Canada has the most generous asylum system of any country in the world. Any individual who arrives in Canada or who reaches Canadian territorial waters has the right under law to submit a claim for protection under the UN Convention. The lack of an effective pre-screening mechanism enables almost
100 percent of claimants to receive a formal hearing with free legal advice. No other country has a
higher approval rate.1 Moreover, once on Canadian soil few asylum seekers are sent home even when
found not to be genuine refugees.
Canada’s asylum laws would not normally be of concern to the United States, but after the terrorist
attacks of September 11 this has changed. Although none of the terrorists came from Canada, the
existence of terrorist cells there has been well documented. The head of the Canadian Security
Intelligence Service (CSIS) reported to the Canadian Parliament in June 1998 that there were more
than 50 terrorist organizations operating in the country.
In December 1999, Ahmed Ressam, an asylum seeker from Algeria who hadn’t bothered to show up
for his refugee hearing, was apprehended attempting to enter the United States from Canada with a
trunk load of explosives in his car. He planned to blow up Los Angeles International airport. Ressam
was a member of a Montreal cell of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group that has strong ties to Osama
bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has identified two former Montreal residents on the list of “most wanted” al Qaeda militants. In June 2000, the CSIS annual report expressed the view that North America was a target for mass-casualty terrorist attacks. The warning signs were there before September 11, but few took them seriously. The threat continues today.
Canada has introduced some far-reaching security legislation since the attacks in the United States, but the weakest link — Canada’s asylum system — has not been addressed. Over time, in the face of
widespread abuse, the United States and Western European countries have tightened their asylum
procedures. Canada, however, has moved in the opposite direction. In November — two months
after the terrorist attacks — the Canadian Parliament passed new legislation that makes it easier for
asylum seekers to apply for refugee status and makes it more difficult for those found not to be genuine
refugees to be sent home. Consequently, the security of both countries remains vulnerable to a
Canadian asylum system that seems designed to openly welcome potential terrorists.
This Backgrounder examines how Canada’s asylum system has evolved since the end of the Second
World War and identifies some of the major influences that have given rise to the system that currently
Origins of the System
At its fourth session in 1949, the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed in principle to the
appointment of a High Commissioner for Refugees and the establishment of an office of the UN High
Commissioner (UNHCR) to become effective on January 1, 1951.2 The Assembly also decided to
organize a convention to regulate the legal status of refugees.
Canada played a major role in the drafting of the subsequent convention. The Economic and Social
Council of the United Nations set up a nine-person ad hoc committee chaired by the Canadian
delegate. The committee’s draft convention was debated at a special conference of interested
governments, meeting in Geneva July 2-25, 1951. On July 28 of that year, the convention was adopted
and was titled the “United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”
Despite its key role in drafting the Convention, Canada did not sign it until 18 years later. The primary
reason for this lack of interest was that Canada did not envision itself as a country of first asylum for
refugees. It was thought highly unlikely that refugees fleeing persecution would find a direct route to
Canada. Therefore, the Government believed its role in helping to resolve refugee problems should be
as a country of resettlement. Canada would share the refugee burden with the countries of first asylum
by accepting thousands of refugees for resettlement.3
Since Canada was also actively seeking immigrants to strengthen its labour force, the selection of
refugees fulfilled a dual purpose. Refugees helped Canada meet its humanitarian obligations as a
member of the United Nations, and at the same time, helped achieve the country’s immigration
objectives. The refugees selected were for the most part individuals who could successfully establish
themselves upon arrival in Canada. Ironically, Canada’s contribution to the resolution of refugee
problems through its resettlement programmes was accomplished even though the word “refugee” did
not appear in Canadian legislation until the 1976 Immigration Act. Therefore, from the end of the
Second World War until the present, the guiding principle of Canada’s refugee policy has been that
refugees should be selected essentially on the same basis as ordinary migrants.4
The 1976 Act did incorporate the UN Convention definition of “refugee.” The legislation also prescribed a process for dealing with people who arrived in Canada asking for asylum. This latter provision was necessary because in the years leading up to the new Act, small numbers of people had begun to ask for asylum after entering the country. The asylum process set out in the legislation was cumbersome and time consuming. It was designed to handle a maximum capacity of about 500 cases per year. However, by the time the new Act came into force in 1978, increasing numbers of people coming to Canada were asking for protection under the UN Convention. In 1980, 1,600 asylum claims were filed. The system designed two years earlier was already under stress.
