Celebrating World Population Day: Canada’s Response to Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies

James Nelson

On 11 July 2015, the international community will mark World Population Day, the theme of which is Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies.  Recently, media has reported on the plight of vulnerable populations, drawing the public’s attention to such issues as migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as overcrowded boats attempt to reach Europe from North Africa;  essentially stateless people living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps; and humanitarian agencies partnering with the corporate sector to provide refugee housing.  As continuing conflicts are compounded by newer crises, the number of IDPs, refugees, and asylum-seekers has been increasing: 40% between 2011 and 2014 alone.  This growth is unprecedented in recent history, with worldwide forced displacement reaching levels not seen since World War II.  According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2014 saw 59.5 million individuals – or one in every 122 people – forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.  As noted by the UNHCR, “[s]uch growth poses challenges to finding adequate responses to these crises, increasingly leading to the multiple displacement of individuals or secondary movements in search of safety.” The dire state of vulnerable populations should encourage all Canadians to ask: what has Canada’s response been towards vulnerable populations in emergencies, and what more could Canada do?

Canada’s Response: Legal Obligations, Humanitarian Tradition, and International Contributions

Canada’s international legal obligations result from signing several United Nations multilateral human rights treaties, including the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol as well as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; its domestic legal obligations are enshrined in provisions set forth in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA).  It is important to note here that IRPA is based on the UN Refugee Convention which defines who is a convention refugee and therefore eligible to claim protection in Canada; unfortunately, this definition excludes IDPs who are neither protected by international law nor eligible to receive many types of aid as, legally, IDPs are under the protection of their own government.  Canada fulfills its legal obligations and continues its humanitarian tradition as described in Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s (CIC) Strategic Outcome 2 , which targets “[f]amily and humanitarian migration that reunites families and offers protection to the displaced and persecuted.”  This strategy includes implementing the Refugee Protection Program.  The program’s most recent performance results are positive: in 2013-14, Canada reached its upper target of resettling 12% of the world’s resettled refugees; of the 98,400 resettled refugees in the world, Canada resettled 12,186, making Canada the country with the second highest number of resettled refugees per capita.  As of January 2015, Canada committed to providing protection to more than 35,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees through its resettlement and asylum systems.  This continues Canada’s tradition of establishing generous targets in times of conflict; for example, the advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) notes that, over the course of past conflicts, Canada has received 37,000 Hungarian refugees, 60,000 Vietnamese ‘Boat People’, and 20,000 Soviet Jews.

CIC also influences the international migration and integration policy agenda by developing and promoting Canada’s position on international migration, integration, and refugee protection issues. CIC also represents Canadian interests in multilateral, regional, and bilateral forums such as the International Organization for Migration, the Regional Conference on Migration, and Intergovernmental Consultations on Migration, Asylum and Refugees.  Moreover, Canada contributes to the work of the UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for leading and coordinating the international effort to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems.  In 2014, Canada contributed USD 73,423,460, which made up 2% of the agency’s budget and ranked Canada 12th out of 77 government donors.  Canada’s contribution provides long-term institutional support for the UNHCR as well as shelter, essential non-food items, potable water, adequate sanitation services, health care, and other essential services. Canadian funding supports vulnerable populations in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Asia-Pacific Region, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Domestic Strategies and International Influence are Needed to Support Internally Displaced Persons

In 2013, Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister of remarked that “Canada is a world leader in providing assistance and support to vulnerable populations around the world. We are committed to protecting and resettling refugees and displaced families, who continue to suffer because of conflict and civil unrest.”  While Canada should be applauded for its role in providing assistance to refugees, more could be done to support IDPs.  There is no effective international system for IDPs because when the UNHCR was created to oversee global refugee issues following World War II, IDPs were considered the responsibility of their respective governments, regardless of their government’s willingness or ability.  As the international community is becoming increasingly interested in helping IDPs for humanitarian, development, political, and security reasons, Canada has the potential be a world leader in supporting IDPs in a number of ways:

  • Pursue special resettlement strategies: Drawing on CJPME’s recommendations, Canada could relax the Refugee Protection Program criteria to treat IDPs as refugees and expedite the application process.  IDPs with relatives in Canada could also be issued temporary resident permits to grant them early admission and allow for their applications to be processed within Canada.  CJPME argues that the federal government could facilitate this special resettlement strategy by creating “a special pool from which to assign allocations to the different provinces where the [IDPs] arriving under the relaxed criteria settle.”  For Canada to be a leader in resettling IDPs, the government must ensure that funding levels and existing programs are sufficient and appropriate for integrating IDPs into Canadian society, economy and culture.
  • Create new directives and institutions: Canada could develop a “directive on forced migration that integrates internal displacement into foreign policy decisionmaking”, as argued by The Brookings Institution. Given the lack of an international system for IDPs, it could be strategic for Canada to study best practices, including the USAID Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy, and design a coherent approach to IDPs in its development and foreign policy strategies.  This could include creating an office within Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD) and giving them the clear responsibility for coordinating short- and long-term IDP programs. Their efforts would promote policy coherence among federal departments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, host governments, and local institutions.
  • Leverage soft power: Canada should leverage its soft power in multilateral, regional, and bilateral forums to ensure that IDPs are a priority in future development agendas. Currently, DFATD supports humanitarian responses and encourages a better understanding of the issues and root causes of internal displacement.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) notes that humanitarian responses are often short-term and based on immediate need, and therefore cannot target the roots of the problem.  Canada could leverage its soft power by lobbying the international community for a more durable and sustainable solution.  For example, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, made up of United Nations member states, proposed sustainable development goal 16 to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.  Canada could lobby UN member states to include a dedicated target on reducing the number of IDPs and refugees in this goal; by including targets and indicators, the OHCHR argues that the international community can positively affect the well-being of IDPs.


James Nelson is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  He also holds an Honours BSocSc in International Development and Globalization from the University of Ottawa.  He is currently a Policy and Research Analyst with the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, and has previously worked at Health Canada and the Institute for Democratic Governance, a policy research and advocacy organization in Ghana.  His interests include good governance, global education policy, and sustainable development.

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