Importance of Economic Integration of Convention Refugees

Many internationally-trained professionals face challenges in obtaining employment in their chosen professions following immigration to Canada.   In addition to these challenges, convention refugees face additional hurdles.

The government of Canada defines “convention refugee” as follows:

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, such as women or people of a particular sexual orientation.[1]

Differences between convention refugees and other internationally-trained professionals include the fact that convention refugees:

  • did not choose to immigrate for economic, social or other reasons, but were forced to flee;
  • do not have the option of returning to their home country;
  • may have left their home country with little notice or preparation;
  • are more likely to be in dire financial distress; and
  • are more likely to have suffered physical or emotional trauma.

Economic integration of convention refugees is critical to their well-being and success in Canada.   It also allows Canada to benefit from the skills and experience of these professionals, who become contributors to the Canadian economy.

Challenges Faced by Convention Refugees in Working in their Chosen Profession in Canada

Convention refugees face challenges both in becoming licensed to practice their chosen profession, as well as in obtaining employment commensurate with their skills and experience.

Barriers to Licensure

Lack of Generally Requested Forms of Identification

Regulatory bodies generally require proof of identification from applicants for licensure, and often require multiple forms of government-issued identification, from a list of ‘approved’ types of identification. 

Convention refugees may have only a single piece of Canadian government-issued identification.    Refugees may not have access to other primary identification documents (such as a birth certificate) or  commonly requested secondary documents (such as documentation of a legal name change to justify a difference between the name appearing on a birth certificate and that appearing on an immigration document). 

Inability to Obtain Official Documents to Demonstrate Education / Accreditation

Regulatory bodies frequently require official copies of transcripts, university degrees, etc, and require that these be received directly from the issuing institution.  This requirement can be particularly problematic for convention refugees.  

Refugees may not have brought official education documents with them, and may be unable to obtain them once in Canada.   The Explanatory Report to the Lisbon Convention on Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications (to which Canada is a signatory) notes that:

Many refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation do not possess documentary evidence of their qualifications because they have had to leave their personal belongings and papers behind, because it is impossible to communicate with the institution(s) where their qualifications were earned, because the relevant files and archives have been destroyed in acts of war or violence and/or because the relevant information is withheld for political or for other reasons.[2]

Work Experience Which Cannot be Officially Verified

Regulatory bodies may require that, work experience obtained outside of Canada be verifiable in order to be considered towards the requirement for licensure.  It may be difficult to obtain official verification of the work experience of convention refugees in their home country for the same reasons that official academic documents may not be available: inability to communicate with the employer / institution, destruction of records, or deliberate withholding of information for political or other reasons.

Gaps in Experience or Training Due to Refugee Experience

Regulators may require that work experience be consecutive, recent, or obtained within a certain time period in relation to an applicant’s completion of university studies or application for licensure.    This can be problematic for convention refugees, who may experience significant gaps in their training and/or work experience due to displacement and the refugee experience.

Limited Ability to Communicate in English / French

The ability to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages is essential, both in order to navigate the licensure process, and for admission to the profession.   Most regulators require an applicant to have a certain degree of fluency in English or French as a requirement for licensure.    Many convention refugees may have limited knowledge of English or French, and limited resources with which to undertake a course of study.

Financial Hardship

Convention refugees are more likely than other applicants to be facing significant financial hardship.  Many refugees are forced to rely on limited government benefits during the settlement process.   The fees related to the licensure process (which may include application fees, translation fees, and fees for bridging courses and exams) may force convention refugees to delay their application process – often for years, or may even present an insurmountable barrier to accessing the profession.

Canadian Experience Requirement

Many regulators require applicants to have a certain amount (generally one year) of work experience obtained in Canada, supervised by a licensed member of the profession.   This requirement presents a barrier to licensure to many internationally-trained professionals, which is likely to be even more significant in the case of convention refugees.

Difficulty Obtaining Professional References

Many regulators require applicants for licensure to provide references from licensed professional members who are familiar with applicants and their work.   Convention refugees are even more likely than other internationally-trained professionals to have difficulty obtaining such references, as they are more likely to be isolated from professional communities.

Issues Related to Good Character

Regulators require that applicants for licensure be of good character.   In many provinces, applicants are required to declare that, among other things, they do not have a history of criminal convictions.   Convention refugees may in fact have a record of convictions.  Such convictions may be on grounds that are related to their refugee status and not for offences recognized in Canada (such as political dissent or homosexual relationships) or may be false convictions imposed by corrupt regimes or based on tainted evidence, including admissions obtained by torture.  