Most of the people making asylum claims were coming to Canada as visitors from countries whose
citizens did not require visitor visas to enter: India, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, and Brazil.
When the validity of their visit expired, they submitted an asylum claim. The word was out that anyone
had the right to make a claim for asylum and that the process was lengthy. Unscrupulous travel agents,
immigration lawyers, and consultants were quick to exploit this new discovery. The process of asylum
determination was so interminable that by the time a negative decision was made, the individual often
would have married a Canadian, found a job, or even purchased property. Having established strong
ties to Canada, it was difficult to justify removal.
To stem the flow, the Government was obliged, as a first step, to impose visitor visa requirements on all
offending countries.5 This was done over a period of time despite the adverse effect on Canada’s bilateral relations with the countries concerned. It was also apparent that a new system for dealing with
asylum claims was urgently needed. A new system, however, required new legislation and there was no easy consensus on what a new asylum system should entail. The Government turned to outside experts for help.
Two Contrasting Reports: The Ratushny and Plaut Studies
Between 1984 and 1985. two major studies of the issue were undertaken. They were important
because they reflected two fundamentally divergent views about how asylum systems should operate.
The two differing views marked the ensuing debate in Parliament and continue to be at the heart of any
discussion of asylum systems.
The first view, as expressed by law professor Ed Ratushny, argued for a tough approach to the adjudication of asylum claims. He believed the essential element of any system was to restrict access to the Refugee Board and to ensure frivolous and unfounded claims were disposed of rapidly at the front
end. The professor concluded his study, “A New Refugee-Determination Process for Canada,” by
stating the objective of Canada’s asylum policy should be to “limit direct access to Canada as a place
of refuge in order to ensure that asylum is made available to the greatest possible number of those in
most need of protection.” Professor Ratushny’s report received little attention by the Government.
Before it was even submitted, Immigration Minister John Roberts announced a similar study to be
conducted by Rabbi Gunther Plaut entitled “Refugee Determination in Canada.” Rabbi Plaut, a former
refugee from Nazi Germany, was a prominent human rights activist and a leading advocate for refugees.
In contrast to Professor Ratushny, Rabbi Plaut’s report stressed the necessity of allowing unrestricted
access to the asylum system. He believed asylum systems that restricted access were following a
minimalist approach to their obligations under the UN Convention. Nor did he believe that the number
of asylum applicants should be an issue. As he said in his report, “… each person only has one life to
live. The opportunity to do so in decency and dignity is not determined by quantitative comparisons but
rather by the quality of the response with which Canada…meets the refugee needs…. There is a human dimension to saying a ready ‘yes’ to a refugee.”
Rabbi Plaut’s report was tabled in the Canadian Parliament in the spring of 1985. It was referred for
study to the Standing Committee on Labour, Employment, and Immigration and was to form the basis
of new asylum legislation. There seemed to be general consensus about the direction the new egislation should take. All agreed that the establishment of a new and independent Refugee Board was essential
and that people claiming asylum should be entitled to an oral hearing.6 All also agreed that reform of
the legislation was urgently needed. The numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Canada was on the
increase. In 1984 close to 10,000 asylum claims had been registered, and the backlog of people
waiting for a decision on their claim had exceeded the 20,000 mark.
In May 1986 Immigration Minister of State Walter MacLean announced the Government’s proposals
for reform in the House of Commons, including the establishment of an independent Immigration and
Refugee Board (IRB). Asylum applicants would appear before a two-member panel. The hearing
would be non-adversarial, and both board members would have to agree for the claim to be refused. If
only one member believed the claim deserved asylum status, the claim was nevertheless to be
accepted. Should the Board refuse a claim, the members were required to give written reasons for the
refusal. A positive decision, however, did not require a written explanation. Refused cases were entitled
to a second level review of the transcript by another IRB member, and the claimant could seek leave to
appeal to the Federal Court.
The proposal included modest access controls. Access to the asylum system would be denied to those already recognized as refugees in another country; those who had not submitted a claim within six
months of arrival in Canada; those who had submitted previously unsuccessful claims and persons under order of removal. The Government was confident these proposals would meet with general
approval by the advocacy groups, the other non-governmental organizations and church groups
interested in asylum issues. The Government was wrong.
When the Minister met with these groups to outline the proposals he was greeted with a storm of
protest and a vote of non-confidence. He was not allowed to finish his speech. The Minister walked
out of the meeting, but the battle lines had been drawn between the Government and the special interest organizations concerned about the protection of refugees. The criticism by the advocacy groups
centered on their demand that there be universal access to the Refugee Board. Anyone wishing to
make an asylum claim must be allowed to do so. They also demanded that if the claim was refused at
the first level then a de novo hearing must be granted at the second level.
