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Canada is seen mainly as a prosperous, stable, and secure country. This combination has made Canada a preferred destination for international immigration, as well as those seeking to resettle as refugees or asylum seekers.

While Canada is generally warm towards refugees and asylum seekers, the process of settling in Canada as a refugee can be complex and full of challenging bureaucratic hurdles.

In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of Canada’s immigration process as it relates to refugees and asylum seekers. We’ll try and answer all of your most important questions, then provide you with some resources at the end so you can determine whether this process is right for you.

The difference between refugees and asylum seekers

The terms “refugees” and “asylum seekers” may seem similar, but in fact they are used differently.


First, let’s define the term ‘refugee’. According to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website, “a refugee is a person who flees his or her home country because of fears of persecution or abuse, particularly by their own government. However, the meaning is affected by political change, public perception and history.”

A refugee is an individual that is granted this status while they are still outside Canada. After completing a rigorous screening process, they then enter the country using a visa. A person awaiting their refugee status is typically known as a refugee claimant.

At any given time, there are thousands of refugees with pending claims at the Canadian Refugee Appeal Division.

Asylum seekers

While refugees are typically granted status while outside Canada, an asylum seeker makes their claim while in Canada or at a Canadian port of entry. Once their information has been documented, it’s possible that an asylum seeker may be reclassified and recognized as a refugee, but making the distinction before their application is processed is important.

In recent years, some asylum seekers have attempted to enter Canada between the designated ports of entry in an effort to enter the country irregularly. This is not recommended for a variety of reasons. The first is that this behaviour is a direct contravention of Canada’s established immigration and refugee process. Entering outside a designated port of entry can lead to later obstacles, including but not limited to detention.

The other reason is that Canada is large, and many parts of the border are uninhabited, densely forested, and potentially dangerous. Crossing in an area that is not a designated port of entry could put you in danger, especially during the cold winter months. People have died attempting to cross in the winter.

How to claim asylum if you are already in Canada

Any person is eligible to make an asylum claim within Canada, but not all claims will be accepted. There are two ways to make this claim. You can either apply at a port of entry or border crossing, or you can visit an Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) office if you’re already within Canada.

Applying for asylum at a port of entry

If you apply at the border or at a point of entry, the officials there will initiate a determination of whether you are eligible to be referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The IRB is the decision-making body within Canada that decides which asylum seekers are granted refugee status and which should be rejected and mandated for removal from Canada.

Applying for asylum within Canada

If you are already within Canada, you can apply online to make a refugee claim. While you wait for your application to be processed, you may be eligible for a work or study permit. You may submit a work permit application along with your refugee claim, but a study permit requires a separate application.

Every study permit application requires an acceptance letter from a designated learning institution. There are many of these institutions within Canada, and most training facilities, colleges, universities, and even seminaries have this designation.

What to expect from the refugee application process within Canada

Regardless of whether you apply at a port of entry or online, the process of seeking refugee status within Canada is similar. You will be asked to provide documentation validating your personal information, as well as the reason that you require safe harbour in Canada. You will also need to undergo a medical exam and will be required to supply a photograph and fingerprints (also called biometrics).

Individuals do not need to go through this process alone. They are allowed to use a representative who can help them navigate the immigration and refugee system and argue on their behalf.


The refugee and humanitarian immigration process from outside of Canada

The process of a refugee leaving their home country or place of temporary residence and moving to a permanent home is known as resettlement. To live in Canada, your resettlement application must be made through:

  • The government of Canada (through the United Nations Refugee Agency),
  • A private organization that holds a sponsorship agreement with Canada,
  • Or a combination of the two. This is known as the Blended Visa Office Referred Program (BVOR).

An individual cannot apply to the government of Canada directly. They must apply to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which will then refer them to a sponsoring organization.

Applying as a privately sponsored refugee

If an organization with a sponsorship agreement sponsors you, they are committing to supporting you and your family throughout the process. This could include financial, legal, social, and emotional support.

You can find a list of sponsorship agreement holding organizations within Canada here.

Applying through the government of Canada

Individuals referred to Canadian immigration authorities by the UNHCR typically fall into a few categories. They include individuals that are fleeing armed conflict or civil war, have been denied fundamental human rights, or have been persecuted based on their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Political opinion
  • Nationality
  • Ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation

If you meet these criteria, you can fill out an application package. You will also need to submit to a medical exam and pass a security check to ensure you can legally enter Canada as a government-sponsored refugee.

If you enter as a government-assisted refugee, you are eligible for support for up to a year following your entry into Canada.

The blended visa office referral program

The BVOR program is another solid option for refugee sponsorship. This program connects refugees who have already been screened and vetted with private organizations who have the time and means to sponsor their entry into Canada. Refugees entering as part of this program are eligible for up to six months of financial support and up to one year of social programs and emotional support.

Resources for refugees and asylum seekers

Once you have landed in Canada as a refugee, there are many options for your next steps. In Canada, the possibilities are endless! You can find a job, learn English or French, or spend time making friends within your new community. Remember, your financial and social support from either the government or a private organization will end after you have been in Canada for one year at the most. It’s crucial that you take the time while you still have this support to set yourself up for a secure future.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to help you navigate the asylum and refugee process, from the initial submission of your paperwork to settling into a new community in Canada.

Here are some resources we’ve gathered that can help you get started.

UNCHR’s Canada Resources
Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada
Rainbow Railroad, an LGBTQI+-specific refugee organization
Government of Canada Refugee Services

About the author

Rebecca Major profile picture
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Rebecca Major

Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant
Rebecca Major is a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (R511564) with nearly 15 years of licenced Canadian Immigration experience, gained after graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in the UK. She specializes in Canadian immigration at Moving2Canada.
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Citation "How to Immigrate to Canada as a Refugee or Asylum Seeker." Moving2Canada. . Copy for Citation