Difficulty Obtaining Employment Following Licensure

Even when convention refugees have managed to become licensed in Canada to practice their profession, they are still less likely to obtain employment than Canadian-trained professionals.  Contributing factors include limited professional networks, use of English or French as a second language, financial constraints affecting mobility, and employer perceptions that internationally-trained professionals are less familiar with Canadian professional standards or work environment.

Ongoing Support

Convention refugees are likely to have ongoing support needs that are different from those of other professionals.   Again, these may be due to the fact that they may have limited professional networks, less fluency in English or French, limited familiarity with the Canadian work environment, and ongoing financial, physical or psychological challenges.

The Role of Professional Regulators

Protection of the Public

The primary mandate of a professional regulatory body is the protection of the public.  This objective is achieved by establishing the criteria for access to the profession, the maintenance of professional standards, and the regulation and discipline of members of the profession.

Fair Access Obligations

The purpose of the requirement to provide fair registration practices is, fundamentally, to ensure that registration practices provide all applicants with equal opportunity to demonstrate their compliance with the requirements for registration.     In the case of internationally-trained professionals, key requirements include:

  • practices free of unnecessary or unreasonable barriers, particularly those which have a disproportionate effect on particular groups of applicants;
  • practices which are timely, structured, and accessible to all applicants; and
  • methods assessing qualifications which are both necessary and sufficient for determining whether standards are met

In the provinces of Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Ontario, these obligations are enshrined in legislation.

Human Rights and Duty to Accommodate

Human rights legislation prohibits discrimination on grounds including nationality, ethnic background and/or country or place of origin.

Registration requirements which apply to all applicants may have a disproportionate impact on particular groups of applicants, such as convention refugees, which constitutes “constructive” or “adverse effect” discrimination. [3]

When a standard or requirement results in discrimination, the regulatory body must show that the standard or requirement:

  1. was adopted for a purpose that is rationally connected to the function being performed;
  2. was adopted in good faith; and
  3. is reasonably necessary to accomplish its goal or purpose, in the sense that it is impossible to accommodate the claimant without undue hardship.[4]

Where there is evidence of adverse effect discrimination, the obligation will be on the regulatory body to provide individual accommodation, unless it is impossible without imposing undue hardship on the organization.

Practical Strategies to Facilitate Access to the Profession by Convention Refugees

Accommodations in the Licensure Process

The essence of effective accommodation is the development of an individualized process to assess qualifications.  The items below are possible tools which may be appropriate, depending on the needs and circumstances of the particular applicant.

The Lisbon Convention on Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications provides that:

Each Party shall take all feasible and reasonable steps within the framework of its education system and in conformity with its constitutional, legal, and regulatory provisions to develop procedures designed to assess fairly and expeditiously whether refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation fulfil the relevant requirements for access to higher education, to further higher education programmes or to employment activities, even in cases in which the qualifications obtained in one of the Parties cannot be proven through documentary evidence.[5]

Fair Access legislation may require that information regarding alternative methods for meeting registration requirements be clearly communicated to applicants – preferably on the regulatory body’s website.

Staff Training and Sensitivity

Regulators may implement training in cultural sensitivity and awareness,  particularly for staff involved in the licensure process who have regular contact with internationally-trained applicants and those making registration or licensure decisions.  Such training is also beneficial for volunteers serving on registration or registration appeals committees.

Receipt of Contextual Information

When making registration or licensure decisions in relation to convention refugees, individuals, committees or councils making decisions are encouraged to receive sufficient contextual information to allow for an informed decision regarding accommodation or licensure requirements based on an understanding of the circumstances of the individual applicant and the situation in his/her country of origin. 

Alternatives to Generally Requested Forms of Identification

Regulators may need to modify or waive requirements related to identification.  This might include:

  • accepting a single piece of Canadian government-issued identification as proof of identity when additional pieces of identification are not available;
  • accepting alternate types of identification from those generally accepted;
  • accepting sworn statements of identity from reliable sources; and
  • accepting copies of secondary identification documents where original documents are not available.

Alternatives to Original Education Documents

In cases in which convention refugees are unable to obtain original education documents, regulators should consider alternatives, which may include:

  • documents received from the applicant or other sources, rather than from the issuing institution;
  • copies of documents rather than originals;
  • sworn statements as to qualifications or the details of programs of study.

The Explanatory Report to the Lisbon Convention in relation to Article VII provides that:

The Article commits the Parties to showing flexibility in the recognition of qualifications held by refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation, within the limits of each Party's system and in conformity with each Party's constitutional, legal and regulatory provisions. Such a measure could be a provisional recognition of the qualifications claimed on the basis of a sworn statement […], or the provision of special examinations to allow refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation to prove the qualifications they claim to have acquired.[6]

Use of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition

If reliable alternatives to original education documents are not available, particularly in the case of applicants who have a significant period of work experience in their home country, regulators may consider the use of prior learning assessment and recognition to assess an applicant’s learning.

