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Immigrant or Refugee? In Canada, All Are ‘Newcomers’ 


FILE - New Canadian citizen David Alfonso, 8, reacts as maple taffy is prepared for new Canadians following a citizenship ceremony at the Vanier Sugar Shack in Ottawa, Ontario, April 11, 2018.

Where is an immigrant not an immigrant? Increasingly, in Canada, where the federal and regional governments, along with companies and private support groups, are adopting the word “newcomer” as a more inclusive term that avoids the stigma sometimes attached to the words “immigrant” and “refugee.”

The term can be found wherever immigration issues are discussed, including on the website of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the federal agency dealing with such matters, which hosts a page titled “Newcomer Services.”

Provincial governments like those in Ontario and New Brunswick similarly offer webpages welcoming “newcomers.” And the Royal Bank of Canada offers financial advice to immigrants on a webpage titled “Newcomers to Canada.”

Newcomers Canada is also the name of a private employment service that bills itself as “the largest network of new Canadians in the country — a place where both newcomers and employers come to map their routes ahead.”

The precise definition of newcomer remains vague. According to the website of the volunteer group Access Alliance, it can vary “from someone who arrived in the last three years, to someone who arrived a decade ago. … Some immigrants refuse to be labelled a ‘newcomer,’ while others never feel established enough to drop that label.”

But for most of the organizations that use the term, the point is that it is broadly inclusive, embracing immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and sometimes even foreign students, many of whom remain in the country after completing their studies.

"Immigration has evolved over the years and students have become future immigrants,” said Nick Noorani, author of the book Welcome to Canada, which is distributed to new immigrants by the Canadian government. “Over 60% of them become immigrants or permanent residents.”

Noorani noted that Canada admits about 600,000 foreign students each year. That’s more than the roughly 400,000 immigrants admitted in the same time frame. Together, they have a significant impact on a thinly populated nation of just 38 million.

FILE - A woman from El Salvador is embraced by a family friend before leaving Vive La Casa shelter by taxi with her daughters to file a refugee claim at the Canadian border, in Buffalo, N.Y., July 5, 2017.
FILE - A woman from El Salvador is embraced by a family friend before leaving Vive La Casa shelter by taxi with her daughters to file a refugee claim at the Canadian border, in Buffalo, N.Y., July 5, 2017.

Harald Bauder, an immigration expert at Toronto Metropolitan University, said it makes sense to lump immigrants and refugees together under one term because the forces that drive them to seek new homes are not always easy to differentiate.

“Although both refer to different government programs under which people can come to Canada, the circumstances and motivations based on which people come to Canada are more complex,” he told VOA. “For example, refugees may also be motivated by the prospect of a better material life in Canada, and immigrants may seek political freedoms they do not enjoy in the countries they left behind.”

Bauder said the change in terminology can also reduce stereotypes in which the word refugee “can evoke images of victimhood and lower levels of skills, et cetera.”

However, some experts say the country still needs to clarify exactly who qualifies as a newcomer.

“There appears to be a lot of confusion around these terms where it is not clear whether international students are included in the ‘newcomer’ category, which seems to be reserved primarily for those arriving as refugees or on another special status,” said Rajika Bhandari, an international expert on higher education.

“If we are to think of this in terms of permanence, international students are often uncertain and apprehensive of what their future holds and whether they will be able to stay on in their destination country and acquire a more permanent status, i.e., become an immigrant.”

Nevertheless, Bhandari said, international students “are likely to feel more included and welcomed” when described as newcomers, “and likely also optimistic about their ability to immigrate to Canada, should they wish to do so.”

Idil Atak, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, also likes the new term but cautions that it could undermine understanding of the unique problems and need for protection faced by refugees.

“Treating refugees and asylum-seekers as economic migrants may lead state authorities and opinion makers to downplay states’ specific obligations to refugees,” she told VOA.

She said it also remains unclear at what point a migrant or a refugee stops being treated as a "newcomer" by authorities. “This uncertainty could hamper noncitizens' integration process and affect their lived experiences.”