The caveats behind Canada’s feel-good refugee numbers

Not quite picture perfect.
Not quite picture perfect.
Image: Reuters/Remo Casilli
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Canada last year accepted more refugees through the UN than any other country, according to a recent analysis (pdf) by the University of Calgary, surpassing the US for the first time since countries began officially coordinating on refugee resettlement. Canada, population 36 million, welcomed about 28,000 refugees in 2018, while the US, population 325 million, took in 24,000.

The development says more about the Trump administration’s approach to refugees than it does about Canadian policy. Under president Donald Trump, the number of refugees admitted to the US has tumbled to record lows from the roughly 97,000 taken in in 2016, the year before he took office.

The figures reflect the administration’s overall efforts to curb the number of people arriving in the US, including refugees. Trump has slashed budgets for agencies and programs that work on resettlement, and lowered the cap on the maximum number of refugees the US can accept this year from 45,000 to 30,000, even though last year’s total fell quite a bit short of the threshold.

Meanwhile, Canada plans to welcome 29,950 refugees this year. It’s a healthy bump from 2018’s total, but still smaller than the nearly 47,000 refugees Canada resettled in 2016, a record for the country (Canada separately has a not-so-great record on asylum seekers who turn up at the border).

The Trump administration’s tightening of refugee admittance appears to be a boon for Ottawa, which for decades has branded itself as a tolerant government welcoming of refugees. It’s a narrative promoted by liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, who came into office in 2015, and one that has thrived since Trump’s election the following year.

It’s an approach that has helped Canada’s reputation. Though the country generally fares well in international polls, a 2017 survey asking international participants which country has an overall positive effect on global affairs saw Canada come out on top (pdf).

But beyond the Canadian and US stats, and what they say about the two countries’ increasingly divergent paths, is the fact that these numbers tell us little about displacement and global migration patterns. Only a tiny percentage of the world’s more than 25 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced persons go through UN resettlement—just 103,000 people in 2017, the last year available for which a full accounting is public (pdf). Instead, developing countries host both the largest number and share of refugees by far.

Bangladesh, as an example, has taken in some 700,000 Rohingya fleeing a military crackdown and campaign of ethnic cleansing in neighboring Myanmar since August 2017. Turkey has taken in even more refugees in recent years, some 3.5 million people. The most notable exception is Germany, which enacted an open door policy at the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015 that saw almost a million arrive, and has taken in tens of thousands since.

But rich countries like Germany and Canada, if they choose, have the resources to go through a heavy vetting process and decide who to take in while keeping factors like labor needs in mind. Poor countries often don’t have that luxury. And while many do receive international aid geared for refugees, it’s not nearly enough.

Trudeau has proved adept at promoting the country’s relatively modest, though welcome, efforts in permanently resettling refugees. The prime minister and top government officials have personally arrived at Canada’s airports to greet arrivals.

But it’s important to remember that rich countries only take a small share of the world’s refugee population, a fact that could be better acknowledged. Canada could even help lead the charge—Ottawa contributed to the Global Compact for Migration, which was signed in December, and calls for a more equitable global arrangement.