada:

  1. At an official port of entry with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), or
  2. Inside Canada at an office of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) by completing all the necessary application forms.

However, the Canadian government has put restrictions on asylum claims made at official land ports of entry. Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), persons coming to Canada from the U.S. cannot make an asylum claim at the Canadian border unless they qualify for an exception to the Agreement.

There is a third way to apply for asylum. Refugees currently outside Canada can contact the nearest UNHCR office and ask for help. UNHCR acts in close cooperation with Canada’s federal immigration authorities and serves as an intermediary. The UNHCR does not guarantee resettlement in Canada, but can decide who will be referred for resettlement.
Please note that anyone who attempts to cross a Canadian border irregularly (between official border posts), will be intercepted and arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and questioned. Only in exceptional cases are such border-crossers allowed to make an asylum claim at the port of entry after being detained.
Options for Refugees in Canada

Options for protected persons

Canada offers refugee protection to some people in Canada who fear persecution or would be in danger if they had to leave Canada. The danger includes the following cases:

  • Risk of torture;
  • Risk of cruel treatment or punishment;
  • Risk to life.

You can make a refugee claim directly only if you are already inside Canada. If you are outside Canada, you may be resettled in Canada as a refugee or apply under one of the Canadian immigration programs. The IRCC will decide whether your case is eligible for consideration by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), an independent tribunal that makes decisions on refugee matters. If your claim is eligible, the IRB will invite you for a hearing.You can find out how to prepare for your hearing in the IRB’s Claimant’s Guide. If the IRB accepts your claim, you will receive protected person status. This means you are allowed to stay in Canada and can apply for permanent residence in Canada. If the IRB rejects your claim, you must leave Canada. However, you may appeal the IRB’s decision or, in some exceptional cases, apply for relief on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Options for resettled refugees

There are four main resettlement programs in Canada:

Government-Assisted Refugees program (GAR)

This program is available only to refugees who have registered refugee status with the UNHCR or the state authorities in the country where they found asylum to be considered for referral. Under the Government-Assisted Refugees program, refugees are referred to Canada for resettlement by the UNHCR or another referral organization that has an agreement with Canada. Individuals cannot apply directly for Canadian government sponsorship.

Persons selected under this program will receive financial support from the Canadian government for up to one year from the date they arrive in Canada, or until they are able to support themselves, whichever comes first.

A GAR’s initial resettlement in Canada is entirely supported by the Government of Canada or the province of Quebec. This support is delivered by non-governmental agencies, called service provider organizations, funded by IRCC.

The average processing time for GAR applications is up to 24 months.

Once your case has been referred to Canada, a Canadian visa officer will review the file. In most cases, they will interview you. Your interview will be conducted close to where you are located. Additionally, before your resettlement, you must:

  • Go through a medical exam,
  • Pass a criminal and security check, and
  • Give your biometric information, which includes fingerprints and a digital photo.

If the IRCC approves your application, a designated organization will help you get the paperwork you need to leave your current country, and help with your travel to Canada.

Canada does not charge application fees for refugees to be resettled.

Private Sponsorship of Refugees program (PSR)

Canadian citizens and permanent residents are also able to help refugees build a new life in Canada through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program. This program allows private groups to sponsor the resettlement of individuals and their families who qualify as refugees under Canada’s refugee and humanitarian program. In 2019, 64% of refugees were resettled to Canada through the Private Sponsorship program.

Who can sponsor a refugee?

No Canadian permanent resident or citizen can sponsor a refugee on their own. They must be part of one of the following private groups:

  • Community Sponsors: These are organizations, associations, or corporations located in the community where refugees will be resettled that have the financial capacity to sponsor a refugee.
  • Groups of Five: These are groups of 5 or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who sponsor refugees to settle in their communities.
  • Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH): These are Canadian incorporated entities, primarily church and ethnic organizations, that have signed an agreement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and assume overall responsibility for the management of sponsorships. SAHs can also authorize Constituent Groups (CG) from the community to sponsor refugees under their agreement.

The eligibility criteria for those who can be sponsored are established by the Canadian legislation.

The private sponsor groups are responsible for providing refugees with personal settlement assistance and the material and financial support necessary for the duration of the sponsorship period – usually up to one year from the date refugees arrive in Canada.

Please note that Quebec has its own process to sponsor refugees.

Blended Visa Office-Referred program (BVOR)

This program is a combination of the GAR and PSR programs. The Blended Visa Office-Referred program matches refugees identified for resettlement by UNHCR with private sponsors in Canada. Usually, refugees referred to this settlement program are those UNHCR has identified as being most at risk, such as women and girls at risk of sexual violence, survivors of torture and violence, or refugees with special medical needs. Canada then decides whether to accept a refugee and conducts thorough background and security checks to ensure their admissibility to Canada.

If approved, the refugee will be sponsored mutually by the Canadian government and private sponsors. The Canadian government provides six months of income support, and sponsors provide another six months of financial support along with practical assistance for a year or more, such as help with finding housing, jobs, and social and emotional support.

Please be aware that the province of Québec does not participate in the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program.

