Representation for Immigrants and Refugee Claimants

6. Knowledge and sophistication of persons concerned

6.1 Refugee claimants

Service providers were asked to indicate what they thought refugee claimants, in general, on their first contact with the respondent, know about the possibility of claiming refugee status in Canada[31]. Most respondents dealt with this question by describing the sort of knowledge that typical claimants manifest on their first encounter with the respondent. These responses have been grouped roughly into three very imprecise categories ("specific," "limited" and "none")[32] to simplify reporting of the respondents' assessment of claimants' general knowledge regarding asylum as an option. As a follow-up question, respondents were asked to provide their assessment of claimants' detailed knowledge - that is to say, their knowledge of the specific elements required and the procedures to be followed to establish a refugee claim[33] . A summary breakdown of responses to both questions is provided in Table 13.

Table 13: Service Providers' Assessment of Claimants' General and Detailed Knowledge about Claiming Refugee Status

Of the 47 service providers who responded to this question, 34 indicated that most claimants have a vague, limited general sense that Canada is a safe country where they can settle, but they have very little sense of what it means to be a Convention refugee. Only four service providers suggested that claimants are generally well informed about what it means to be a Convention refugee when they contact the service provider. Nine service providers indicated that most of the claimants they see are not even aware of the possibility of claiming refugee status. They simply do not want to return to their home country, either because of some fear about what may happen to them there or for other reasons unrelated to any asylum claim.

According to the service provider respondents, most claimants are totally ignorant of the legal requirements that must be met to obtain asylum in Canada. Only five of the 47 service providers who answered this question rated claimants as having any meaningful understanding of legal requirements and procedures. Five felt that claimants have limited knowledge of the legal requirements and procedures, and one respondent stated that most of the claimants he sees are quite knowledgeable about the legal requirements and the procedures for obtaining refugee status in Canada.

Many respondents acknowledged that some of the claimants they see are informed about how to obtain refugee status before they arrive in Canada. Some claimants have even been supplied with carefully scripted stories from which they will not budge, even when it becomes obvious that the story is false. But most service providers say that these are not the norm. Two of the respondents who felt that claimants have extensive information suggested that the level of knowledge varies widely among the clients they see, while the third indicated that much of the information claimants have is incorrect. A number of service provider respondents noted that misinformation often leads claimants to lie about their true story, or to withhold critical information at the outset. This can greatly impair a claimant's credibility. Many claimants are rejected on credibility grounds because of contradictions between what they said at their eligibility interview and what they related in their PIF or in testimony at their hearing[34]. Also, significant omissions at eligibility interviews - for example, failure to mention some important fact relating to a claim, such as the fact that the claimant had been imprisoned and tortured in his home country - are sometimes taken by RPD members as an indication that the claimant has embellished the story for the refugee hearing.

The view expressed by almost all service providers - that most refugee claimants have only vague general knowledge about claiming refugee status and virtually no knowledge of the legal and procedural issues involved - can best be summed up in a few direct quotes from the interviews. According to one paralegal who works exclusively with refugee claimants:

Many think that willingness to work and to be a good Canadian should be sufficient. … They feel that their suffering is enough to found their claim.

Another respondent, a settlement worker, commented to similar effect:

They think all they have to do is to come to Canada. They don't distinguish between economic and political refugees. They lack focus.

As another respondent described it:

They do not know about the procedures. They understand that they are afraid and can't go back, but some even think that once they are in Canada, it is done. These claimants are quite shocked to learn that they must have specific reasons to fear return and that they face a complex and lengthy legal process to establish a right to remain in this country.

This view was not shared by a majority of the CIC respondents interviewed for this study[35]. Eleven of the 12 front-line officers who answered these questions expressed the view that most claimants they see are well informed about the possibility of claiming refugee status in Canada. The other officer who commented felt that claimants have a general sense about the possibility of finding asylum in Canada at the time of their admissibility and eligibility interview. Nine of the officers felt that claimants are also very knowledgeable about the specific legal and procedural requirements for obtaining refugee status when they are first interviewed by an immigration officer, whether at the point of entry or subsequently, when they present an inland claim. Two officers felt that claimants are generally aware of the legal requirements and procedures, and only one officer felt that claimants know little or nothing in that regard. A summary of the responses from CIC personnel is presented in Table 14.

Table 14: Immigration Officers' Assessment of Claimants' General and Detailed Knowledge about Claiming Refugee Status

The immigration officers had a strong sense that claimants have been well briefed by family and friends who have already gone through the process, by the agents who have assisted them in getting to Canada, or by NGOs in Canada or the United States that have assisted them prior to their making a refugee claim. As one port-of-entry officer put it:

Most foreign nationals know a lot by the time they arrive in Canada. They come to Canada with the purpose of remaining here. They have spent a lot of money to get here (particularly those who use smugglers). Many are sufficiently sophisticated to know that, if they have travel documents, they do not have to make a claim at the port of entry. They can make an inland claim later.