The expectation for early reform of the asylum system was premature. In fact it was to be almost four
years after Rabbi Plaut’s report had been tabled before new refugee legislation was enacted in January
1989. There was no compromise by the organizations opposing the Government’s new asylum
proposals. These groups, often led by prominent refugee lawyers and left-wing activists, wielded a
powerful influence on Government. These were the organizations that maintained a watching brief on
refugee legislation. They favoured large-scale immigration and an open policy towards refugees. They
had easy access to the media. At public consultation hearings held by the Government to discuss new
legislation, the lawyers, NGOs, and the church representatives were always present and vocal. They
were highly organized and experienced lobbyists. As such they wielded much more influence than their
numbers or views warranted.
Furthermore, the Canadian advocacy groups tended to be fervently anti-American. In the late 1960s
and 1970s they had opposed the war in Vietnam and encouraged draft dodgers and military deserters
to come to Canada. In the 1980s they opposed United States policy in Central America and actively
encouraged asylum seekers from Guatemala and El Salvador, who were illegally in the United States,
to come to Canada and ask for asylum. Any tightening up of the Canadian asylum policy would impact
unfavourably on this movement. This explains in large part the intensity of their opposition to the
Government’s proposed asylum legislation. The influence of such groups in Canada has not abated.
The pressure they have been able to generate on the Government is one of the primary reasons why the Canadian asylum system has remained resistant to reform.
Two Contrasting Reports: The Ratushny and Plaut Studies
In November of 1986, the United States declared an amnesty for people without legal status who had
entered the United States before 1982. Those who had entered illegally after 1982 were faced with the
threat of deportation. Many of the latter were Central Americans and, with the urging of Canadian
advocacy organizations, hundreds of them began to arrive at the Canadian border seeking asylum. In
December 1986 in one three-day period more than 1,000 asylum seekers crossed the U.S.-Canadian
border to claim political asylum. It became clear that Canada was losing control of its borders.
All attempts by the Government to reach some sort of compromise with the special interest groups met
with failure. Finally, with no hope for reconciliation and faced with increasing numbers of asylum
seekers, the Government was forced to act. In May 1987 the long-overdue Refugee Bill was tabled in
Parliament. However, the Bill now included a much tougher provision — one that had been rejected
previously as too controversial. This was the “safe third country” concept. This provision denied access
to the asylum system to anyone coming to Canada from a “safe country” – that is from a country that
was a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention, was democratic, followed the rule of law, and had a
good human rights record.
The rationale of the “safe third country” provision was that people genuinely fleeing persecution would
normally ask for asylum in the country of their first destination. Those who did not do this, but instead
preferred to travel on to another country of their own choosing, were obviously not seeking protection
from persecution but rather were shopping around for a desirable country in which to settle. Their
objective was not protection but immigration.
It had become evident to immigration officials that without the “safe third country” provision the new
refugee legislation could not hope to stem the rising tide of asylum seekers — most of whom were
arriving from Western European countries and the United States. In addition, it became clear that
Professor Ratushny had been right — no quasi-judicial system could handle a large volume of
applications. Any asylum system had to restrict access to function adequately.
“Safe third country” was to be the instrument to achieve this. The seemingly unending numbers of
asylum seekers would overpower the model designed by Rabbi Plaut, which was weighted heavily in
favour of the asylum claimant. Moreover, it had been decided that because of the Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms all asylum claimants were entitled to free legal assistance when appearing before
As expected, the legislation did not have an easy passage through the Parliament. Opposition parties
supported by the special interest groups and the immigration-lawyer lobby criticized the legislation and
demanded amendments. The “safe third country” concept was described as a denial of natural justice
and a violation of basic human rights. Outside of Parliament a highly organized campaign against the Bill was organized.
Meanwhile, following a brief decline in the wake of the legislation, the number of asylum seekers
continued to increase, and backlogs continued to grow. The Government was forced to act. The arrival
of a ship in July 1987 that ran aground in Nova Scotia with 174 Sikhs aboard (who were being
smuggled into Canada) caused a public outcry for more effective control. Nevertheless, resistance to
the legislation remained strong and the debate in Parliament carried on through 1987 and into the
summer of 1988. Finally, with some minor amendments, the legislation received approval in July 1988
to come into effect on January 1, 1989. But this was not the end of the struggle.
