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2016: A Record-Setting Year for Refugee Resettlement in Canada?

Feb 02, 2016
Kareem El-Assal Kareem El-Assal
Research Associate, Education and Immigration Research
National Immigration Centre

On two occasions since the Second World War, Canada responded to a major international crisis by resettling 20,000 or more refugees from a single source country or region. An estimated 37,500 Hungarians arrived in 1956–57, and nearly 69,000 “boat people” from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came between 1975 and 1980. Today, Canada has pledged to resettle at least 35,000 Syrians by December 2016. If this pledge is met, Canada will likely see its 2016 refugee intake reach a level not seen since 1992, the last time more than 40,000 refugees were admitted into Canada in a calendar year. By the end of the year, this resettlement effort could prove to be Canada’s second-largest since 1945—and the numbers could grow even larger as efforts extend into 2017 and beyond.

Understanding Canada’s Syria Pledge

Canada admits five categories of refugees. Three categories concern people who are admitted after they have been classified as refugees overseas (resettled refugees) and who receive permanent residence upon arrival in Canada. The fourth and fifth categories concern people who are granted permanent residence following successful refugee claims made in Canada.

  1. Government-assisted refugees (GARs) are people who are resettled from abroad and receive financial support from the federal government or Quebec.1
  2. Privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) are people who are also resettled from abroad, but are financially supported by private sponsors.
  3. Blended visa office-referred refugees (BVORs) comprise a hybrid of categories one and two. Introduced in 2013, the BVOR program provides up to six months of federal government support and an additional six months of financial support by private sponsors.
  4. Refugees landed in Canada (RLCs) are people who have had their inland refugee claims (i.e., within Canada) accepted by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Following the acceptance of their claims, they are eligible to apply for permanent residence.
  5. Refugee dependants are family members of refugees already landed in Canada. Their applications for permanent residence are considered concurrently with that of their family member who has made a successful refugee claim.

Between January 2014 and August 2015, the federal government resettled about 2,400 Syrian refugees. The newly elected federal government pledged to admit:

  • 10,000 Syrians by the end of December 2015 (2,000 GARs and 8,000 PSRs)
  • 15,000 more by the end of February 2016 (13,000 GARs and 2,000 PSRs)
  • 10,000 more GARs by end of December 2016

The 10,000-Syrians milestone was officially reached on January 12, 2016—two weeks later than anticipated, which, according to Minister John McCallum, was due to inclement weather, refugees needing more time to prepare for their moves to Canada, and other circumstances beyond the federal government’s control.2

Canada has also raised the possibility of welcoming more Syrians through private sponsorship, which means over 37,400 Syrians could be admitted by December 2016—and the number could eventually surpass the figure for Hungarian arrivals in 1956–57.

Canada’s Refugee Intake: Historical Overview

Prior to 1978, Canada admitted refugees on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis.3 Since Canada did not have a formal refugee policy rooted in law, refugees were admitted as exceptions to Canada’s immigration procedures.4 Following the implementation of a new immigration act in 1978, Canada created a legal basis for its refugee policy that identified refugees as a distinct class of immigrants who were eligible for admission into the country.

The Act established the privately sponsored refugee (PSR) category and a new determination system for inland claims. The PSR category had an immediate impact on Canada’s refugee intake, as it enabled Canadians to help financially support the resettlement of the boat people in 1979–80, which continues to rank as Canada’s largest post-Second World War resettlement effort. (See Table 1 “Highlights of Canadian Refugee Resettlement.”) After the Act took effect, the number of inland claims was low at first, but steadily grew from 3,450 in 1981, to 6,100 in 1983, and to 25,000 in 1987, creating a backlog.5

In Singh v. Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that refugee claimants were subject to the same Charter of Rights protections as residents of Canada, and that claimants had the right to oral hearings to determine the veracity of their refugee claims. In response to the backlog and Singh, the federal government established the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) in 1989, an administrative tribunal that rules on immigration and refugee matters and is independent of the federal government.

Refugee Intake Between 1979 and 2014

Between 1979 and 2014, Canada admitted nearly 981,100 refugees—about 27,300 annually. (See Chart 1.) Following the resettlement of 27,600 refugees in 1979 and 40,300 in 1980, Canada’s refugee intake declined until it surpassed 20,000 again in 1987—a level that Canada has maintained every year since. Canada’s refugee intake peaked between 1989 and 1993 when an average of 42,800 refugees were admitted per year—including over 50,000 refugees in both 1991 and 1992. The large intake of refugees during this period was due to the federal government’s Refugee Backlog Clearance Program6 and the growth of the RLC category following the establishment of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in 1989. Since 1993, Canada’s refugee intake has steadied to about 26,600 per year—and has averaged 24,600 annually between 2010 and 2014.

