Printer icon Print Page
Hot Topics in Immigration

Why Does Canada Accept Refugees?

Jan 21, 2015
Kareem El-Assal
Kareem El-Assal
Research Associate, Education & Immigration
Industry & Business Strategy

As the Syrian civil war drags into its fourth year, and with nearly 3.25 million Syrians currently registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),1 Canada recently announced it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. This decision is among a long list of Canadian responses to global refugee crises.

Canada has admitted over 1.2 million refugees since the end of  the Second World War.2 Between 2003 and 2013, Canada ranked second in the world in accepting refugees resettled by UNHCR. (See Table 1.)

So why does Canada accept refugees?

Canada’s refugee policy is driven by humanitarian values of compassion and fairness.3 As one of the world’s most privileged nations, Canada sees it as a moral obligation to offer protection to those in need, viewing refugee resettlement as an integral part of its responsibilities within the international community.

Canada plays an active role within the international community as it helps address emerging challenges and, through various memberships, alliances, and agreements, it seeks to advance the country’s social, political, and economic interests. Accepting refugees allows Canada to meet these objectives. Canada’s attitude today can be juxtaposed with its pre-Second World War behaviour, when it displayed indifference toward refugees. This was notably demonstrated by the paucity of Canada’s response toward Jewish refugees during the war.

Canada’s modern-day refugee policy took shape following the end of the Second World War as the country took on a greater role in global affairs. Between 1947 and 1952, Canada admitted 186,000 European refugees.4 In 1956, Canada resettled 37,000 Hungarian refugees, and it resettled an additional 11,000 Czechoslovakian refugees in 1968.5

In 1978, the Immigration Act came into force and introduced “refugees” as a distinct class of immigrants, facilitating the creation of a formal refugee system. Section 3(G) of the Act stated that one of the objectives of Canada’s immigration policy was to “to fulfil Canada’s international legal obligations with respect to refugees and to uphold its humanitarian tradition with respect to the displaced and the persecuted.” Following the introduction of the Act, Canada went to great lengths to uphold humanitarian values and resettle refugees from across the globe.

In the 1970s and 80s, Canada responded to various global refugee crises by admitting refugees from such countries as China (Tibet), Uganda, Chile, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Recognizing Canada’s refugee protection efforts, in 1986 UNHCR awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to “the people of Canada” for their “major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees.”6 This remains the only time UNHCR has ever awarded the honour to an entire nation.

Canada presently maintains a relatively generous refugee policy. Between 2009 and 2013, Canada granted permanent residence status to 122,486 refugees.7 This figure includes refugees resettled from abroad, successful in-land refugee claimants, and the family members of refugees. It also represents 9.4 per cent of permanent residents landed in Canada during this period.

Canada’s refugee policy also contributes to national economic objectives.

For example, many of the Hungarian refugees resettled in Canada in 1956 were viewed as adaptable and were received during a period of economic expansion when the country needed more labourers. It has also been argued that Canada selectively accepted highly skilled Czechoslovakian refugees in 1968 because they were seen as potentially valuable contributors to the economy.8

Today, Canada faces pressing demographic challenges and requires high levels of immigration to maintain a competitive economy. Although refugees are brought in on humanitarian grounds, they do bolster the national population and labour force and contribute to the economy. It is also often overlooked that, like economic immigrants, refugees are capable of possessing skills, education, and work experiences beneficial to Canada’s economy.

The Conference Board of Canada’s newly established National Immigration Centre endeavours to provide evidence-based analysis of the socio-economic impact of immigration in Canada. This April, the Conference Board will host a major, two-day Canadian Immigration Summit in Ottawa to explore the future of Canada’s immigration system.

1   The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Syrian Regional Refugee Response (Geneva: UNHCR, 2014). (accessed January 9, 2015).

2    This figure is derived from the following sources: Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Ottawa: DFATD, 2011)  (accessed January 9, 2015); Howard Adelman, Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States (Toronto: York University, 1991); Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada—Permanent Residents by Category, 2009–2013 (Ottawa: CIC, 2014) (accessed January 9, 2015).

3    Citizenship and Immigration Canada, The Refugee System in Canada (Ottawa: CIC, 2014). (accessed January 9, 2015).

4    Adelman, Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States.

5    Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada: A History of Refuge (Ottawa: CIC, 2012). (accessed January 9, 2015).

6    Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Nansen Medal Awarded to the “People of Canada” (Ottawa: IRB, 2013). (accessed January 9, 2015).

7    Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada—Permanent Residents by Category, 2009–2013.

8    Laura Madokoro, “Good Material: Canada and the Prague Spring Refugees,” Refuge 26, no. 1 (2009).

Monthly Newsletter

If you enjoyed this article, get regular updates by signing up the newsletter.

2018 Conferences

Entrepreneur & Investor Immigration Summit 2018
Nov. 27–28, 2018 | Ottawa

Canadian Immigration Summit 2018
May 30–31, 2018 | Ottawa

Social Media

Follow us on Twitter @ImmigrationCBoC

Contact Us

Kareem El-Assal
Senior Research Associate and Senior Network Manager, Immigration

Jo-Leen Folz
Administrative and Meetings Coordinator, Economics
613-526-3280 ext. 493