Even after the legislation was approved, the advocacy groups continued to campaign against the
legislation. Their criticism was focused on the “safe third country” provision. This key provision had
also become a source of contention within the Cabinet as it had to decide the list of countries to be
declared “safe,” and there was a difference of opinion about whether the United States was a safe
country for Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The Minister of Immigration did not believe the United
States was safe for people from these two countries, yet the Minister of Foreign Affairs could not
accept a list of “safe” countries that did not include the United States.
This dilemma was not resolved until three days before the new legislation was to come into effect. On
December 28, 1988, the Minister of Immigration issued a short press release about the new refugee
law and declared: “…at the present time I am prepared to proceed with no country on the safe third
country list.” In one stroke the new asylum legislation had been emasculated. The Government had lost
Without the safe country provision the new legislation would prove to be useless in curbing the flow of
asylum seekers. The inability to screen out claimants who could have sought protection elsewhere
meant that numbers would soon overwhelm the new Refugee Board. Access controls were rejected —
everyone who arrived and claimed asylum status would be entitled to a hearing, due process of law,
and Charter of Rights protection. Rabbi Plaut and the advocacy groups had triumphed over Professor
Ratushny and those favouring reform of the system.
An Asylum Travesty
The generous system patterned after Rabbi Plaut’s model and unprotected by the safe country
provision was an open invitation for abuse. Adding to the problem was the newly established
Immigration and Refugee Board consisting of approximately 180 politically appointed members. The
great majority of these members were chosen from the ranks of immigration lawyers, advocacy groups,
and multicultural organizations. It appeared as though the Government was now determined to reward
the very groups that had fought so hard against passage of the refugee bill by placing the “foxes” in
charge of the asylum “chicken coop”.
As expected, the acceptance rate of the new IRB soared, and soon Canada had the highest approval
percentage of all the asylum countries. A high acceptance rate, combined with generous welfare and
social assistance programmes, free legal aid, the right to work immediately upon arrival, freedom of
mobility, and the privilege of applying for Canadian citizenship only three years after becoming a legal
resident, attracted more and more asylum claimants.
Since the legislation was proclaimed in 1989, over 350,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Canada,
and the numbers are on the increase. In 2000, about 38,000 arrived and last year the figure rose to
44,000.7 The majority of these asylum claimants arrive without documents or with fraudulent papers.
They purchase the documents from professional “people smugglers” to board an aircraft, or they arrive
at the Canadian border from the United States without documents and apply for refugee status.8
Trafficking in humans has become big business. The UN estimates that four million people are smuggled across international borders annually. Trafficking is controlled by international criminal organizations whose illicit earnings from this traffic are estimated by the UN to be close to $7 billion each year. Not surprisingly, Canada is fast becoming the country of choice for smugglers.
Not only does Canada permit anyone who arrives to make an asylum claim, but many of those
eventually denied refugee status are never removed from the country. Only about 9,000 people are
removed from Canada each year, and of these, approximately two-third are failed asylum seekers. The
asylum/removal process is lengthy, time consuming, and bogged down by legal wrangling.
Asylum claimants refused by the IRB have the right to seek leave to appeal to the Federal Court. They
can also, concurrently, apply to have their case reviewed by immigration authorities to determine if
there might be undue risk should they be returned. If leave to appeal is denied and the risk review
results in a negative decision, they have 30 days to voluntarily leave the country. During that period they are also entitled to have their case reviewed to see if there are any humanitarian reasons why they
should not be removed. If no humanitarian reasons are found and the individual does not depart, a
warrant for arrest is issued.
Due to chronic resource shortages, the immigration service is unable to effectively follow up on those
for whom a warrant has been issued. There are at present more than 25,000 arrest warrants
outstanding. Moreover, over 20 percent of asylum seekers entering Canada do not even appear for
their asylum hearing. Presumably they have gone “underground” or more likely have entered the United
States illegally.9 It is evident, therefore, that the chances of remaining in Canada despite a negative
ruling by the IRB are favourable. Naturally, this is a major selling point for the smugglers.
