Refugees and Immigrants: How Canada stacks up

The National ran a piece challenging a government assertion that Canada is the best in the world when it comes to its acceptance of refugees and immigrants. The complainant, Steven Salamon, thought the piece blurred the lines on the different categories of arrivals and unfairly criticized government policy. It’s complicated but the piece did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

You thought that a piece broadcast on The National on September 3, 2015, dealing with immigration and refugee numbers in Canada was a “dishonest analysis.” The report, by Adrienne Arsenault, examined the numbers and facts behind a statement from Stephen Harper. In responding to the criticisms of Canada’s actions vis-à-vis Syrian refugees, he said: “Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee policy in the world. We admit per capita more people than any other.”

You thought the piece failed to “set the record straight” and was biased against the Conservative position. You also thought that the report mixed up various categories of migrants, and that Ms. Arsenault should not have raised the issue of asylum seekers in this context:

The government has correctly worked to stem the tide of asylum seekers (most of whom are queue jumpers) and shifted resources to refugee resettlement. Asylum seeking is down, because the government is focussing on helping people in the greatest need. I find it beyond belief that Ms. Arsenault does not understand this.

You stated that the issue of asylum seekers is a different one than that of refugee resettlement “which was the issue driving the story.” You went on to ask:

Did the story fairly make the distinction or attempt to clearly explain the difference between the two types of refugees? The story seems to purposefully conflate different types of refugees.

You expressed strong support for the government’s approach to migrants and believe that it is important that private citizens sponsor those most in need of protection. You thought that the “goal of the story seemed to be to cast Canada’s refugee policy in a negative light.”

You acknowledged the pressures of daily deadlines but thought that this story should not have been labelled a “fact check” because it did not adequately “present the facts fairly and in context.”

You said that your reading of government statistics on people coming to Canada shows “no strong trend with respect to numbers of refugees and immigrants being allowed into Canada.” You said that anyone watching this story would draw a different conclusion.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He pointed out the context for presenting a picture of Canada’s record on immigration and refugees was the ongoing “controversy and debate” about the Syrian refugee issue. He said that Ms. Arsenault started her story by pointing out that there are “substantive and numerical differences between the two different categories of migrants – immigrants and refugees, and he noted it was the Prime Minister who grouped the two together in his statement. He cited the number of refugees Canada settled last year and pointed out that according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), Canada ranked second in the world on that score.

He said after reviewing this aspect of settlement in Canada, Ms. Arsenault then raised the issue of asylum seekers and provided numbers to back up the statement that Canada does not perform as well in this context. He said that the number of asylum seekers was not just due to a shift in emphasis to those in greatest need, as you had said, but because of the change in policy that makes it harder for asylum seekers to apply for and be granted refugee status:

It can be argued that Canada has not been as generous when it comes to people seeking asylum. According to the UNHCR's representative in Canada and refugee law experts, fewer people are being received in that category. In fact, Canada has slipped from number 5 to number 15 globally (2010 compared to 2015).

Ms. Arsenault reported that the government introduced a number of changes in 2012, making it harder for people to apply for and be granted asylum. Subsequently, the number of asylum seekers coming to Canada dropped from 20,000 in 2012 to 10,000 in 2013. You feel the government’s changes to the asylum policy were correct. That is your opinion. There are no doubt other Canadians who may have a different view.

You also said most asylum seekers were queue jumpers (and, you suggested, in less need than resettled refugees). On that point, we do know that 61% of new asylum claims in 2014 were accepted as legitimate.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for fairness and accuracy in reporting:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.