Refugee Intake By Category: 1979 to 2014

After the implementation of the Immigration Act in 1978, most refugees admitted to Canada were resettled under the government-assisted and privately sponsored categories. Between 1979 and 1992, Canada resettled more than 20,000 refugees in a calendar year on eight occasions7—a level that has not been reached since 1992.

In the early 1990s, Canada’s resettled refugee intake began to decline following a brief spike. Canada admitted an average of 13,400 GARs between 1979 and 1990; since 1991, it has admitted an average of only 7,500 GARs annually. Intakes of PSRs saw similar declines. After averaging 13,300 PSRs per year between 1979 and 1993, the average declined to only 3,700 per annum since 1994.

On the other hand, the intake of refugees landed in Canada (RLC) began to rise shortly after the IRB’s establishment. It surpassed 9,000 for the first time in 1991 and has remained above this level on an annual basis since. In 1995, Canada’s RLC intake surpassed the combined number of resettled refugees admitted into the country for the first time. (See Chart 2.) This pattern continued until recently; refugees landed in Canada have been Canada’s main source of refugees over the past 20 years, making up 58 per cent of the total intake. Between 1995 and 2014, Canada admitted more refugees inland than from abroad in all but three years (2009, 2013, and 2014).

The trend of Canada’s intake of resettled refugees exceeding the intake of RLCs is likely to have continued for a third consecutive year in 2015, and is set to continue in 2016 due to the expected number of Syrian arrivals.8

What to Expect in 2016

Should Canada meet its Syrian refugee pledge, we can expect to see several interesting developments in 2016. Canada’s combined intake of refugees across all categories and source countries will likely exceed 30,000 for the first time since 2006, and could surpass 40,000 for the first time since 1992, which would mark only the fifth such occasion since 1979.9 Canada’s intake of resettled refugees in 2016 is set to exceed 20,000 for the first time since 1992.

Another noteworthy statistic: should Canada meet its pledged amount of 23,000 Syrian GARs in 2016, it will result in the largest number of refugees arriving to Canada through government assistance in a calendar year since 1957, when Canada helped land over 32,000 Hungarian refugees.10

While the number of Syrians arriving will likely fall short of the number of boat people resettled between 1975 and 1980, the total of Syrian refugees admitted into Canada by December 2016 could well surpass the Hungarian arrivals in 1956–57 as Canada’s second-largest post-Second World War resettlement effort ever, underscoring the historical magnitude of Canada’s Syrian refugee commitment.

On April 4–5, 2016, in Ottawa, we will be discussing refugee settlement and integration, and other pressing immigration issues, at The Conference Board of Canada’s 2016 Immigration Summit.

The Summit will engage participants in thought-provoking dialogue, and share national and international best-practice solutions to the challenges we face in improving our immigration system. Click here to become involved.


Becklumb, Penny. Canada’s Inland Refugee Protection System. Ottawa: Parliament of Canada, September 2008.

Canadian Council for Refugees. Brief History of Canada’s Responses to Refugees. (accessed December 3, 2015).

Canadian Council for Refugees. Immigration to Canada—1979–2004. (accessed December 3, 2015).

Dirks, Gerald E. Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Canada—Admissions of Permanent Residents as Refugees by Immigration Category, 1980–March 2015, Research DataMart as of September 2015. Ottawa: IRCC, 2015.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Facts and Figures 2014—Immigration Overview: Permanent Residents. (accessed December 1, 2015).

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. IMDB 2008 Immigration Category Profiles: Privately Sponsored Refugees. Ottawa: IRCC, 2012.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. #WelcomeRefugees: Milestones and Key Figures. (accessed January 15, 2016).

Lemco, Jonathan. Canada and the Crisis in Central America. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991.

The Canadian Press. “John McCallum Won’t Guarantee 10,000 Syrian Refugees Will Arrive in Canada by Year End.” The Huffington Post, December 23, 2015. (accessed January 15, 2016).

Troper, Harold. “Becoming an Immigrant City: A History of Immigration Into Toronto Since the Second World War.” In The World in a City, eds. Paul Anisef and Michael Lanphier, 19–62. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.


1    The Canada-Quebec Accord enables Quebec to administer federally funded settlement and integration services to immigrants and refugees in the province.

2    Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, #WelcomeRefugees; The Canadian Press, “John McCallum Won’t Guarantee.”

3     Lemco, Canada and the Crisis, 152.

4    Troper, “Becoming an Immigrant City”, 52.

5    Becklumb, Canada’s Inland Refugee Protection System.

6    Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, IMDB 2008.

7    In 1979, 1980, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992.

8    Preliminary data show that in the first three months of 2015, Canada accepted an estimated 5,179 refugees (GARs: 1,500; PSRs: 1,061; RLC: 2,605; BVOR: 13).

9    Canada’s calendar-year refugee intake surpassed 40,000 in 1980, 1990, 1991, and 1992.

10    Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy, 202.

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