Frequently Asked Questions 

Answering your most frequently asked questions about UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and our work.

Photo: © UNHCR/Martim Gray Pereira

Here, you can learn more about UNHCR globally and here in Canada. You may also visit our Donor Care FAQ section, if you have more questions about donations and donating to UNHCR. These are the most frequently asked questions about UNHCR and our work.

Frequently Asked Questions About UNHCR

What is UNHCR and what does it stand for?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.

What is UNHCR Canada?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is the world’s leading organization committed to protecting the rights and well-being of people forced to flee. UNHCR has operated in Canada since 1976.

Around the world, UNHCR has over 17,000 staff on the ground in 138 countries helping refugees and other vulnerable groups with emergency relief, protection, and support as they rebuild their lives. In Canada, UNHCR promotes the highest standards of protection for refugees and asylum-seekers, helps coordinate resettlement opportunities, and supports UNHCR efforts around the world. Learn more about UNHCR Canada.

Who does UNHCR help?

Our primary purpose at UNHCR is to safeguard the rights and well-being of people who have been forced to flee. Together with partners and communities, we work to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country. We also strive to secure lasting solutions.

For over half a century, UNHCR has helped millions of people to restart their lives. They include refugeesreturneesstateless people, the internally displaced and asylum-seekers. Our protectionshelterhealth and education has been crucial, healing broken pasts and building brighter futures.

What is UNHCR’s mandate?

UNHCR is primarily mandated to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance, and to seek permanent solutions for persons within its core mandate responsibilities. UNHCR’s original core mandate covered only refugees, that is, all persons outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and who, as a result, require international protection. However, over time UNHCR’s mandate has been expanded to cover returnees and stateless persons. Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for internally displaced people, UNHCR may be involved in certain circumstances to enhance protection and provide humanitarian assistance.  

How do I contact UNHCR?

Please visit our Contact Us page for contact information.

Who funds UNHCR?

UNHCR is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, with the majority coming from governments and the European Union. Other contributions come from other intergovernmental organizations and pooled funding mechanisms, while a further percentage is from the private sector, including foundations, corporations and the public. You can access UNHCR’s detailed budget and financials report here.

Frequently Asked Questions about Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Canada

I have a friend/relative who is a refugee. Can you tell me more about resettlement options in Canada?

Once a refugee has been registered with UNHCR in their country of asylum, local resettlement staff can determine who is in need of resettlement and can then submit their case to various resettlement countries. Ultimately, it is the resettlement country that decides whether or not a person will be admitted into the country. The decision on who will be referred for resettlement is made by the UNHCR office in the refugee’s country of asylum and not by UNHCR in Canada. You may wish to consult Citizenship and Immigration Canada for information on Canada’s immigration options, including family reunification or Private Sponsorship of Refugees programs.

I am a refugee outside of Canada. Can I count on UNHCR’s assistance to be resettled to Canada?

If you are inquiring about your refugee or resettlement case and you are currently outside of Canada, please contact your nearest UNHCR office. The decision of who will be referred for resettlement is made by the local office and not by UNHCR in the Canadian office. 

UNHCR Canada is unable to provide you with any case-specific information. 

I came to Canada as a refugee. How can my family join me?

For information on Canadian family reunification eligibility and requirements, please visit Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

What is the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada?

The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada is also known as the IRB. Founded in 1989, it is an independent tribunal established by the Parliament of Canada and responsible for making efficient, fair, decisions on immigration and refugee matters pursuant to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). Among other responsibilities, the IRB is the decision-making body which determines which asylum-seekers will receive refugee status in Canada.

What is refugee status in Canada?

Every year, thousands of people come to Canada and apply for refugee status by making an asylum claim. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), the law that governs immigration and refugee matters is the basis for granting refugee status in Canada. 

The definition of a refugee is found in the 1951 Convention and incorporated in IRPA. From Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada: “Convention refugees are people who are outside their home country or the country where they normally live, and who are unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race; religion; political opinion; nationality; or membership in a particular social group.” 

Once a claim is accepted, an asylum-seeker becomes a recognized refugee, receives the status of “protected person” and can apply to become a permanent resident of Canada. 

What are the rights of refugees in Canada?

When an asylum-seeker first comes to Canada, he or she must make a claim for protection to the Canadian government in order to be granted refugee status. During the time when this claim is being evaluated, an asylum-seeker has certain rights. For example, he or she may be eligible to work or study in Canada and receive emergency medical care. All minor children are automatically eligible to attend school. If a claim for protection is successful, asylum seekers are granted “protected persons” status with access to additional benefits.