You are concerned that the report conflated the numbers to paint a particular picture of Canadian immigration policy. The starting point was the prime minister’s statement that Canada has the most “generous immigration and refugee policy in the world.” The first part of the script separates those two categories and provides the numbers and gives some historical context and comparisons to other countries. The numbers are correct. Ms. Arsenault begins the piece with the quote from the prime minister and then continues:

Those are strong words and are actually due for a closer look. Firstly, he lumped in immigrants and refugees. But those are two very different realities. Canada does accept a lot of economic immigrants. 165,000 last year. Those are basically people trying to better their lives. Not save their lives like refugees. Refugees make up less than 10% of the people accepted into Canada. That number of people granted refugee status in Canada is actually down from 35,000 in 2005 to just over 23,000 in 2014.

She then asked the rhetorical question – are we as generous as we claim. She stated clearly that Canada ranks second after the United States when it comes to the number of people resettled as refugees. She went on to raise another class of people seeking to come to Canada – and that is asylum seekers. She added that Canada changed its law in 2012 making it more difficult for those seeking refugee status. The numbers do reflect a significant drop in the number of asylum seekers since then, which has been of some concern to the UNHCR. You challenge the decision to look at the question of asylum seekers in this context, and say that it is a separate issue from refugee resettlement. This is how the UNHCR defines asylum seekers:

The terms asylum-seeker and refugee are often confused: an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. On average, about 1 million people seek asylum on an individual basis every year. In mid-2014, there were more than 1.2 million asylum-seekers.

National asylum systems are there to decide which asylum-seekers actually qualify for international protection. Those judged through proper procedures not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, can be sent back to their home countries.

The efficiency of the asylum system is key. If the asylum system is both fast and fair, then people who know they are not refugees have little incentive to make a claim in the first place, thereby benefitting both the host country and the refugees for whom the system is intended.

Given this definition, it is legitimate to raise this category of migrant in the context of people seeking refuge in Canada and other safe countries. The UNHCR also points out that the number of asylum seekers worldwide is increasing, and one of the things driving that upward trend is the crisis in Syria. The context for this report was the question of Syrian refugees.

The story does not provide definitions of the various classes of refugees and refugee claimants you cite. It might have been more useful to make it clearer, but unfortunately broadcast pieces tend to condense a lot of information into very little time. It was not misleading though. When the script moved on to the question of asylum seekers, Ms. Arsenault said:

But that is not the whole story. Canada’s laws changed a few years ago. They made it harder for people to apply for and get asylum in this country. So when the United Nations now looks at how countries handle asylum seekers, Canada’s position dropped significantly. Have a look at the U.N.’s chart. A few years ago, Canada was ranked number 5 out of the world’s top 15 recipients of asylum seekers. In 2014, Canada slipped down to the number 15. Remember Stephen Harper says that Canada admitted more people per capita than any other. Well, if you are talking about how a country handles asylum seekers, the U.N. says Canada is not in the top spot per capita. Sweden is. In fact, Canada doesn’t even make it to the top ten.

Earlier in the piece, it rhetorically asks, ”What do the hard numbers reveal? It is far from clear.” The data presented is correct and the script points out where Canada performs well and where it doesn’t rank as high. You think it is a good thing that the number of asylum seekers has dropped, but that was not what was under discussion in this piece.

The introduction of the question of refugees and those seeking refugee status was a valid journalistic choice in this context – the public policy debate after all was about the plight of people fleeing from war and conflict. The Journalistic Standards and Practices statement on accuracy states journalists are obligated to seek out facts. On the question of impartiality it says that the role of reporters is to “provide facts and judgments based on expertise.” Putting the prime minister’s remarks in a broader context and testing them against data is legitimate journalistic pursuit.

There is one area I agree with you might have been clearer, and that is the conclusion. This is the end of the piece:

Remember Stephen Harper says that Canada admitted more people per capita than any other. Well, if you are talking about how a country handles asylum seekers, the U.N. says Canada is not in the top spot per capita. Sweden is. In fact, Canada doesn’t even make it to the top ten.

The sentences are all correct, but it does conflate a lot of different elements. The more I delved into this subject, the more I realized it is a complex one. There is an inherent challenge in presenting this kind of material in a short television report. Its shortcomings appear due to that consideration and not to any violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman