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10.10.2019 | Von:
Shaina Somers

Canada's Changing Migration, Refugee and Asylum Policies: 2015 Onwards

Since 2015, Justin Trudeau's Liberal government has been bringing changes to Canada's migration, refugee and asylum policy. What do these changes mean four years (and an upcoming election) later?
A television interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays on a screen as people wait to welcome Syrian refugees Mohammad Kurdi and his family at Vancouver International AirportA television interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays on a screen as people wait to welcome Syrian refugees Mohammad Kurdi and his family at Vancouver International Airport. (© picture-alliance/AP, AP Photo/Canadian Press)

After nearly ten years in office, the era of Stephen Harper Conservatism came to an end in 2015 when the Liberal Party was elected with a majority in Parliament. Under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal Party campaigned heavily upon the promise of a more liberal approach to immigration policy. The photo of Alan Kurdi's lifeless body on a Turkish beach caused much debate during the election. The family had in vain tried to escape the conflict in Syria by seeking asylum in Canada and joining family members already settled there before crossing the Aegean Sea – a voyage that would cost the lives of two-year-old Alan, his five-year-old brother, and his mother. The Canadian connection of the Alan Kurdi photo made immigration a key voting issue for much of the electorate. Trudeau’s government initially seemed to do good on the promises made during their campaign by bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of December 2015, just two months after winning the federal election.

The Liberal Party government seemed committed to doing politics differently than its predecessor. One of the first changes was the renaming of the department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) highlighting the new government’s commitment to refugees as part of its mandate. In 2017, Ahmed Hussen was appointed by Trudeau to be the new Minister of the IRCC. Under Hussen, IRCC began creating multiyear levels plans for immigration, a shift from the one year plans policy left over from the Conservative government. The most recent 2019-2021 immigration plan aims to stimulate the growth of the Economic Immigrant Class[1], and therefore presents a shift away from the refugee focused policy that was a strong element of Trudeau’s campaign in 2015. Throughout the four years the Trudeau government has been in office, there have been changes to every aspect of immigration pathways and policies.

2019-2021 Immigration Levels Plan

Projected Admissions – Targets 330.800341.000350.000
Projected Admissions – RangesLowHighLowHighLowHigh
Federal Economic Provincial/Territorial Nominees142.500176.000149.500172.500157.500178.500
Quebec-selected Skilled Workers and BusinessTo be determinedTo be determinedTo be determinedTo be determinedTo be determinedTo be determined
Family reunification83.00098.00084.000102.00084.000102.000
Refugees, Protected Persons, Humanitarian and Other43.00058.50047.00061.50048.50064.500
Total310.000350.000310.000 360.000320.000 370.000
Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2018): 2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, S. 12. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2018): 2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, p. 12. Available online: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/ircc/migration/ircc/english/pdf/pub/annual-report-2018.pdf (accessed: 8-21-2019).


Quick Facts

  • There are a number of pathways which allow immigrants to become permanent residents of Canada: Economic, Family, Protected Persons and Refugees. Humanitarian and Compassionate are provisions given on a case by case basis.* The main countries of origin of migrants entering Canada via one of these landing classes are the Philippines, India, China, Iran, Pakistan, the United States and Syria.**
  • Canadian Citizenship is granted to those born on Canadian territory (jus soli) and can be passed down through one generation (jus sanguinis).
  • Since 1988, the official Canadian Multiculturalism Act has called for the preservation and enhancement of multiculturalism in Canada.*** Under this policy, multiculturalism is regarded as an intrinsic and fundamental component of Canadian heritage and identity and is thus protected and promoted through the Act (Multiculturalism Act, 1985).
  • Immigrant integration is supported by settlement programs funded in part by the government. These programs offer such things as orientation, language skills training, and labour market access.
*Canadian Justice Laws (2019): Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, last modified July 26, 2019, https://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/i-2.5/fulltext.html (accessed: 9-3-2019)

** Statistics Canada (2017): Immigrant Population in Canada, 2016 Census of Population, last modified October 25, 2017, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2017028-eng.htm (accessed: 6-20-2019).

*** Canadian Justice Laws (2019): Canadian Multiculturalism Act, last modified July 26, 2019, https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-18.7/ (accessed: 6-20-2019).

