Understand Canada’s Refugee Protection System

Learn about Canada’s refugee protection system and who it is designed for. Understand eligibility requirements for claiming refugee protection. Get to know the government agencies that are part of this process.

Canada’s Refugee Protection System Explained

Refugee definition

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who the Canadian government says is not able to return to their country because they may experience violence, harm or persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. They cannot live safely in their own country and must ask another country to provide them protection. 

An individual arriving in Canada may apply to be recognized as a refugee. This right comes from the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. If you apply for refugee protection you are called an asylum seeker, or refugee claimant if you are in Canada. 

You may have lived through a frightening experience or faced serious injustice in your country of origin. Or, you may be afraid to return to your country because it is dangerous or difficult to find work. These facts do not mean that you will automatically qualify for refugee protection. 

Every refugee claimant who asks for refugee protection must show that they meet the legal definition for a Convention Refugee or a Person in Need of Protection by making an application for refugee protection and going through the claim process. The legal definitions of these terms are found in sections 96 and 97 of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Convention Refugee definition

To meet the definition of Convention Refugee, you must show that you meet all six parts of the definition below:

  • If I return to my country, there is a serious possibility I will face persecution,
    and
  • This persecution is based on my: race / religion / nationality / political opinion / or membership in a particular social group,
    and
  • I am genuinely afraid to return to my country,
    and
  • I have good reason to be afraid based on the situation in my country,
    and
  • My government cannot protect me,
    and
  • I cannot live safely in any other part of the country or it is not reasonable for me – given who I am – to move to another part of the country.
Person In Need of Protection definition

To meet the definition of Person In Need of Protection, you must show show that Part 1 OR 2 below is true for you:

  1. If I return to my country, I am likely to face torture by the authorities in my country.

    OR

  2. If I return to my country, I am likely to face risk to my life, or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment,

    and

    • My government cannot protect me,
      and
    • I cannot live safely in any other part of my country or it is not reasonable for me – given who I am – to move to another part of my country,
      and
    • This risk is specific to and directed at me, NOT a general risk shared by/faced by everyone in my country,
      and
    • This risk is NOT because my country wants to punish me for committing an act which is a crime in Canada,
      and
    • This risk is NOT because of inadequate medical care in my country.

Am I eligible to make a refugee claim?

If you ask for refugee protection you will first be assessed by the Canadian government to determine if you are eligible (allowed) to make a refugee claim in Canada.

It is important that you understand what the eligibility requirements are so that you know whether you are allowed to make a refugee claim in Canada. Get legal advice before making a refugee claim.

Ineligibility

You may not be eligible to make a refugee claim in Canada if:

  • You have convention refugee status in another country that you can return to
  • You made a refugee claim in United States, United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand
  • You previously made a refugee claim in Canada that was refused, abandoned, or withdrawn
  • You have previously been found ineligible to make a refugee claim in Canada
  • You pose a danger to public security or have committed a serious crime or a human rights violation
  • You have previously been granted protected person status in Canada
  • You currently have an active removal order from the Canadian government
  • You went to a United States-Canada land border and were told by a CBSA officer that you cannot enter due to the STCA.
The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA)

Canada and the USA have an agreement called the STCA that can make it difficult for you to make a refugee claim at an official land border crossing, unless you meet certain requirements called “exceptions.” A border official will ask you questions to see if you meet any of the exceptions.

The exceptions are:

  • You have a family member in Canada
  • You are an unaccompanied minor without a parent or legal guardian in the United States
  • You have a valid Canadian visa, study permit or work permit
  • You have been convicted or charged with an offence and are facing the death penalty in the United States or in your country
  • You are stateless
  • You are a citizen of the United States.

Even if you pass the STCA exceptions you still have to do an eligibility interview.

If you are found ineligible to make a refugee claim you may be removed from Canada. If possible, speak to a lawyer or legal representative to find out if there are any other options for you to remain in Canada.

Brief overview of the refugee claim process in Canada

When you apply for refugee protection in Canada, you make a refugee claim. To succeed in your refugee claim, you must show that you meet the Canadian definition of a refugee. You must also show that you are telling the truth. You can do this by gathering evidence and by being honest, clear and detailed about what happened to you.

Making your refugee claim

The first step in making a refugee claim is to tell the Canadian government that you want to apply for refugee protection. You must be in Canada to make a refugee claim. There are two places and processes to do this: 

  • If you are at the border, airport, or detention centre – tell the CBSA officer that you want to make a refugee claim, or
  • If you are inside Canada – complete an application for refugee protection and submit it to IRCC.
Becoming eligible

CBSA or IRCC will decide if you are eligible or not eligible to make a refugee claim in Canada. If they decide you are eligible, your refugee claim will be sent to the IRB-RPD.

