Immigrants and refugees: what’s the dif?


Canada was built on immigration and right now, one of every six Canadian residents was born outside of Canada. As an immigrant, I have a particular interest in the subject.

Some political organizations encourage views that are laced with discriminatory undertones without being too obvious about it and many do not recognize the underlying xenophobia. I would like to explore this a bit more today.

We are in Canada highly influenced by our neighbours to the south watching many of their televised programs and movies; influences that are prevalent in the US are also permeating opinions in Canada. The so-called Tea Party with Sarah Palin as their celebrity speaker is the most obvious in her representation of that xenophobic aspect. She is (mis) using and misappropriating the language and the symbols of the equal rights movement, placing the Caucasian majority in the role of underdogs and victims.

Comments I hear quite frequently among Canadians and that offend me by their pure ignorance:

– We should stop all those immigrants from coming here.

We have no space and not enough jobs for them. They work for a bit and then go on income assistance.

– Those boat people are queue jumpers and they should stand in line.

– Our government is too lenient and we can’t afford those immigrants that come here to sponge off our programs. 

Anti-immigration comments are indiscriminately directed at all newcomers: the difference between immigrants and refugees is not well understood. I will try to explain the differences.


Each country in the industrialized world has immigration policies. I can say from personal experiences that Canada’s policies are quite strict. An immigrant must apply from outside Canada and meet with consular or embassy staff in their own country, will have to meet certain requirements and is awarded a rating in points. A minimum number of points have to be earned before admission. The points relate to education, training received and skills levels, ability to speak English or French (for Quebec applicants), and ability to support oneself financially.

Canada has a quota for immigrants of 250,000 a year that generally has not been fully met each year. An additional quota for temporary workers is established for those sectors that cannot function without them: 175,000 under a sponsorship of a province. Several categories of immigration exist:

  1. Skilled workers and professionals
  2. The same for the province of Quebec
  3. Canadian experience class: those who have recent work experience in Canada, or have graduated in Canada and recently worked in Canada.
  4. Investors, entrepreneurs and self-employed (who bring funds for investments with them into Canada)
  5. Provincial nominees assigned by a provincial  government
  6. Sponsorship by a family member—family reunion. This can be a spouse, dependent child (including adopted child), conjugal partner, common law partner, or other eligible relative, such as a parent or grandparent—the latter recently not permitted anymore in many instances.

NB: Students with temporary permits are not considered immigrants.


Canada has a federal responsibility to receive refugees and this is a commitment to international agreements, of course also a humanitarian cause. The Canadian government has considered this a humanitarian obligation and a laudable and worthwhile endeavour, worthy of a developed and rich nation. Contrary to immigrants, refugees can apply from inside or outside Canada. A refugee is a person in fear for their life. In keeping with its humanitarian tradition and international obligations, Canada provides protection to thousands of people each year, to those who fear persecution, or whose removal from Canada would subject them to danger of torture, a risk of life or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

Citizen and Immigration Canada ( Canada operates a global resettlement program  and in 2010 alone, it resettled refugees of about 70 different nationalities. There are an estimated 10.5 million refugees in the world today. Countries with resettlement programs agree to resettle about 100,000 refugees from abroad each year. Of that number, Canada annually resettles 10,000 to 12,000, (or one out of every 10 refugees resettled globally), through its government-assisted and privately sponsored refugee programs. Groups and individuals can sponsor refugees. Canada works closely with the UNHCR, the international organization for migration. One well-known refugee who has done well in Canada is Keinan Warsame, or better known as the lead singer of K’Naan, the hip-hop singer from Somalia who came to Canada as a kid with his mom and siblings.

Immigration Canada officials interview applicants on a case-by-case basis, making sure each of them meets the refugee definition according to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. These types of interviews are long and involved and include exploration of someone’s background and potential criminal involvement in the home country.

