Asylum seekers in Atlantic Canada had highest refugee acceptance rate last year
90% of asylum seekers in region had refugee claims approved — but numbers are tiny part of national total
Asylum seekers in Atlantic Canada were more likely to have their refugee claims accepted last year than anywhere else in the country.
For the first nine months of 2017, 90 per cent of refugee claims made in Atlantic Canada were approved, according to Immigration and Refugee Board decisions analyzed by CBC News. That compares to a national acceptance rate of 70 per cent over the same period.
"It means more people are getting protected, so that's a very good thing," said Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic, a privately funded non-profit that assists asylum seekers making claims in Nova Scotia.
Compared with the rest of the country, however, the number of claims being made in Atlantic Canada is tiny: 373 refugee claims between January 2013 and September 2017, representing less than half a per cent of the national total.
Asylum seekers are separate from government or privately sponsored refugees who make their claims while still overseas and whose stories are verified before they arrive in Canada.
Atlantic Canada's leading sources of refugee claimants are Libya, Syria, Iran and Cuba. Claims are made at ports of entry, such as airports, seaports and land crossings. They are also made by people already living in Atlantic Canada, such as university students, who say they are afraid to return to their home country.
The regional and national trends related to asylum seekers emerge from Immigration and Refugee Board data for nearly 90,000 refugee claims made in Canada during that period. The data was obtained by CBC News through access-to-information laws.
On a national level, the vast majority of claims were made in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, where the leading sources of refugee claimants were China and Turkey.
Chamagne said the high success rate among Atlantic Canada asylum seekers is likely due to a relatively low number of port-of-entry claims.
Those claimants have a lower success rate because they must explain their case on the spot to border officials and without any legal representation, Chamagne said.
"It's very difficult when you're in front of uniformed officials to state all your fear, to talk about your rape, to talk about your torture, when you haven't had time to process it, when you're not sure of the procedure," she said.
Instead, Chamagne said, claimants will often praise Canada's reputation and express willingness to work to support their families, which can later be cited as evidence of coming to Canada for economic — rather than safety — reasons.
"It's very difficult in that situation to do that damage control afterward and not have that representation from the beginning," Chamagne said.
Spike in 'inland claims'
While both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where 80 per cent of the region's refugee claims occur, see relatively few port-of-entry cases, Chamagne said the Halifax Refugee Clinic has seen a spike in "inland claims" from people who are already in Canada, often as students or tourists.
Wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen have led university students from those countries to file refugee claims, she said. It can happen when students have their education funding cut off for political reasons, or when fighting breaks out at home.
"There's a situation in their country of origin — be it Yemen or Syria or Libya — that they can't go back to, that they fear persecution from," she said. "So they are forced, since they can't retain their temporary student status here, to make a refugee claim."
Chamagne said inland refugee claims can be prepared over weeks or months, often with the advice of a lawyer. And that leads to higher success rates at refugee hearings, which in Atlantic Canada are held via videolink with Immigration and Refugee Board members in Montreal and Toronto.
Chamagne said she's pleased to learn all Atlantic Canada claimants during the period analyzed by CBC News had some form of representation at their refugee hearings.
Refugee claimants in Atlantic Canada are not eligible for legal aid, so in most cases that assistance is provided for free.
National figures also show that acceptance rates for refugee claimants Canada-wide have been steadily rising, from 44 per cent in 2013 to 70 per cent in the first nine months of 2017.
There is no definitive explanation of why. But many experts point to 2012 reforms that mean hearings are typically held within 60 days, down from much longer timelines. There's no longer time to gather as much evidence and the law requires board members to give claimants the benefit of the doubt.
To see our full analysis and download the raw data, click here.