Economic Class Changes: Rural and Northern Focus

In Canada immigration has often been framed as a means of economic and demographic development. Canada’s renowned points system favours highly skilled economic migrants from other countries. The system assigns an economic migrant points according to six selection factors: official language ability (English and/or French), age, education, skilled work experience, job offer in Canada, and ability to adapt.[2] The more points scored, the higher the chance an economic migrant can immigrate to Canada under the Federal Skilled Worker Program.

In March 2019, the Trudeau government announced a new initiative to the Economic class stream: the Rural and Northern Community Pilot Program. This pilot program helps smaller communities attract and retain economic migrants to meet their economic and labour market needs.[3] Often, when new immigrants first arrive in Canada, larger cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal may seem to offer greater access to settlement services and labour market opportunities. The focus on rural and northern communities may signify a shift towards decentralizing immigration policy. Local communities now have a voice in shaping a demand driven policy in immigration for economic reasons rather than a skills driven one.

Family Reunification and Sponsorship: New Year, New Plan

Canadian citizens and permanent residents may sponsor family members who fall under the family class. Spouses, common-law partners, conjugal partners, parents, grandparents and dependent children are considered family under this class but not siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles.[4] Since 2015, there have been changes to the parents and grandparents family sponsorship stream. This stream operated under a first-come-first-served paper application system that was replaced with an online lottery system in 2017. In the new lottery system, IRCC randomly selected 10,000 applications to move forward in the application process. This lottery system was deemed controversial, unfair and "based on luck" by sponsors, immigration lawyers and advocates, and politicians from other Canadian political parties.

The family reunification program changed once again in 2018, when IRCC announced that over the next two years, Canada would commit itself to accepting 40,000 parents and grandparents.[5] This announcement was matched with the news that the system would revert back to a first-come-first-served model. The 27,000 application spots available in 2019 were filled within minutes of the application portal opening on January 28th, 2019.

Figure 1: Immigration to Canada by category, 2015-2017, principal applicants and immediate family membersFigure 1: Immigration to Canada by category, 2015-2017, principal applicants and immediate family members. (Download the chart PDF-Icon here) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)

Asylum Seekers: #WelcometoCanada?

In January 2017, after U.S President Donald Trump announced a travel ban against several countries where Muslims are in the majority, Justin Trudeau tweeted: "To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcometoCanada".[6] The tweet signaled how political changes in the U.S have ripple effects in Canada.[7] One of these changes was the U.S government's decision to end temporary permits given to Haitians to live and work in the U.S after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. This announcement led to an increase in Haitians entering Canada from the U.S. Many of them crossed the land border at unofficial entry points and claimed asylum in Canada in 2017.[8] However, compared to 2017's number of over 8,000 asylum claims by Haitians[9], numbers have lowered in 2018[10] and 2019[11]. This is in part due to Canadian representatives reaching out to Haitian communities in the U.S to share accurate information about the asylum seeking process in Canada.[12] Chances of gaining protection status in Canada were not particularly high, with one in four Haitian asylum applications being successful.[13]
Figure 2: Number of asylum claimants processed by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) offices, 2011-2018Figure 2: Number of asylum claimants processed by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) offices, 2011-2018. (Download the chart PDF-Icon here) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
In 2018, the number of asylum claims reached its highest level since 1989 – despite lower numbers of Haitian asylum seekers. This trend has prompted Trudeau’s government to reconsider its welcoming approach. In April of 2019, the government introduced an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (hereafter IRPA)[14] to prevent "asylum shopping". The amendment stated that refugees would no longer be able to make asylum claims in Canada or have a hearing regarding their refugee status if they have already made a claim in one of the other "five-eyes" countries (in addition to Canada those countries are the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand). These countries share intelligence. If an individual has made an asylum claim only in Canada, their case goes before the Immigration and Refugee Board for a hearing to determine if the claimant meets the requirements for refugee status. They are also able to appeal the board's decision if their claim is rejected.

In May 2019, IRCC announced that Canada would remove the Designated Countries of Origin (DCO) policy.[15] The DCO was a list of over 40 countries, many of which were in Western and Central Europe, but also included Mexico and the Five Eyes countries. The DCO meant to deter potential abuse of the refugee system by people who come from countries that were considered generally safe. Claims from these countries were to be processed faster because it was assumed that they were more likely to be unfounded. Nonetheless, the government identified that the DCO classification did not serve as a disincentive nor did it lead to shorter processing times for asylum claims by citizens from these countries.

