The number of Iranians seeking asylum in Canada has almost tripled in recent years, even before open military conflict exploded this week between the U.S. and the increasingly damaged Middle Eastern country.
About one in 20 Iranians who obtain visas to fly into Canada as tourists, guest workers or international students have been applying for refugee status, according to a redacted immigration department document obtained under an access-to-information request.
More than 125 Iranians applied each month for asylum in Canada in early 2019, according to the internal report. And for the past 18 months Iranians have made up by far the largest cohort wanting protection on the West Coast of Canada, reports the B.C. Refugee Hub Bulletin.
Iranian asylum seekers in B.C. far surpass the next largest source countries for would-be refugees, which are Mexico, Afghanistan, Colombia and Nigeria. An average of 65 Iranians a month last year sought political refuge while in B.C., which has a strong Iranian-Canadian population on the North Shore and in Coquitlam.
The latest blow to Iran’s autocratic leaders occurred Friday, when U.S. drones blew up two of the country’s top military commanders, prompting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to threaten vengeance. That was preceded by a strife-ridden 2019, in which militias, backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, killed hundreds of demonstrators protesting human rights abuses, high gasoline prices and economic hardship, which has been exacerbated by Donald Trump’s sanctions.
The immigration department report owed the sudden mid-2018 surge in asylum claims by Iranians on Canadian soil to “political and economic crisis” in the Muslim-majority country of 82 million, where the population has been bruised by the devaluation of the Iranian currency, called the Rial.
The rising number of Iranian asylum seekers is seen as a challenge to the integrity of Canada’s visa system, according to the report, produced by Steffan Miles and Diane Desrosiers. The surge in Iranian asylum seekers reflects what the authors call a concerning rise in “non-genuine travel” to Canada.
Kei Esmaeilpour, president of the Civic Association of Iranian Canadians, said the latest confrontation between Iran and the West may motivate further asylum-seeking by Iranians.
“The chaos will likely worsen domestic conditions politically, with the atmosphere becoming more tense and charged. And depending on how Iran reacts, there may be further sanctions or external factors to further compromise the economy,” said Esmaeilpour.
“The population of Iran previously enjoyed good health care, education and living standards, despite the political climate. But the living conditions have become almost unbearable. The people are becoming hopeless and so it seems they are seeking a way out instead of just coping and navigating difficult circumstances as they used to.”
There are roughly 202,000 people of Iranian origin in Canada, with 97,000 in Greater Toronto and 46,000 in Metro Vancouver.
Iranian-Canadians, also known as Persian-Canadians, make up roughly one-in-five residents of many neighbourhoods in West Vancouver and North Vancouver, especially in Ambleside and the British Properties, as well as in the City of North Vancouver, particularly along Lonsdale Avenue.
It’s not surprising so many well-off Iranians want to come to welcoming, prosperous Canada, Esmaeilpour said. “I personally correspond with many educated people in Iran who are asking about how to immigrate to Canada. Many of these individuals had a good life before this, in Iran, but are becoming desperate.”
The immigration report produced in May 2019, however, makes it clear that it doesn’t want to see abuse of Canada’s temporary resident visas, which go to tourists, family members visiting relatives, foreign students and guest workers.
The number of Iranians asking for temporary visas to Canada went from 24,000 in 2016 to 78,001 in 2018, says the report. “And the percentage of visas resulting in a (refugee) claim has risen from one to two per cent of visas issued in 2014 to four to five per cent of visas issued in 2018.”
In response, border officials have turning down a much larger percentage of visa requests. “Visa offices are taking steps to refine decision-making to reduce the percentage of adverse outcomes,” said the report. “The goal is to continue to facilitate the travel of genuine travellers, while refusing visas to applicants who will not depart Canada at the end of their stay.”
It’s hard to say if Iranian riots and bombings of the past two months will lead to even more Persians applying for refugee status while they’re on Canadians soil, says Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, author of Lexbase newsletter, who obtained the internal report from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
“The question is whether refugee claims from Iranian students, workers and visitors will hike. Economic conditions in Iran have deteriorated. There is the usual fear of the (Iranian) regime. And now, possibly, also fear from the air, if an American counter-strike gets real.”
For his part, Esmaeilpour believes the impetus will remain strong for Iranians to try hard to gain entry to Canada.
“Canada is among the best countries for immigrants, and the Iranian people are on average highly educated. So they are making informed decisions about where to immigrate and where the best prospects for them are. The USA, a previously popular choice, has become extraordinarily difficult to apply to, and many are discouraged because of the political climate itself. Many of these individuals also have relatives or friends in Canada, so it makes sense that they are coming here.”
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