Sometimes people from the same situation and similar concerns are accepted and processed as a group with the involvement of humanitarian agencies, such as the refugees from Bhutan, or the Karen who have been living in camps as refugees for years, in some cases decades on the Thai-Burmese border. More information can be found on CIC’s website:

The so-called boat people, refugees arriving at our shores from elsewhere who paid large sums of money to unscrupulous people traffickers with a promise of landing immigrant status in Canada, are just the tip of the iceberg, as 90 percent of people claiming refugee status enter Canada via our airports.  Most of the boat people came from South East Asia, many from Sri-Lanka (former British colony Ceylon, an area of brutal, ongoing civil war). Some are legitimate refugees fleeing persecution; many are economic migrants trying to find a faster way to a better life. The key for immigration staff is to separate the two categories: protect the refugees and send back the economic migrants to apply through the normal channels.

I wonder whether Canadians are still seeing the value of immigrants. I get the feeling that many are thinking that we should close the door now, after the last one of us came in.


In a 2010 post on its blog, Immigration Watch Canada, a new lobby group calling itself Center (sic) for Immigration Policy Reform was quoted that says that Canada should overhaul its immigration and refugee system or risk overwhelming our social services and driving up unemployment, one side in the debates that rage in the United States and Europe on immigration.

A member of this group, Derek Burney, a former adviser to the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and one-time US ambassador, also chief of staff at one time to former conservative PM Brain Mulroney, said that Canada would run into problems with the US if it did not change the way it handles refugees. Security along the Canadian-US border has been beefed up since the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks: “The Americans have a lot of concern about the kind of people we’re allowing in, many of whom then want to go into the US,” Burney said.

Another group member, James Bissett, a former ambassador and director general of the Canadian Immigration Services, called Canada’s asylum (refers to political refugees) program “a complete and total mess” and pointed to the cargo boat that landed on BC’s west coast this summer (2010) as prime evidence. “With authorities allowing the boat to land,” he said, “it is inevitable that more refugee ships will follow. There is one solution to the smuggling and that is to send them back. If you send one boat back, you won’t get a second.”

It seems to me that this group admits that 1. The American interests seemed the most important factor and 2. Canada’s international humanitarian cause to the ethical treatment of refugees is completely irrelevant.3. Canadian immigration lets in people that this group thinks are not up to par.


That same blog quoted Olivia Chow, the immigrant critic for Canada’s newly elected opposition, the New Democratic Party, who mentioned in reply that the ideas of this Blame–the–immigrant group would hurt the economy if put into effect. “What they fail to understand is that Canada has an aging population. In order to continue our economic growth, we need young families, we need young children.”

The NDP would like to see annual immigration at 1 percent of the population: that is 330,000 a year. Chow said in parliament that the number of temporary foreign workers in this country is too high. (She meant we need permanent workers-JVZ). She also wants more done to encourage the immigrant population to settle outside of big cities.

The Canadian population is shrinking; its reproduction rate is not keeping up. Jack Layton, NDP leader: “I believe that we are going to have…a continued wave of immigration here in Canada. We don’t reproduce our own population sufficiently rapidly for us to grow our economy and so we’re going to be attracting people. And besides, who wouldn’t want to come and live in this beautiful country of ours?”

On the same blog, Stephen Harper, now Prime Minister of a majority government is quoted: “We’re the first government to maintain an open-door immigration policy during a recession, because we’re focused on the long-term interests of Canada and the Canadian economy.” Stephen addressed the so-called “ethnic vote” in his quest to gain enough votes for an election. He succeeded.

Wikipedia did some research: One of the most ringing endorsements of a high immigration rate came from the 1991 report by the Economic Council of Canada, the first detailed analysis of Canadian policy. It called for immigration to be increased to eventually bring Canada’s population to 100 million. While it found that the economic benefits of immigration were fairly small to the country, the benefits to the newcomers themselves were extremely large. The report concluded: “It would be hard not to recommend an increase when immigrants can gain so much and Canadians not only do not lose, but actually make slight economic gains.”

In 2005 a report by the Royal Bank of Canada called for boosting Canada’s immigration rate by 30% to 400,000 per year to ensure continued economic growth.


I gathered some facts that might help assess above thoughts for its validity. Total numbers of immigrants from 2006 to 2010 ( were:

2006:      251,642 among those were      32,499     refugees

2007:     236,754                                              27,954

2008:     247,247                                              21,858

2009:     252,172                                            22,848

2010:      280,636                                           24,693

Canada’s population as of January 1, 2010 was 33,930,800. From October 1, 2009, it showed a growth rate of 0,17%.

  • Yes, it’s fair to say that under Harper, three of the five years the numbers of total immigrants were over the 250,000 quotas.
  • No new boats have landed on our shores. The migrants from 2010 on the Sun Sea sailing under Thai flags (350 men, 50 women and 50 children) were incarcerated in Maple Ridge and are processed one by one. Some of the migrant children were taken into the province’s care, along with their mothers. 27 migrants required hospitalization, among them five children who reported feeling unwell. Two passengers were pregnant. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said the Sun Sea is part of a wider smuggling operation linked to the Tamil Tigers, a banned terrorist organization and separatist group that lost a 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka last year. In October 2009, a vessel, the Ocean Lady,  had arrived in Victoria carrying 76 migrants from Sri Lanka. Most of those migrants are in Toronto while their refugee claims are processed. (, Aug 14, 2010).
  • The website (Aug 14, 2010): In the case of Sri Lanka, UNHCR has recently issued revised guidelines to assist decision-makers in reviewing claims to asylum. Those guidelines include our recommendation that in light of the improved security situation since the end of Sri Lanka’s conflict in May 2009, claims by asylum seekers from that country should be considered on their individual merits rather than on a group basis.
  • According to UNHCR’s most recent statistics, there are a total of 146,098 Sri Lanka refugees in 64 countries. India (73,269), France (20,464), Canada (19,143), Germany (12,248), United Kingdom (8,615), Switzerland (2,836), Malaysia (2,132), Australia (2,070), United States (1,561) and Italy (964) are the top 10 countries hosting Sri Lankan refugees. There are also 7,562 Sri Lankan asylum seekers known to UNHCR in 57 countries. The top ten countries hosting Sri Lankan asylum-seekers are: Switzerland, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, Norway, Thailand, US, Netherlands, Japan and Australia. Last year, 34,000 new asylum seekers submitted their claims in Canada.
  • Wikipedia research: During the last 25 years the economic position of newcomers relative to native-born Canadians has steadily declined. Recent immigrants themselves are far more likely than native born Canadians to initially have low incomes, with unemployment rates increasing towards the national average with more time spent in Canada. Statistics Canada reports a steady decline from 2000 to 2004 in income of recent immigrants. In recent years this situation deteriorated to alarming levels: in 2000, immigrants had low-incomes rates 2.5 times higher than native born Canadians (below $20,000 for a family). However, Immigrants are found at the highest education levels: 38% of male workers with a post-secondary degree are immigrants to Canada.  While 23% of Canadians are currently born outside of Canada, they are higher educated than the native born: 40% of those workers in Canada with a master’s degree were born outside of Canada.
  • While immigration Canada recruits people to come based on their degrees, many newcomers cannot find employment within their fields, as the Canadian educational institutions do not recognize their degrees.  56% of newcomers have a university degree. This is going to be a huge problem in the future with income rates (if this trend continues into the next decade) reaching 3.5 times lower that of native-born Canadians, according to Statistics Canada. Immigration Canada does not talk to the educational powers that be: the great disconnect. The immigration official promised a great future and then the reality after an immigrant is landed, is not even close. It is not unusual to find a janitor or a cab driver with a medical degree from Tehran, or a bank manager from Mumbai with a receptionist job.
  • A University of Montreal study of 2002 by Marc Termote used different methods and studied different countries to address the question whether immigration lowers the wage levels of a nation. The study concluded that immigration has no statistically significant impact to the per capita income of a country.

As an immigrant on  a sponsorship by my fiance, my experiences mirror those facts. I came to Canada from a $25 an hour job in the social sector (addiction treatment), with a 5 year master’s degree in applied Fine Arts when I arrived in 1982. None of my qualifications and work experience was accepted. Within 3 weeks of landing I accepted a job for $7.50 an hour as a part time counsellor with the mentally challenged.

