WASHINGTON – The number of Americans seeking refugee status in Canada has experienced a significant bump this year, increasing more than five times in November 2016 from the same period a year earlier.
The overall numbers, however, remain tiny.
Few people seek to flee the world’s largest economy, and one of its oldest democracies, on humanitarian grounds: A mere 170 Americans claimed asylum at Canada’s land borders through the first 11 months of this year.
Yet that was more than twice the total from 2015 – and it was led by a noticeable five-fold increase in the month of November, with 28 people claiming refugee status last month compared with merely five in November 2015.
The Canadian government won’t touch that question.
“Refugee claims are protected under the Privacy Act,” said Nicholas Dorion, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency, which supplied the figures to The Canadian Press. “Therefore the CBSA will not discuss specifics of asylum cases.”
On the whole, Americans represented less than three per cent of the 5,939 people who claimed refugee status upon arriving at Canada’s land borders, in the first 11 months of 2016. Yet the claims from 170 U.S. citizens was more than twice the 73 who did over the same period in 2015.
Mario Bellissimo, a Toronto immigration lawyer, said he’s not surprised.
Such bumps are often driven by political changes, said Bellissmo: “Saw some of this when Bush assumed office (in 2000).”
In an interview, University of Ottawa professor and lawyer Jamie Liew said she concurs.
“I don’t think it’s surprising at all,” she said.
“The rhetoric coming from the (U.S. political) discussion… was filled with a lot of concerning language, including hate; exclusion; deportation… I could see why people would be concerned for their own safety, their own lives, and evaluate whether they could live (there).”
Liew has been involved in a handful of American refugee claims over the years. Such cases can involve victims of domestic violence, or soldiers escaping wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan. She recalled one case related to death threats against a same-sex couple.
“It really doesn’t matter what country a refugee comes from. That is not the central issue in determining if someone is a refugee,” Liew said.
“A country could be democratic. A country could be espousing … human rights. What really matters is how people are being treated on the ground, and protected by the state that they’re in.”
That said, Americans don’t have much success when claiming refugee status in Canada: “Obviously if you’re coming from a war-torn state that is obviously an easier case to be made. But that does not make it impossible for someone from the United States to make a claim for refugee protection.”
Only a minuscule share of American refugee claimants get approved in Canada.
The CBC found just two successful recent claims and hundreds of rejections in a 2010 investigation of worldwide cases. For 2015, federal data gathered by the Canadian Council for Refugees lists no successful U.S. refugee claims last year before the Immigration and Refugee Board.