The Vancouver Olympics has had one curious byproduct: refugees. Canada has received seven requests for asylum from foreign Olympics spectators so far—including two from Japan, one from Russia and four from Hungary. If past trends are any indication, that number could increase.
The flurry of asylum applicants underscores Canada’s reputation as an easy place to ask for refuge: Nearly anyone can do it, as long as they have entered the country and haven’t been identified as an international security risk.
That ease has prompted a surge in asylum applications in recent years, from a list of countries that include Mexico, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Canada received nearly 34,000 requests for asylum in the past year, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Some 61,000 such applications were pending as of the end of December, the highest ever under the current system.
Asylum seekers generally apply under the standard definition of a refugee as laid out by the United Nations, meaning they fear persecution at home based on factors such as race, religion, politics or membership in a persecuted group, often gays or lesbians.
Those who can’t prove they are truly in danger of persecution are sent home—as some 60% of applicants have been in recent years. But applicants are allowed to stay in Canada, with full benefits, until they get a hearing, which could take years.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said on a Canadian politics television show Tuesday: “It is a pretty obvious signal to people that they can come make a claim, get welfare benefits, get a work permit, stay here sometimes for years, and try to get permanent residency.”
Canada has tried to stem the rush by making it harder for citizens of top refugee producers to get in. In July, Citizenship and Immigration Canada started requiring visas for travelers from Mexico, which ranked No. 1 last year with 9,296 asylum requests. (It has a 9% acceptance rate.) Mexico slapped visa requirements on Canadian diplomats and officials in return.
The same month, Canada reimposed a visa requirement on then-No. 2-ranked Czech Republic, noting that nearly 3,000 refugee claims had been filed by Czech nationals in the roughly two years during which visas hadn’t been required.
International sporting events have been magnets for refugee claims. Canada received 1,390 refugee claims associated with the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, and 1,592 from the 2001 Francophone Games in Ottawa and Gatineau, Quebec, said Johanne Nadeau, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.