While working within the human services and child development fields in temporary jobs for which I was overqualified, I was unable to apply for the permanent positions without the desired Canadian degree. It took me ten years to obtain the required Canadian degree to work in my field, as I lived in an area without university. Ten years in which I could have been working on furthering my career. With my new BSW from a local university I applied again within my field. I was told, sorry, my background was not relevant to the Canadian situation. It is maddening to be competent and able, but not being acknowledged for it. In my view, it is discriminatory and based on irrational, and wasteful protectionist attitudes within the current educational institutions.


In my opinion, the issue of immigration will become very important in the next decade. I see that economic losses and fear for unemployment makes people nervous and they are looking for a scapegoat. In the US they have found that target in the immigrants. Estimates of 11 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico live and work in the US, illegal aliens. In my view, that group of immigrants probably prevents the economy there from a complete collapse.

The tendency to look at newcomers with reservations and prejudice has also, to some extent, filtered through to Canada and is mainly based on fear as well, I believe. The WordPress blog on Immigration calls this nativism. It simply means that certain people in a group are given preference over outsiders and newcomers and this takes place due to various national, political, cultural or religious reasons. It’s the opposite of immigration. It is also a form of racism, where quite often insecurities and anger may result in violent incidents by one group against another. Nativism is present in the history of many countries and this phenomenon exists today in nations like Australia, the UK and the US and New Zealand, to name a few. Reasons for nativism could be:


The native born citizens might hold fears and anxieties about visible differences in race, religion (e.g. wearing of the hijab, or the turban), and language. Some feel that strength lies in numbers and too many foreigners might cause degeneration of their society itself. Example: many workers from East Indian decent have been attacked in Australia, where cultural differences were cited as the main reasons behind the surprise attacks.


Fear for loss of security, usually when migrants are willing to work for less pay and longer hours to make ends meet. Example: the general population did not like Irish immigrants in the US in the early 1900s, as they worked harder and were hired over the American born workers. Establishing wages that apply for all could alleviate some of those fears. Unions were established.


Political events cause huge reactions. Example: the terrorist attacks in New York on 9-11, 2001 have increased the overall prejudice in the US against people for the Middle East. Many people were attacked in the street just because they wore garb that was from the region. Government started racial profiling, restrictions of freedoms and human rights, and instated security measures, singling out immigrants or travellers from and to certain nations, etc.


Education might help to reduce fears in people, when they know the facts of immigration and its importance to a nation as a whole and the immigrants’ specific contributions in our society. We need to celebrate diversity, and host community drives, and have celebrations of ethnic foods and customs.

We need to not jump to conclusions about what we think we see, but first educate ourselves about the background of political measures, such as accepting refugees, and their support programs for those that need it, educate ourselves on current issues, becoming media literate.

Politicians should take the highroad and not appeal to the lowest feelings and the fears in us; instead of inciting those fears and instil suspicion, they should always educate and try to protect those citizens that might become a target, making space for all of our fellow citizens.

And last but not least, most of us have come from somewhere else, not too long ago in historical terms. Born Canadians would do well to remind themselves that the Canadian immigrant-based community still has a lot to make up for, having historically treated our First Canadians with so much disdain and negligence. Another lesson learned was the cruelty and unnecessary degradation by the Second World War government of sending Canada’s citizen from Japanese descent to camps for no reason while German Canadian’s weren’t: a clear case of racism.

Wherever we are from, we should strive to become better, for our benefit and for that of our fellow citizens, whoever they are and look inside to determine whether we suffer from nativism.


About BABYBOOMER johanna van zanten

My name is Johanna van Zanten. I am a baby boomer, interested in writing and connecting with other writers and readers to engage in discussions and information sharing, to share a point of view about current global issues, writing, and publishing, diversity, immigration, travel, music, life, specific baby boomer issues, and dating/relationship issues. I have written a novella, ON THIN ICE about baby-boomer Adrienne and will link this blog with the information website for this novella. Right now, I am trying out the blog.
This entry was posted in Babyboomer, Diversity issues, EU, Immigration, International politics, Publishing, Short story, the Netherlands, Uncategorized, world issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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