Policy background – Human rights defenders
This section contains policy, procedures and guidance used by IRCC staff. It is posted on the department’s website as a courtesy to stakeholders.
On July 16, 2021, the IRCC minister announced the launch of a dedicated refugee stream to resettle up to 250 human rights defenders (HRDs) per year, including their families. Canada’s commitment to provide protection to at-risk HRDs and their families was renewed in 2021 in the IRCC minister’s mandate letter.
In the context of Canada’s new HRD stream, a “human rights defender” is defined as a person who, individually or in association with others, promotes or strives for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national or international level.
HRD refugees can face particular risks in their country of asylum because their work often challenges people in powerful positions and may attract reprisals. Actors of persecution, both state and non-state, often reach across borders to target HRDs in their country of asylum. HRDs may therefore remain in hiding even in their country of asylum.
HRDs also face particular challenges in accessing protection because persecuting states try to obstruct HRDs and punish them for their work. The use of illegitimate charges and the judicial harassment of HRDs are the most common ways in which states target HRDs.
Particular attention is therefore required to ensure that HRDs are not found inadmissible for convictions of offences where
- the HRD was subject to an unfair trial
- there is an indication that evidence was fabricated
- laws deliberately target human rights work
- the action underlying the conviction is not considered an offence in Canada that warrants inadmissibility
The intent of this stream is to provide resettlement to the HRD refugees who are most at risk and in need of resettlement. To ensure that the HRDs who are the most in need can access Canada’s protection, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders advised Canada to work with human rights organizations with a global reach and broad mandate in identifying HRDs for referral to Canada.
Through memoranda of understanding, Canada established a partnership with two leading organizations that protect human rights defenders: Front Line Defenders (FLD) and ProtectDefenders.eu (PD). These organizations operate protection programs for HRDs that focus on helping HRDs find safety by escaping risk and finding solutions for their safe return to their country of origin. They therefore view resettlement as a last resort (that is, to be used sparingly).
Under this stream, IRCC currently accepts referrals in the global HRD program from 3 partners: the UNHCR, FLD and PD.
As a long-standing referral partner in this program, the UNHCR is responsible for identifying and preparing a portion of HRD refugee referrals to Canada. In addition to referring clients from its own global caseload, the UNHCR may also consider referring cases from the inventories of FLD and PD.
In March 2023, following the expansion of Canada’s HRD stream, IRCC entered into a direct referral relationship with FLD and PD in the global HRD stream. FLD and PD are now able to identify and directly refer a number of HRD refugees from their global caseload to Canada for resettlement.
To ensure the broadest possible reach in identifying at-risk HRDs, PD has also agreed to play the supplementary role of receiving, assessing, sorting and distributing cases referred by other organizations.
Before being referred to IRCC, all cases will be assessed according to set criteria to verify that the applicant
- is an HRD who has faced risks related to their human rights activities
- is among the HRDs most in need of a durable solution
- meets Canada’s eligibility and admissibility criteria
Because IRCC will be relying on PD, FLD and the UNHCR to determine whether or not an applicant is an HRD, officers do not need to make this determination. In consultation with HRD experts, IRCC has shared guidance with the UNHCR on how to assess whether an applicant is an HRD.
HRD refugees referred to IRCC under this program will be processed according to the GAR program process, in which officers check against the usual eligibility and admissibility requirements. However, officers will also take into account the unique features of HRDs to ensure they can effectively access protection.
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