Prior learning assessment and recognition defines processes that allow individuals to identify, document, have assessed and gain recognition for their prior learning. The learning may be formal, informal, non-formal, or experiential. Tools such as challenge exams, demonstrations, structured interviews, simulations and portfolios can be used alone or in combination, for experiential learning and competency assessment.[7]

Alternative Forms of Verification of Work Experience

If convention refugees are unable to obtain official verification of work experience obtained in their home country, regulators may consider alternative forms of verification:

  • unofficial documents supporting the nature and duration of work experience; or
  • sworn statements from reliable sources.

Alternatives to Canadian Experience Requirements

Familiarity with Canadian laws, regulations and codes, experience with Canadian conditions and climates, and the ability to work effectively in a Canadian environment are critical requirements for licensure which are most effectively demonstrated by Canadian work experience, but which may be established by alternate methods to ensure that the requirement for Canadian work experience does not present an inappropriate or discriminatory barrier to licensure. 

Due to the difficulties faced by convention refugees in obtaining employment, the strict application of a requirement for one year of Canadian experience is likely to have a disproportionate impact on this group.  Regulators may recognize certain experience obtained outside Canada as being equivalent to Canadian experience where applicants demonstrate a satisfactory knowledge of local Canadian laws, practices, standards, customs, codes, conditions, climates, and technology. [8]

Regulators may also consider alternative methods by which applicants can obtain and demonstrate the required knowledge and competencies.  Assessment should focus on evaluation of competencies, not upon a specified time period of work experience.  

Methods by which applicants may obtain and demonstrate the required knowledge and competencies may include: 

  • bridging and orientation programs;
  • simulations;
  • scenarios and structured interviews; or
  • examinations.

Currency of Experience

Regulatory bodies which require that an applicant’s work experience be obtained within a specified time period may need to review this requirement in cases in which a gap in training and/or experience is due to the applicant’s displacement or refugee experience.    Alternative mechanisms to ensure currency of knowledge may include:

  • bridging or refresher courses;
  • scenarios or structured interviews; or
  • examinations.

Financial Accessibility

Waiver or Reduction of Fees

In cases of convention refugees facing significant financial hardship, regulators may consider reducing or waiving fees related to the licensure process upon receipt of appropriate supporting documentation.

Assistance with Translation of Documents

The costs related to translation of documents can be substantial.  This is amplified in the case of convention refugees, who may be required to submit significant amounts of secondary and supporting documents as well as contextual material.  Assistance in locating and accessing affordable translation resources may be required so as not to present an insurmountable financial barrier.

Support and Information

Partnerships with Government and Community agencies

Regulators are encouraged to work with government to ensure, to the extent possible, consistency between documentary requirements for immigration and registration purposes.   

Regulators may also partner with community agencies such as settlement organizations to develop or facilitate access to resources to assist convention refugees in adjusting to life and work in Canada.  These may include ESL courses or orientations to the Canadian business environment.

Engage with Community of Foreign Trained Professionals

In order to obtain a deeper understanding of issues faced by convention refugees in the practice of the profession in Canada, regulators should consider reaching out and engaging with current members who entered Canada as refugees, or who lived, studied or worked in a refugee source country.  Their firsthand knowledge can provide valuable insights into the realities of the refugee experience.

Facilitation of Mentorship Opportunities

Regulators are well-positioned to facilitate support group or mentoring arrangements, which can facilitate not only the initial licensure and employment search process for convention refugees, but be a source of ongoing development and advice throughout  their careers.

Development of specialized resources

Depending on the number and needs of applicants, regulators may develop specialized resources, such as:

  • provision of basic information regarding professional regulation and practice in Canada in a variety of languages;
  • development of programs  to orient convention refugees and other internationally trained applicants to the Canadian work environment; or
  • working with partners to develop profession-specific language training or programs to bridge other common gaps in knowledge and training.


Competency - Based Assessment Project

Framework Element: Fairness in Registration Practices

Framework Element: Authentication of Academic Documents (Draft)

Framework Element: Canadian Experience Requirement (Draft)

[1]Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration

[2] Explanatory Report to the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region

[3] Ontario Human Rights Commission, Guide to Your Rights and Responsibilities Under the Human Rights Code 

[4] British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU (1999) 3 S.C.R. 3 (CanLII) [“Meiorin”]

[5] Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, Article VII

[6] See note 2

[7] Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment

[8] Framework Element:  Canadian Experience Requirement

Revised: February 29, 2016