How Generous is Canada’s Refugee Asylum Process?

In a recent column in the Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson commented on Canada’s refugee system. The following is an analysis of the history of the myth that this system is “generous” and provides some data to assess its veracity. It is written by Edward Koning, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph

In discussing Minister Jason Kenney’s new plans for refugee reform, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson opened with perhaps the most oft-heard cliché in Canadian discourse on immigration: “Canada has had one of the most generous – if not the most generous – refugee-determination systems in the world.” In that light, so Simpson reasons, we should not be too critical about Kenney’s sharpening of refugee regulations.

The line of reasoning sounds awfully familiar. At least since the 1990s, politicians and public commentators have justified restrictions in refugee policy by referring to Canada’s alleged unmatched generosity. In debating a refugee reform in early 1994, for example, the Reform Party’s immigration critic Art Hanger stated that Canada accepts “numbers of refugee class immigrants that are virtually unheard of in the industrialized world”. More recently, when presenting the ‘Balanced Refugee Reform Act’ in April 2010, Minister Kenney began by boasting that Canada’s generous approach to the protection of refugees is “perhaps unique in the democratic world”.
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It is curious that the argument has not lost any power. The last two decades have seen several encompassing refugee reforms in Canada, which have, among other things, narrowed the definition of a refugee, increased identification controls, facilitated deportation, limited the possibilities for appealing a rejection, and given the Minister more individual leeway in deportation decisions. But it appears you can always make the case for yet another reform by arguing the extant system is overly generous by comparative standards.

The problem is, of course, that it is not true. According to 2010 data, Canada is number 7 among OECD countries in its acceptance rate: it approved roughly 38 percent of all asylum claims. This is indeed high by comparative standards, albeit still four places short of the podium. Acceptance rates are difficult to interpret, however, because they mask self-selection effects (the high score for Israel, for example, reflects that refugees do not apply for asylum in Israel unless they are sure their claim will be accepted) and supply-side differences (Turkey scores high on this measure, for example, because the share of applicants with a legitimate claim is larger). For that reason, it is more instructive to look at overall intake levels. On these indicators, Canada scores around the OECD average. Relative to the size of the population, Canada takes in five times as few asylum seekers as number 1, Sweden. And if we look at the number of asylum seekers as a share of the entire immigrant inflow, Canada’s relative standing is even worse.

Acceptance rate
(UNHCR, 2010)

Intake of asylum seekers per 10,000 citizens (OECD,

Intake of asylum seekers as % of total inflow (OECD,

1. Israel (100)

1. Sweden (33.9)

1. Greece (44.7)

2. Turkey (59.9)

2. Norway (20.6)

2. Sweden (40.3)

3. Netherlands

3. Belgium

3. France (35.4)

4. Australia

4. Switzerland

4. Turkey (30.9)

5. Portugal

5. Luxembourg

5. Finland

7. Canada (37.9)

13. Canada (6.6)

16. Canada (8.0)

None of this is to say that we should leave the refugee system as it is. There are few countries with a refugee backlog the size of Canada’s (according to UNHCR data, only Greece and Germany do worse in this respect). Simpson is right, therefore, in arguing that we should seriously consider proposals to expedite the determination process. It is difficult to have a serious debate, however, when its participants stubbornly perpetuate a patently false myth.