Canada OK's most Sri Lankan refugee claims

The refugee board accepted 85.5 per cent of Sri Lankans claiming refugee status in Canada during the first six months of 2010 — a rate that is on the high end among countries.
The MV Sun Sea, carrying hundreds of Tamil migrants, is escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., on Aug. 13. Immigration experts are questioning the government's response to the case. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The refugee board accepted 85.5 per cent of Sri Lankans claiming refugee status in Canada during the first six months of 2010 — a rate that is on the high end among countries.

An analysis by CBC News of numbers released by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada showed 345 Sri Lankan claims were accepted in six months, while 50 were rejected. Another 705 claims from that period are waiting to be processed.

Most accepted (2010)

 Country Acceptance rate
 Eritrea 93.8%
 Djibouti 92.1%
 Ethiopia 91.8%
 Uganda 89.7%
 Burundi 87.2%
 Afghanistan 85.5%
 Sri Lanka 85.5%
 Sudan 82.6%
 Rwanda 82.6%
 Zimbabwe 80.2%

*Data from January to June, 2010.

Only six countries had higher acceptance rates, with Eritrea at the top of the list with 93.8 per cent of claimants accepted. Afghanistan had only a slightly higher acceptance rate than Sri Lanka.

The board avoids speaking about individual cases, and would only say that acceptance rates indicate the claimants were able to prove that a return to their original country could get them killed.

Immigration lawyers and human rights advocates say most of the Sri Lankan claimants Canada processes are Tamil. They say the high number of claims accepted speaks to the dire situation in Sri Lanka, which was embroiled in a bitter civil war until May 2009.

"Most of the people who came during that period were found to meet the refugee definition," said Sean Rehaag, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

He said even though the armed conflict has ended in Sri Lanka, there are still credible allegations of human rights abuses against Tamils in the country. He said Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of State have all confirmed these allegations.

Exploring the numbers

We've posted an online database of Immigration and Refugee Board numbers. Scroll through to see the acceptance rates for different countries.

"These people are asylum seekers, and they're entitled to a fair hearing where the [Immigration and Refugee Board] will determine if they meet the refugee definition. And if they do, they will be provided with refugee protection in Canada."

Canada's high acceptance of Sri Lankans has held true for several years.

In 2009, the board approved slightly more than 91 per cent of Sri Lankan claimants, making that country's acceptance rate the second highest. In 2008, Sri Lankans had the highest acceptance rate.

Targeting human smugglers

The CBC's analysis comes as the federal government is pondering ways to crack down on human smugglers and traffickers from countries such as Sri Lanka.

The government's interest in the issue stems from the August arrival of a migrant ship carrying 492 Sri Lankans. In October 2009, a smaller boat carrying Tamils arrived off the coast of Vancouver. The fear with the arrival of these ships is that human smuggling is involved.

"What really concerns me from a humanitarian point of view, is that some of the people can't pay up front in cash for their voyage and so they end up indenturing themselves to pay off the syndicate once they're settled in Canada," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said recently. "This is when smuggling becomes trafficking."

How we did it

In order to rank the acceptance rate, we've excluded countries that produced less than 10 refugee claimants for any given period.

For instance, during the first six months of 2010, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Central African Republic, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Singapore, all had acceptance rates of 100 per cent, but Canada only processed between one and three claimants from each country.

By comparison, Canada finalized 405 Sri Lankan claims, including 10 that were abandoned or withdrawn.

Aid workers and immigration lawyers say the government is using the arrival of the migrant ships as a way to further its tough-on-crime agenda, instead of reminding people that the immigration and refugee determination process was designed, in part, to deal with people arriving at Canada's shores, fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum.

As the Immigration and Refugee Board statistics indicate, most of the asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are deemed legitimate by Canada.

"I am troubled by the way that the government hasn't explicitly acknowledged that what we're talking about is asylum seekers," said Rehaag. "It's not just a question of stopping shady criminal organizations that are taking advantage of migrants."

He said the government needs to explain that Canada's refugee determination system is a balancing act between keeping borders safe and upholding the rights of those who arrive in Canada with legitimate claims.

"The people who are on board these ships are refugee claimants from a country that is known to engage in systemic human rights abuses," Rehaag said. "I think that's an important part of the conversation that is not being publicly addressed by the government."

Least accepted (2010)

 Country Acceptance rate
 Czech Republic 1.81%
 Hungary 0.52%
 U.S.A. 0.38%
 Croatia 0.00%
 France 0.00%
 Hong Kong (SAR) 0.00%
 Portugal 0.00%
 Slovak Republic 0.00%
 Spain 0.00%
 Thailand 0.00%

*Data from January to June, 2010.

Kenney says migrants looking to escape danger should apply for refugee status from their own countries, or safe third-party countries.

Between 2006 and 2009, a yearly average of 11,273 refugee claims made from abroad were referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board, as the Canadian government prefers, compared to a yearly average of 29,924 referrals from within Canada.

The number of claims made from within and outside Canada gradually increased during the period of the CBC analysis. The numbers clearly show that the majority of claimants ask for asylum once inside the country, a trend experts say will remain whether the immigration minister likes it or not. Still, Kenney insists claimants should apply for asylum closer to home.

"I think we have a humanitarian obligation to say if you're a bona fide refugee find an alternative in your region, go to the [United Nations Commissioner for Refugees], but don't pay someone $50,000 to get in a leaky boat and risk your life to come across the Pacific Ocean. That's not the right way to do this. And that's the message we need to send."

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said he agrees the government should work hard to make it easier for claimants to apply for refugee status either in their home countries or so-called safe third countries.

But Kurland points out that most claimants, like the recent boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, would risk a perilous and uncertain boat ride across the Pacific Ocean rather than claiming status in Sri Lanka where they may have to wait years to have their claim heard and be killed in the process.  

"There's a difference between theory and facts on the ground," Kurland said. "If it's [the choice] between a bullet and boat, I [would] go for the boat."

Above average

The Sri Lankan numbers trend high above the average rate of acceptance for refugee claims, which, in the first six months of 2010, were slightly more than 40 per cent above the average. Between 2006 and the middle of 2010, the years CBC analyzed, the acceptance rate for Sri Lankans was always much higher — at least 30 percentage points — than the average.

Still, the government seems determined to do something. Reports emerged recently that the government was possibly entertaining the option of detaining people for about two weeks, instead of the usual 48 hours, before having the legal right to an oral hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board. Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly vetoed the proposal.

"The idea that you would put someone in jail for two weeks, says Rehaag, "is problematic from a human rights perspective."

Gloria Nafziger, the refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International Canada, said many of the claims the government hears are compelling. She recalled a case three years ago of one Sri Lankan human rights worker who was kidnapped and raped before escaping to Canada and filing a refugee claim.

"To even have to talk about her story and the kidnapping and the rape, was deeply traumatic, as it is for many, many people who have suffered torture and other forms of mistreatment," said Nafziger.

"I think the experiences of most refugees go well beyond what most Canadians can even imagine."

If you have a comment or story idea, please feel free to contact David McKie atdavid_mckie@cbc.ca