Your refugee claim hearing

You will have a refugee hearing where your request for protection will be decided. To be successful at your refugee hearing, you must provide evidence that shows you meet the legal definition of either Convention Refugee or Person in Need of Protection. The IRB-RPD will consider which definition applies to you when assessing your claim. If you are a citizen or permanent resident of more than one country, you must show that you are at risk in each country.

At your hearing, an IRB-RPD decision maker, called the Member, will consider your oral testimony, the testimony of your witnesses, your BOC Form, the referral package from IRCC or CBSA, and any other evidence submitted to decide if you qualify for refugee protection. 

After your refugee claim hearing

After your hearing you will be told whether your refugee claim is accepted or rejected. If it is accepted you can apply for Permanent Residence. If your claim is rejected, you may be able to appeal your negative decision. You can speak to a lawyer or legal representative to find out about your options. 

Meet the Three Government Agencies Involved in Your Refugee Claim Process

It is important for you to understand the three different government agencies involved in the refugee claim process. Each agency acts independently and has roles and responsibilities. These agencies do not automatically share information with each other.

The three government agencies are: 

  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) 
  • Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)
  • Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). 

Role of IRCC

If you start your refugee claim from within Canada you will submit your application to IRCC. 

IRCC has the following roles in your refugee claim process:

  • Receive and process your application to begin a refugee claim from within Canada
  • Decide if you are eligible to make a claim 
  • Refer your refugee claim information (if you are eligible) to the IRB-RPD.

IRCC may oppose your refugee claim by sending written documents or a representative, called the Minister’s Counsel, to argue against you at your hearing. You will know if IRCC is opposing your refugee claim because they will send you or your legal representative a letter, called a Notice of Intervention.

IRCC is also responsible for:  

Role of CBSA

If you start your refugee claim at a Port of Entry (border, airport or marine port) or from immigration detention you will make your refugee claim to a CBSA officer.

CBSA has the following roles in your refugee claim process:

  • Initiate and process your application to begin a refugee claim
  • Decide if you are eligible to make a claim
  • Refer your refugee claim information (if you are eligible) to the IRB-RPD.

CBSA may oppose your refugee claim by sending written documents or a representative, called the Minister’s Counsel, to argue against you at your hearing. You will know that CBSA is opposing your refugee claim because they will send you or your legal representative a letter, called a Notice of Intervention.

CBSA is also responsible for:

  • Controlling Canada’s borders and deciding who can enter Canada and who must leave
  • Arranging the removal from Canada of refugee claimants who receive a negative decision on their refugee claim and have no other legal options to remain in Canada.

CBSA has the right to detain you:

  • If they cannot confirm your identity,
  • If they believe you may be a danger to Canadian society, or
  • If they believe you are not going to comply with one of Canada’s immigration laws.

If you are detained, you have the right to a lawyer or legal representative and a hearing will be held to discuss your release.

Role of the IRB

After you have been assessed for eligibility by either IRCC or CBSA, your refugee claim application will be sent to the IRB. The IRB has four divisions:

The IRB-RPD will process and make a decision on your claim, and has the following roles in your claim process:

  • Review your Basis of Claim (BOC) Form and all other documents and evidence submitted in support of your refugee claim
  • Conduct your refugee hearing
  • Decide whether your refugee claim is accepted or rejected
  • Provide orientation to the refugee hearing through the Ready Tour.

Keep your address up to date with all three agencies

It is important to keep your contact information up to date so that you do not miss any letters or correspondence containing important information about your refugee claim.

Changing your address with the IRB-RPD

There are two ways to notify the IRB-RPD of your new address or phone number:

When filling the form or writing a letter be sure to include:

  • Your new address, phone number, or email
  • Your name
  • Your IRB File Number or your Client ID (called your UCI Number) – these can be found on any letters from the IRB or on your Refugee Protection Claimant Document.

You can submit the form or letter to the IRB by mail, fax, or email.

Changing your address with IRCC

To change your address with IRCC you can go to the Webform and follow the steps to put in your new address.

Tips for filling in the Webform:

  • Select “Change of Contact Information” when you are asked to put in your “type of application/enquiry”
  • Find your UCI number on your Refugee Protection Claimant Document or on any letters from IRCC.
Changing your address with CBSA

At your interview with CBSA, an officer will provide you with instructions on how and where to notify CBSA of any change to your contact information.