Despite the removal of the DCO policy, the separate Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between the United States and Canada which has been in force since 2004 remains in place. It states that refugees cannot make asylum claims in Canada if they arrive in the U.S first. The same applies for the U.S.: if refugees land in Canada first, they cannot make a claim in the U.S. However, there is a loophole within the agreement which some asylum seekers make use of: if they make their asylum claims at unofficial points of entry on the U.S.-Canada land border they do not fall under the STCA and may have their claims processed in Canada.

Refugee advocacy groups such as the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) call for the removal of STCA. CCR believes that whether or not the agreement is in place, people in desperate circumstances fleeing for their lives will do whatever it takes to have a chance at safety, including crossing unmarked land borders and facing arrest.[16] However, individual asylum claims on Canadian territory play a minor role in humanitarian protection as compared to resettlement.

Refugees Resettlement: Different Pathways

The Trudeau government committed to admitting more refugees through Canada’s three refugee resettlement pathways: Government Assisted, Private Sponsorship and Blended Visa-Office Referred. Government-assisted refugees receive resettlement assistance from the federal government. Privately sponsored refugees are refugees who receive resettlement assistance by organizations or groups of Canadian citizens and/or permanent residents. The Blended Visa-Office Referred (BVOR) Program was introduced by the federal government as a response to large refugee influxes. It blends the resettlement responsibilities between private sponsors and government.[17] Although the Trudeau government committed to resettling a total of 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 through these pathways, after 2016, private sponsorship became the primary mode of refugee resettlement for Syrians.[18]

Private refugee sponsorship is a unique model that has existed in Canada for 40 years. The Canadian government has leaned on civil society mobilizing and using this policy to sponsor refugees. Businesses, community groups, faith groups or groups of a minimum of five people are eligible to sponsor refugees. Sponsors are responsible for financially assisting their sponsored refugees for a minimum of twelve months in food, shelter, housing and additional expenses. They also provide social support in helping with labour market integration, language classes, schooling, and other means of social integration support. In the past, private sponsorship was used extensively to address refugee resettlement during the Vietnam War. In 2016, the Canadian government partnered with a number of other non-profit organizations and the United Nations to create the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI). This initiative aims to spread the private sponsorship model to other countries around the world. Initially, the private sponsorship policy was meant to act as a supplement to government-assisted sponsorship, but it now plays a key role in refugee protection in Canada. The positive public image of private sponsorship by civil society allows the state to promote the model as a way for citizens and permanent residents to become engaged and involved with refugee issues. However, the state is still responsible for admitting refugees through government assistance and should be cautious that the development of private sponsorship does not result in an offloading of the state’s responsibilities onto civil society.

Figure 3: Resettled refugees and protected persons in Canada 1980-2016Figure 3: Resettled refugees and protected persons in Canada 1980-2016. (Download the chart PDF-Icon here) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)

"It's 2019": What now?

Like in many countries around the world, immigration has become a focal point in national elections. After four years, Canadians will head to the polls in October 2019 to vote in the federal election. Trudeau campaigned on a liberal immigration platform in 2015, and continued on a similar strategy in the early years of his government. However, during the past year and a half in the run up to the upcoming election, he has carefully been distancing himself from his more generous stances on immigration. Trudeau and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Ralph Goodale, have been cultivating a rhetoric and image that Canada is a country of law and order – an image that has been prominent in discussions around immigration policy. This has particularly been targeted towards asylum seekers, who are reminded of Canada's values of law and order. Trudeau states that the country does not have a weak immigration system that encourages individuals to make claims in Canada, but rather, global instability[19] is causing the higher numbers of asylum seekers. #WelcometoCanada therefore becomes highly conditional in effect; migrants are welcome – so long as they mind the rules.

In the past four years of Justin Trudeau's Liberal government, Canada’s immigration policies have gone through a number of developments and modifications after campaigning in 2015 on increasing numbers admitted through family reunification and refugee classes. Come election time in October 2019, Canadians will vote for if they want to continue on this pathway with the Trudeau government.

