Prior to that, refugee policy functioned on an ad-hoc basis in direct response to particular events around the world. For example, special programs with relaxed immigrant selection criteria were set up to admit people from Hong Kong in 1962 (the first time that Canada opened its doors to non-European refugees), from Czechoslovakia in 1968 and from Uganda in 1972.
Refuge and asylum are now regulated under the 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). Under the IRPA, there are two avenues for obtaining refugee status: the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program for people seeking refugee status from outside Canada, and the In-Canada Asylum Program for people launching protection claims from within the country. Under the resettlement program, refugees abroad (e.g. in a refugee camp) are sponsored to come and settle in Canada, either by the government or privately, by groups, organizations or individuals. The Canadian government relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), referral organizations and private sponsoring groups to identify refugees to be sponsored. Persons thus identified are then evaluated by a Canadian visa office
In addition to the resettlement program, it is possible to apply for asylum, as a Convention refugee or other person in need of protection, from within Canada. In this case, asylum can be claimed at a port of entry or at a CIC office in Canada. If a CIC officer decides that a claimant is eligible, the case is sent to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) for a decision. For the past 20 years, acceptance rates have remained at approximately 40-45 percent. In 2010 and 2011, that rate declined to 38 percent, the lowest in the history of the IRB.
Changes in Canada’s refugee program
Two pieces of legislation – the 2010 Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the 2012 Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (also known as Bill C-31) – have changed Canada’s refugee program substantially in the past couple of years. First, there is a new administrative category – Designated Countries of Origin or DCOs – which denotes countries that are not considered to be sources of refugee movements, that respect human rights, and that have an independent judicial system and civil society organizations.
A number of NGOs, like the Canadian Council of Refugees (CCR), have expressed concern about these changes. One concern is that the short timeframes for launching a claim will make it difficult to prepare cases properly and/or obtain appropriate documentation from some origin countries. Another is that placing the authority for designating a country as a DCO in the hands of the Minister rather than independent experts may lead to false designations in the interest of expediency. Third, the CCR questions the constitutional legality of detention and review procedures for people designated – at the discretion of the government – as irregular arrivals. Plans to detain children under 16 years of age or offer families the option of releasing them into the care of the state are seen as particularly worrisome. Finally, alongside the high degree of Ministerial discretion in the new laws, the CCR has heavily criticized the numerous restrictions placed on appeals.