The guarantee of due process and procedural fairness granted asylum seekers by the Charter of Rights
and Freedom and the free legal assistance provided to them has subjected the asylum process to
excessive legalization. As asylum jurisprudence has evolved, the decisions affecting asylum are
increasingly being decided by lawyers and judges — most of who have never seen a real refugee or
visited a refugee camp. In the last several years more than 50 percent of the total caseload of the Trial
Division of the Federal Court has consisted of asylum cases. The litigious nature of the process has
made the removal of failed asylum seekers exceedingly difficult. This is true even for terrorists and
In 1986, a convicted terrorist and murderer from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
entered Canada illegally under a false identity. He was soon apprehended and ordered deported. He
took the Immigration Service to court and the case remains there today — 16 years later. It is
estimated that his court proceedings have cost the Canadian taxpayers more than $3 million and the
matter has still not been decided. This convicted terrorist is not detained but continues to operate a
small confectionery store in Ontario.
This January, a Tamil asylum seeker who was discovered to be a fundraiser for the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam, a terrorist organization, and who has been fighting deportation since the mid-1990s, was
awarded another deportation hearing by the Supreme Court of Canada. This will mean, in effect,
several more years of litigation before a decision can be made about his removal. By that time it is
doubtful any Government would be willing to send him home.
An Iranian assassin employed by the Iranian Security Service entered Canada seeking asylum in 1991.
He was apprehended by Canadian authorities and ordered deported. His lawyer has been fighting
against his removal for more than 10 years. The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that he
should be removed, but his lawyer managed to get the case heard by a Provincial Court and by the UN
Human Rights Commission. The Provincial Court has now referred the case back to the Supreme
Court and that Court has deferred his deportation until the Justices decide whether to hear his case
again. If they decide to do so it will be the third time the Supreme Court of Canada — the highest
court in the country — will have dealt with this case. Both the Tamil and the Iranian were found by the
IRB to be refugees. It was only after this discovery that the authorities, when conducting background
checks, discovered their past activities.10
Paradoxically, it is more difficult to remove asylum seekers who have committed serious crimes or
terrorist acts in their native countries than it is to remove those without a criminal record or history of
terrorist activity. If an individual might face the death penalty or suffer what is considered by Canadian
standards unusual or extraordinary punishment, he or she stands a much better chance of being allowed to remain.
There are at least eight individuals known to be either convicted or alleged terrorists with al Qaeda
connections now in Canada who are fighting extradition or removal. They come from Algeria, Egypt,
and Syria. Six of them are failed asylum seekers. They arrived during the 1990s with forged documents
and claimed to be seeking asylum from persecution. These men are still in Canada. It remains to be
seen if they will ever be removed.
Post-9/11: The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
In May 2001, a new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was tabled in the Canadian Parliament.
This was legislation that had been under study and preparation since 1997. It was based largely on an
extensive review carried out by a small advisory group whose report was entitled “Not Just Numbers.”11 One key recommendation of the report designed to reform the asylum system was the elimination of politically appointed members of the IRB. They would be replaced by professionally-trained permanent public servants. When the new legislation was introduced this key recommendation was noticeably absent.
In introducing the new Bill to the House of Commons Immigration Committee, Minister Elinor Caplan
stressed the Bill was designed to ensure that “...we are able to say ‘yes’ more often to immigrants and
refugees.” Caplan paid tribute to the Canadian Bar Association, the Council for Refugees, and the
UNHCR for their valuable help and guidance in the formulation of the legislation.
It was made abundantly clear that the new Bill was intended to take an even more expansive and
generous approach to asylum seekers than had the 1989 legislation. This could be inferred by the very
title of the new Act, which included for the first time the words “Refugee Protection” as well as
“Immigration.” It would appear that asylum seekers were to be afforded equal billing with lawful
immigrants. Increasingly large numbers of people being trafficked into the country was not seen as a
The Act makes it easier for those seeking asylum to qualify as refugees. The UN Convention definition
has been expanded to include persons who might suffer cruel or unusual punishment or whose lives
might be at risk if they were removed. In addition, the UN Convention against torture has been formally
incorporated into the Act so that anyone claiming fear of torture if removed will be afforded protection.
As a further safeguard, another level of review has been introduced following rejection at the initial
hearing. Now, instead of only being able to seek leave to appeal to the Federal Court, all rejected
cases will have an automatic appeal to a new division of the IRB. If refused at this level there is still the
opportunity to seek leave to appeal to the Federal Court and have a humanitarian review conducted by
the Immigration Service. The new Bill also formalizes the pre-removal risk assessment so that those
refused by the IRB are entitled to have this additional review carried out. Moreover, there is now a
provision allowing oral hearings at the pre-removal risk review.
