A thousand miles in their shoes: a glimpse into the world of refugee claimants

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Public Library

The United Nations’ designated World Refugee Day on June 20th will be a day observed
to celebrate and honour “the strength and courage of people who have been forced to
flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution.” Last year, Immigration,
Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reported over 90,000 asylum claims, including
nearly 4000 from claimants seeking refuge in British Columbia.

The Multi-Agency Partnership (MAP BC) is a politically neutral collective of government, non-
government and not-for-profit agencies in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley who advocate
for refugee claimants and the organizations that support them.
In honour of World Refugee Day, The Source Newspaper spoke to MAP BC to learn about the
commonalities among refugee claimants in Canada, with a focus on British Columbia.

Source: Which countries of origin do most refugee claimants in Canada originate from?

MAP BC: The top 5 countries from January 2022 to March 2023 were Iran, India, Mexico,
Colombia and Afghanistan according to the Immigration Refugee Board. We tend to see higher
numbers from some nationalities depending on the visa requirements that Canada imposes on
different countries. For instance, Mexican nationals can enter Canada with an Electronic Travel
Authorization, which is less costly and more likely to be approved compared to a tourist or
student visa that a claimant might try to obtain as a way of coming to Canada.
Another factor is the way in which claimants from different parts of the world get to Canada. For
example, most Iranian claimants arrive by air directly from Iran, while the majority of Colombian
refugee claimants journey to Canada by land. They often fly into Mexico where they can enter
without a visa and then take the perilous journey by land from Mexico into the US and then
make their way to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, Canada has just expanded the terms of
a bilateral agreement with the US called ‘The Safe Third Country Agreement’ (STCA), which has
essentially closed Canada’s doors to most claimants arriving by land. If a claimant tries to make a claim at the border with CBSA, or has already entered Canada irregularly, if they are intercepted by CBSA before 14 days they are deported back to the US, where they are likely to face detention and deportation. This will affect countless refugees who have endured horrible conditions in their journey to come to Canada. A lot of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East use Latin America as a bridge to travel to Canada since they cannot obtain a visa to get to fly in directly. This will sadly leave thousands of claimants who had journeyed by land, sometimes over several months, stranded along the way and facing deportation.

S:Would you say there is a typical claimant profile in terms of age, status at arrival in
Canada, or the number of years since their arrival?

MAP: There is no typical profile for refugee claimants, no. We see people from all walks of life
and all kinds of family compositions: singles, couples, families with young children, even
occasionally unaccompanied minors.
We see highly educated professionals. We see people with no formal education. We see youths
and seniors. We see people with connections in Canada and those who are completely alone in
an unfamiliar culture.
We see people who arrived in Canada as students, tourists and temporary workers and people
arriving irregularly who make a claim as soon as they can.
We see LGBTQ individuals from countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. They
may have been here for years as students, finally being able to express their true gender
identity, so they make a claim for protection in Canada.
We see women and girls fleeing domestic violence. We see human rights activists. We see
people being targeted by criminal groups.
Refugee claimants are as diverse as any other immigrant group in Canada.

S: How long does it usually take to claim refugee status from within Canada?

MAP: The refugee claim process in Canada can take an extremely long time. Usually years.
Depending on whether a claimant applied for refugee status at the border or airport (port of
entry claim), or if they make their claim once they are inside Canada (an inland claim), getting
the official status of “refugee claimant” can take days to several months.
The next step is to wait for a hearing with the Immigration Refugee Board to determine if they
are eligible for convention refugee or protected person status, which can take a year to a year
and a half. Sometimes people’s hearings are canceled or postponed, and the waiting game
starts all over again. For instance, the recent federal public services strike resulted in the
cancellation and rescheduling of dozens of refugee determination hearings that had to be
Meanwhile, a lot of people wait months and sometimes years just to get a work permit while
they wait for their hearings. It’s not just a matter of how long it takes, but what people have to
endure while they wait for a decision on their claim.
A lot of them have left their children and families behind in their home countries. If a claimant
wins their hearing and gets protected refugee status, the next step is to apply for permanent
residency, which is another process that can take around two years. The family left behind
cannot come to Canada until the very end of that process.
I would say it takes a minimum of four years between when a person arrives in Canada to make
a refugee claim and when they are reunited with family members left behind, it is an extremely
difficult process.

S: Is the refugee claim process one that most can complete on their own, like a visa

MAP: The refugee claim process is nothing like a visa application. It is a very long process with
several steps involving the IRCC, the Canadian Border Services Agency and the Immigration
Refugee Board. A refugee claimant is tasked with proving to Canada that their life is in danger
in their home country and that they cannot be protected by the local authorities. They must
present evidence, which a lot of the time isn’t available. They can’t provide physical proof that
you were targeted by criminal groups or that they have been abused by a spouse.
A lot of the time people are afraid to even make a police report or even discuss it with family, so
in a lot of cases their only proof is their own testimony. Even a tiny mistake or oversight when
filling out paperwork can bring their credibility into question during their hearing. There are just
too many factors and no room for error. For this reason, it is crucial that they have legal support
because ultimately this is a legal process and most refugee claimants are not familiar with the
Canadian legal or immigration system.
Most claimants cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars for a lawyer so they rely on Legal Aid
services, which they must apply for and are sometimes denied, so some people do attend their
hearings on their own. We see a lot of people being preyed upon by fake immigration
consultants or people who pretend to be lawyers, and unfortunately it often means that their
cases fail.
Of note, the Supreme Court is currently reviewing the legality of the STCA, and MAP BC has
partnered with the Vancouver Public Library to organize this year’s World Refugee Day Event to
bring attention to this issue. The event is called “The right to safety – is Canada failing refugee
claimants?” It will take place on June 20 at 350 W Georgia from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Everyone is
welcome to attend.
Event speakers will include: Aleks Dughman-Manzur, President of Canadian Council for
Refugees; Amanda Aziz, Executive Member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers;
and Olamide Olaniyan, Associate Editor at The Tyee.

For more information please visit: mapbc.org/help