Many Canadians think more refugees are admitted than actually are. Here’s why that’s a problem

Click to play video: 'The rising rhetoric around refugees is fuelling many falsehoods about whether these new arrivals pose a threat'
The rising rhetoric around refugees is fuelling many falsehoods about whether these new arrivals pose a threat
WATCH:Global's Jeff Semple looks at the disinformation around immigration (Sept 20) – Sep 20, 2019

Canadians are much more likely to overestimate the number of refugees the country admits every year than to underestimate it, a study shows.

Asked to guess the correct number, 61 per cent said they didn’t know, 12 per cent got the answer right (28,000), while far more overestimated the number (24 per cent) than underestimated it (3 per cent.)

Few people could give the correct number of immigrants (330,000), though they were less likely to overestimate it.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about immigration in Canada,” says University of Toronto political science professor Peter Loewen.

“By misinformation I’m not describing intentionally wrong information on immigration, but just a lot of people who are misinformed about the issue.”

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“They think there are more refugees than there are, and they don’t realize how many immigrants are coming into the country.”

The survey also showed that supporters of different parties saw different aspects of immigration as more important.

WATCH: Calgary experts discuss immigration as an election issue
Click to play video: 'Calgary experts discuss immigration as an election issue'
Calgary experts discuss immigration as an election issue

Conservatives, for example, saw national security, terrorism and illegal immigration as most important. Liberals, meanwhile, saw diversity, multiculturalism, jobs and the economy as more important.

“Partisans differ in terms of what they’re talking about when they talk about immigration,” Loewen says.

“They just have a different frame in terms of the issues that they’re using to think about and talk about immigration.”

Perhaps surprisingly, People’s Party of Canada supporters saw diversity and multiculturalism as the most important aspect of immigration, but co-author Derek Ruths said that this doesn’t necessarily mean it was seen as a positive.

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“This simply indicates the actual issue, not necessarily the tone or position on that issue,” Ruths explained.

“It could well be that there’s actually negative engagement going on there.”

Ruths teaches computer science at McGill University.

Exposure to media gives people more confidence that their answers are correct — whether or not they actually are, Loewen says.

“Here’s the worrying takeaway. The more people are exposed to traditional news, and/or the more they’re exposed to social media, the more likely they are to give incorrect answers about immigration levels and refugee levels than those who have low exposure. That’s troubling.”

“It tells us that people are taking misinformation from somewhere in the ecosystem and they’re absorbing it and taking it to be the correct answer rather than saying they’re unsure.”

Thinking that more refugees are admitted than is actually the case can lead to a feeling that “we’re being overwhelmed,” Loewen says.

“Let’s take the case of uncontrolled border crossings in Quebec. I could make a reasonable, even-handed argument that those were a problem because they represent a lack of control of our immigration system. We’re taking in people in an irregular way when there is a regular way for them to come into the country.

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“You could identify that as a problem, but is that the problem, or is it the number of people? Quickly, I think the issue goes from the fact that it’s happening in an irregular way, which is undesirable, whether it’s a small number or a large number, to a sense that we’re being flooded, and that implies numbers. But in fact we’re not being flooded.”

Relatively few voters see immigration as a top election issue, an Ipsos poll showed last week. Canadians were much more likely to cite health care, the cost of living, the economy and climate change

However, those who said immigration is one of their top issues tended to be concerned with reducing it, the poll found. Concern about immigration was higher in Quebec.

The report was released by the Digital Democracy Project, which is led by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum and McGill University.

This poll was conducted between September 11 and 16, 2019, with a sample of 1,559 Canadians. This poll is accurate to within 3-6 percentage points, 18 times out of 20, the Digital Democracy Project said.

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