As before, the new legislation retains the provision for implementation of the “safe third country”
concept. However, there is no suggestion that this provision will be enacted. If it ever should be, an
added safeguard has been included specifying that no country will be considered “safe” that has not
signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or
The legislation passed through the House of Commons with little concern or discussion about its asylum provisions. None of the opposition parties objected to the more generous approach to asylum seekers. There were no serious questions raised about the additional barriers to the removal of people found not to be genuine refugees. There was no concern that this legislation seemed to be out of step with all of the other asylum countries of Western Europe, the United States, and Australia.
The legislation had passed the House of Commons and was being examined by the Immigration
Committee of the Senate when the events of 9/11 took place. Suddenly it was apparent the new
legislation was deeply flawed. New witnesses appeared before the Senate Committee. They asked that
the Bill be sent back to the House of Commons to take into account the reality that many of the people
entering Canada in the guise of asylum seekers posed a serious threat to the security of Canada and the United States.12 Recommendations were offered suggesting the legislation adopt many of the measures used by the European countries and the United States to better control the inflow. The Senate was not listening.
The Government refused even to consider the possibility of amending the Bill, and the Senate passed it
in November 2001. The new legislation is scheduled to come into effect in the June of this year. It will
introduce an asylum system that many consider irresponsible and dangerous in light of the 9/11 attacks. It is a system that reflects an attitude of complacency and cynicism on the part of a Government that appears less concerned about the security of its citizens than in satisfying the demands of special interests.
There is little likelihood the current Canadian Government will change its mind about its approach to
asylum seekers. Change would only be possible as a result of a serious terrorist incident in Canada or
pressure from the United States Government. Unfortunately, while the system remains in effect it
undermines all other security measures taken by both countries to construct an effective North
American defense against terrorist threats.
1 In the early 1990s, the approval rate of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board was over 70
percent. The current rate is 55-60 percent. The Board approved 1,600 Pakistani and 2,000 Sri Lankan cases in 2000. That same year, all of Europe, the United States, and Australia approved a total of 500 from those two countries. In the summer of 2001, the Toronto section of the Board was approving Mexican cases at a rate of 75 percent.
2 The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) replaced the International Refugee
Organization (IRO) established in June 1947 to assist refugees. The IRO closed down in February
3 From 1947 to 1952 Canada accepted 186,150 refugees from Europe. In subsequent years,
large-scale movements of refugees assisted in the resolution of refugee problems affecting specific
countries: Hungary in 1956 (37,000), Czechoslovakia in 1968 (12,000), Uganda in 1972 (7,000),
Chile in 1973 (7,000), Indochina from 1975 to 1984 (100,000), and Lebanon from 1976 to 1979
(11,000). In 1986, in recognition of this contribution, the UNHCR awarded Canada the Nansen medal
— the first time any country had received such an honour.
4 Canada resettles each year 10,000 refugees selected from abroad, about 2,500 of whom are
sponsored by private groups.
5 Ironically, while Canada boasts of its generous asylum system, it does everything possible to
prevent people from using it. The imposition of visitor visas is the instrument of choice, but Canada also
has a network of overseas officers conducting airport checks and training airport staff to detect
potential asylum seekers.
6 In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that asylum claimants had the right to appear
personally before the decision-maker, otherwise known as the Singh Decision. The Court also ruled
that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects every individual in Canada, not only citizens or legal
residents. The Singh Decision is considered by many to preclude fundamental reform of the asylum
system, short of amending the Charter or introducing a “not-withstanding clause”.
7 The yearly costs for processing and caring for 40,000 asylum seekers is estimated to exceed $1
billion per year. Compare this with the $20-25 million Canada donates annually to the UNHCR, whose
caseload exceeds 22 million refugees per year.
8 Many Chinese citizens pay up to $50,000 to be smuggled into Canada, most of whom are
destined for the United States.
9 More than 30 percent of Chinese asylum seekers do not appear for their hearings. The figure for
Mexicans is close to 75 percent.
10 Prior to 9/11, criminal and security checks were not initiated on asylum seekers until after a
positive decision by the IRB. Now the criminal and security checks begin after the asylum seeker enters
the country, but such checks may take up to a year or more to complete, and in the meantime, the
individual is in Canada, able to work, and has unlimited freedom of movement.
12 From September 11, 2001 to January 2002, more than 2,500 asylum seekers have entered
Canada from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Albania, and Algeria. Visitors from Saudi Arabia still do
not require visas to enter Canada.
James Bissett is a former Canadian ambassador and was the executive director of Canada’s
Immigration Service from 1985 to 1990.