Some refugees that have made their asylum claim in another country are resettled in Canada. These resettled refugees receive initial assistance (typically provided for up to one year) from either the federal government, the Province of Quebec, or private sponsors. Resettled refugees become permanent residents and can eventually become citizens of Canada. Get help resettling in Canada.

How many refugees are in Canada?

To learn about immigration and refugees in Canada, please visit the Government of Canada’s website.

Frequently Asked Questions about Definitions and Terms

What is the definition of refugee?

The internationally recognized legal definition of refugee was set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention as: “A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

Refugees are ordinary people who have been forced to flee their homes across national borders because of conflict or human rights abuses. These devastating circumstances often arise suddenly, forcing families to react with urgency to factors beyond their control. There are currently over 29 million refugees worldwide.

What is the definition of asylum-seeker?

An asylum-seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but has not yet been granted refugee status. 

When an individual fleeing conflict or persecution arrives in a new country, they must submit a formal claim for refugee status. This claim is evaluated by the host country, after which asylum seekers may be legally recognized as refugees. In Canada, refugee claims are heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board within 60 days. 

What is the difference between a migrant and a refugee?

A migrant is someone who chooses to leave their country, whether for economic reasons or to search for a better life. They can also return to their home country whenever they like. A refugee is someone who is forced to flee their home due to persecution, war, or violence. They can’t return home until it’s safe, something that often doesn’t happen for years, or even decades. 

What is the definition of stateless?

A stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality of any country. People can become stateless for a number of reasons, and some people are born stateless. Without a nationality, individuals can struggle to realise basic needs like healthcare, education, voting or employment and their fundamental human rights may be compromised. 

Some stateless persons are also refugees. However, not all refugees are stateless, and many persons who are stateless have never crossed an international border. 

Some of the reasons for statelessness include discrimination against minority groups, gaps in nationality law, the emergence of new states, or changes in borders. Today, at least 10 million people around the world are denied a nationality. 

What is the definition of IDPs?

Like refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are ordinary people forced to flee their homes due to war or persecution. However, unlike refugees, IDPs remain in their own country. 

At the end of 2018, 41.3 million people were displaced within their own country as a result of conflict and violence. In Syria, a large percentage of the population (6.6 million people) has been displaced.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons are not protected under international law because they are legally under the protection of their country’s government—even if that government was the cause of their displacement. IDPs therefore represent one of the world’s most vulnerable groups, and one that UNHCR is committed to assisting. 

What is a refugee camp?

A refugee camp is a temporary settlement built to house refugees. 

As an example, Za’atari camp in Jordan is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East. Za’atari is home to 76,349 refugees. The camp has 32 schools and 58 community centres offering activities to children and families.

UNHCR believes that refugee camps should be a temporary measure. Alternatives to camps, including renting land or private hosting agreements, allow refugees more control over their freedoms and rights, and more options to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of the community they live in. Read the UN Policy on Alternatives to Camps. 

What is meant by climate refugees or environmental refugees?

The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly, causing extreme weather patterns, drought, food scarcity, conflict over water resources, and other grave consequences. It is estimated that natural disasters and climate change force 22.5 million people to flee their homes each year.

The terms climate refugee and environmental refugee are often used to refer to these vulnerable persons. However, climate and environmental refugees are not legally recognized under the definitions set out by the 1951 Refugee Convention and although they may need protection and assistance, these people are not eligible for refugee status.

UNHCR has begun an international dialogue to address this “protection gap” through the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility. The Paris COP 21 Conclusions Agreements also calls for a task force to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”.

Miscellaneous Questions

What percentage of refugees are resettled?

There were 29 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world at the end of 2019, but less than five per cent of global resettlement needs were met. Learn more about resettlement.

How does refugee resettlement work?

To learn about how refugee resettlement works, please visit our one pager with easy to access information. 

My family has just fled their country of origin. How can I help them?

If they believe they are refugees, we urge all asylum-seekers to register with UNHCR or the comparable local authority. For information on where to register you can contact the closest UNHCR office.

Can you tell me more about the UNHCR resettlement program?

Resettlement is one of three long-term solutions—in addition to voluntary repatriation and local integration—to help refugees rebuild their lives. Resettlement is offered to vulnerable refugees who cannot return home or remain in their country of asylum. Only a small number of refugees are submitted for resettlement consideration and very few countries participate in the resettlement programs. Canada is one of UNHCR’s leading resettlement partners, welcoming thousands of refugees each year. More information is available on our international website.

What is UNHCR doing in Syria?

Conflict in Syria is fueling one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time, with over five million refugees and six million internally displaced persons forced to flee their homes due to violence and civil war.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is leading a coordinated, on-the-ground effort across international borders to protect those in need, alleviate suffering, and provide life-saving humanitarian aid. Read more about UNHCR in Syria.

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