Joint Assistance Sponsorship (JAS)

This program is suitable for resettling refugees with special needs. The philosophy of this program is based on the concept that refugees with special needs need more support than other refugees to settle in Canada. The special needs include:

  • Medical disabilities;
  • Trauma from violence or torture;
  • A large number of family members;
  • The effects of systemic discrimination.

Under the JAS program, the government and a private sponsor mutually support refugees for up to 24 months.

These refugees get income support from the Government of Canada for food, shelter,

clothing, and basic household goods, while the sponsorship group helps such refugees adjust to life in Canada by giving them settlement help and emotional support.

Humanitarian and Compassionate Immigration to Canada

People who would not normally be eligible to become permanent residents of Canada may be able to apply on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Humanitarian and Compassionate (H&C) applications are for persons who have managed to settle in Canada but do not have, or have lost, their legal status in Canada. In other words, individuals who have been living illegally in Canada may have a chance to obtain Canadian permanent residency legally if they can make their case successfully. (For example, a person whose temporary work permit has expired and not been extended, but who has continued to work in Canada while raising Canadian-born children.)

H&C applications may be accepted only in exceptional cases. Each case is separately assessed by the IRCC, based on the following factors:

  • How settled the person is in Canada;
  • What could happen to the person if the request is rejected;
  • The best interests of any children involved in the application;
  • General family ties of the applicant to Canada.

According to the 2020 Annual Report to Canadian Parliament on Immigration, during the past five years the average number of persons permitted to remain in Canada on Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds totalled slightly more than 4,000 per year.

Note that the IRCC does not follow precedents. In theory, absolutely identical cases may result in different decisions. And there is no right to appeal a refused application for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. That is why it is of great importance to prepare a very well-grounded and comprehensive submission letter and gather persuasive supporting documents for the H&C application. Contact us, and we will be happy to assist you!

Who qualifies for the Humanitarian and Compassionate Program?

To be eligible for a permanent residence application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds a person must:

  • Be a foreign national currently living in Canada without legal status;
  • NOT be eligible to apply for PR from within Canada in any of these classes:
    • Live-in Caregiver;
    • Spouse or Common-Law Partner;
    • Caregivers: caring for children or people with high medical needs;
    • Protected Person and Convention Refugees; and
    • Temporary Resident Permit Holder (either student or work permit).
  • Have humanitarian and compassionate considerations that justify your application;
  • NOT be a designated foreign national within the last five years;
  • NOT have previously been rejected on H&C grounds;
  • NOT have a pending refugee claim.
  • NOT have a rejected refugee claim in Canada within the last year.

Please note that if you are under a removal (deportation) order and decide to submit an application for permanent residence on H&C grounds, this will not delay your removal from Canada. You must leave on the specified removal date. The IRCC will continue to process your application and notify you of the decision in writing.

Refugee Sponsorship in Quebec

Quebec has its own program for providing sponsorships for refugees outside Canada, who will be provided with at least one year of financial assistance by

  • A group of two to five people or
  • A non-profit organization.

Such sponsors must agree to take responsibility for the sponsored refugees by signing a collective sponsorship undertaking. This immigration program for refugees is called the Quebec Collective Sponsorship Program for Refugees Selected Abroad. To be eligible to become a sponsored refugee, a person must be be recognized abroad by the federal government in one of the following categories:

What are the responsibilities of sponsors under the collective sponsorship agreement?

Sponsors must cover:

  • The refugees’ cost of getting settled in Quebec, including housing, furnishings, travel, food and clothing;
  • Expenses for health care, health services and drugs not covered or reimbursed by a public insurance plan of a sponsored refugee, and;
  • Costs related to helping the refugee enter the job market or look for a job that are not covered by a government program.

The sponsors must also offer the candidate and his or her family help with integration, including:

  • Assistance in finding a job;
  • Help with school registration;
  • Support in accessing public services, and;
  • Support for participation in community life, etc.

Typical immigration process for a sponsored refugee in Quebec

Here are the steps to becoming a sponsored refugee in Quebec:

  1. The Quebec sponsors must submit the undertaking application on the refugee’s behalf.
  2. A draw will be held by the Quebec Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration. The draw occurs if the number of applications received by the established government cut-off date is greater than 750 applications.
  3. If the sponsors’ undertaking application is selected during the draw, you must submit an application for the Quebec Selection Certificate (QSC).
  4. If the application is approved, you must apply for permanent residence to the federal refugee authority — the IRCC.
Recent Statistics on Refugees in Canada
Canada has welcomed more than 1,100,000 refugees since 1980. This number includes both those resettled from overseas and those recognized within Canada as refugees. Below are some statistics about the number of refugee claims over the past 20 years. The decreased number of claims in 2020 was a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The largest groups of refugee claimants in 2020 were from India, Mexico, and Iran. Note that many claims are subsequently rejected or abandoned/withdrawn, so these numbers don’t indicate how many were successful.
The UN Refugee Agency has reported that refugees have the highest citizenship uptake rate of all immigration categories in Canada. Some 89% of refugees eventually become citizens, compared to 84% of Economic Class immigrants and 80% of Family Class immigrants. Additionally, according to the Canada 2021-2023 Immigration Levels Plan, Canada intends to welcome about 70,000 resettled refugees or protected persons every year during the 2022 and 2023.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions that our client ask; if your question is not covered here, please contact us.