This viewpoint was expressed even more forcefully by an officer who deals with inland claims:

Almost every foreign national who wants to claim refugee status knows a great deal about CIC and IRB processes by the time they come to an inland CIC office. They have been in Canada for many days or months or years. Many already have counsel (lawyer or consultant). Most, at a minimum, have connected with family or friends in Canada. Many are in receipt of assistance of ethnic community groups, churches and NGOs.

Almost all foreign nationals have some knowledge of procedures and legal requirements. They know that CIC officials will interview them and that they will bring forms to submit to the IRB. They know that they need to bring identity documents to the CIC office. They know whether there is a possibility of detention, and, if there is, they have generally engaged counsel who accompanies them to the inland office.

The sharp polarization of views as between service providers and front-line immigration officers is difficult to reconcile. Since many inland claimants will have consulted a service provider before attending the eligibility interview at an inland CIC office, it is probable that they will have a higher level of knowledge about the process than they would have had when they first contacted the service provider. But port-of-entry immigration officers meet with claimants before they have any contact with most of the service providers who were interviewed for this study.

The experience of the immigration officers - that many claimants spontaneously relate details of their refugee claims even when advised to provide only brief answers to questions in eligibility interviews - suggests that these claimants do have a clear sense about the possibility of obtaining asylum in Canada. But the comments received from the immigration officers do not indicate whether the stories they hear at these interviews indicate any clear understanding of what it means to be a Convention refugee. It may well be that claimants arrive in Canada with the vague sense that they can find safe haven here, as described by the service providers, but with very little sense of what is required to establish a refugee claim. One of the lawyers who was interviewed suggested that many claimants think that the interview with an immigration officer at the port of entry is the place where their claim is being determined, which may explain why they relate details of their story at the first opportunity. From the perspective of the service providers, this would be an indication that claimants are indeed confused or misinformed about the procedures. The divergence in responses appears to be as much a function of different perspectives that the respondents bring to the question as it is an indicator of the objective sophistication of refugee claimants when they first make their claim.

Responses from individual refugee claimants interviewed for this study were more in line with the assessments reported by service providers. See Table 15.

Table 15: Claimants' Assessment of Their Own General and Detailed Knowledge about Claiming Refugee Status

Of the 21 claimants interviewed, only three indicated that they understood before they made their claim that they had to have a well-founded fear based on specific grounds to be accepted as a Convention refugee[36]. Twelve indicated that they knew that Canada was a country where they could find safety, but they were not aware of the specific requirements to establish refugee status. Five of the claimants indicated that they made their claims on the advice of other people without any understanding of what it meant to be a refugee. They were simply afraid and did not want to return to their home country.

None of the claimants - including one who was a career diplomat from Africa working with the UN, another who was an international airline pilot, and two others who had post-graduate university degrees - had a clear understanding of the procedures for obtaining refugee status in Canada before they became directly involved in the process[37] . Eight indicated that they knew that it was a legal process with some kind of hearing, and 13 reported that they had no idea at all about the process before they made their claim. Every single claimant interviewed expressed surprise and frustration at how long the process takes, indicating that they had no understanding of the complex procedures involved before they made their claims. Many of them thought, when they first decided to make a refugee claim, that they would simply have to say why they did not want to go back to their home country. Only after they made their claim did they realize that they would need extensive assistance to navigate their way through the process. This all suggests that most refugee claimants have a limited understanding of what is involved in making a refugee claim.

  • [31] The specific question was: "When refugee claimants first contact you or your organization for assistance, what do they know about the possibility of claiming refugee status in Canada?"
  • [32] In the context of the question about claimants' knowledge of the possibility of claiming asylum in Canada, "specific" knowledge means a clear sense of what it means to be a refugee and the claimants' coming to Canada with the express intention of finding asylum here. "Limited" knowledge denotes a general sense about the possibility of claiming refugee status, but little understanding of what that means beyond the possibility of being allowed to remain in Canada. No knowledge (or "none") denotes lack of awareness of the possibility of claiming asylum as a means to remain in Canada.
  • [33] The specific question was: "When refugee claimants first contact you (your organization), what do they know about the procedures and legal requirements with respect to making a refugee claim?"
  • [34] This is a key reason why service providers are so concerned about the fact that claimants are not represented at eligibility interviews.
  • [35] Assessments on the issue of claimants' knowledge provided by IRB respondents are not relevant to the present discussion, because their first contact with claimants is typically at their refugee hearing. By that time, the claimants have been through the process of preparing their claim and they have received extensive advice from their counsel and from supporting NGOs.
  • [36] The specific questions put to claimants were: "1) Before you made your claim, did you know how to obtain refugee status in Canada? 2) Did you know what you would have to prove to qualify as a Convention refugee?"
  • [37] Assessment of claimants procedural knowledge is based on their responses to the questions noted in footnote 36 and their response to the following questions: "Has your understanding of the procedures and legal requirements to obtain refugee status in Canada changed since you made your refugee claim? In what way has it changed? Why has it changed?"
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