Further Readings

  • El-Assal, K.; Fields, D. (2018): Canada 2040: No Immigration Versus More Immigration. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada.
  • Hyndman, J., Payne, W., & Jimenez, S. (2017): Private Refugee Sponsorship in Canada. Forced Migration Review, (54), pp. 56-59.
  • Kelley, N.; Trebilcock, M. J. (2010): The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (2nd ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  • Knowles, V. (2016): Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, pp. 1540-2015 (4th ed.). Dundurn.
  • Labman, S.; Pearlman, M. (2018): Blending, Bargaining, and Burden-Sharing: Canada's Resettlement Programs. Journal of International Migration and Integration / Revue De l'Integration Et De La Migration Internationale, 19(2), pp. 439-449.
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Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2018): 2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, p. 12. Available online: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/ircc/migration/ircc/english/pdf/pub/annual-report-2018.pdf (accessed: 8-21-2019).
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2018): Six Selection Factors – Federal Skilled Workers Program (Express Entry), last modified August 29, 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/immigrate-canada/express-entry/eligibility/federal-skilled-workers/six-selection-factors-federal-skilled-workers.html (accessed 6-28-2019).
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2019): Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, last modified June 26, 2019, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/immigrate-canada/rural-northern-immigration-pilot.html (accessed 6-28-2019).
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2019): Family Sponsorship, last modified July 26, 2019, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/immigrate-canada/family-sponsorship.html (accessed 6-28-2019).
Catherine Tunney (2018): Liberals Scrap Controversial Family Reunification Lottery, Accepting More Applications. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, last modified August 21, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/lottery-immigration-reunification-1.4791705 (accessed 6-28-2019).
Justin Trudeau (2017): https://twitter.com/justintrudeau/status/825438460265762816?lang=en (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Atak, I. et al. (2017): "Making Canada's Refugee System Faster and Fairer:" Reviewing the Stated Goals and Unintended Consequences of the 2012 Reform. Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Working Paper No. 3.
Miriam Jordan (2017): Trump Administration Ends Temporary Protection for Haitians. The New York Times, last modified November 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/us/haitians-temporary-status.html (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Immigration and Refugee Board (2018): Refugee Protection Claims (New System) by Country of Alleged Persecution – 2017, last modified July 3, 2018, https://irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/statistics/protection/Pages/RPDStat2017.aspx (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Immigration and Refugee Board (2019): Refugee Protection Claims (New System) by Country of Alleged Persecution – 2018, last modified February 15th, 2019, https://irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/statistics/protection/Pages/RPDStat2018.aspx (accessed: 9-5-2019).
Immigration and Refugee Board (2019): Refugee Protection Claims (New System) by Country of Alleged Persecution – 2019, last modified August 16th, 2019, https://irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/statistics/protection/Pages/RPDStat2019.aspx (accessed: 9-5-2019).
Jacqueline Charles (2017): Who is Encouraging Haitians to Cross the Border? Canada Wants to Know. Miami Herald, last modified September 13, 2017, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article169497902.html (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Martin Patriquin (2018): Canada Registers Sixfold Increase in US Citizens Seeking Asylum in 2017, last modified November 14, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/14/us-citizens-seeking-asylum-canada-increases-immigration-refugees (accessed: 8-20-2019).
Kathleen Harris (2019): Liberals Move to Stem Surge in Asylum Seekers – but New Measure Will Stop Just a Fracture of Claimants, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, last modified April 11, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/refugee-asylum-seekers-border-changes-1.5092192 (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (2019): ARCHIVED – Designated Countries of Origin Policy, last modified May, 2019, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/claim-protection-inside-canada/apply/designated-countries-policy.html
Canadian Council for Refugees (2017): Refugees Entering from U.S and Safe Third Country FAQ, http://ccrweb.ca/en/refugees-entering-us-and-safe-third-country-faq (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Labman, S., & Pearlman, M. (2018): Blending, Bargaining, and Burden-Sharing: Canada's Resettlement Programs. Journal of International Migration and Integration / Revue De l'Integration Et De La Migration Internationale, 19(2), pp. 439-449.
Statistics Canada (2019): Study: Syrian Refugees Who Resettled in Canada in 2015 and 2016, last modified February 12, 2019, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/190212/dq190212a-eng.htm (accessed: 6-29-2019).
Tasha Kheiriddin (2019): Commentary: Will the 2019 Vote Be the Election of Hate?, last modified May 6, 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/5235846/canada-immigration-election/ (accessed: 6-29-2019).
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