The Bogus Rhetoric About Bogus Refugees

It is time to take a stand against all the bogus rhetoric about bogus refugees.

Our current Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, has unfortunately taken a shine to making frequent use of the pejorative, inflammatory and meaningless term. That was certainly the case last month when he decided to take Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews to task for her decision to step in and provide essential health care coverage for large numbers of refugee claimants who had been cut out of the federal government’s longstanding refugee health care program.

On January 22nd he chided Minister Matthews, complaining that her “decision is irresponsible as it makes Canada, and Ontario in particular, a magnet for bogus asylum seekers.” In a CBC interview the next day, he asked, “why should a bogus refugee claimant get health care — in many cases more than Canadians were getting?”

He is not the first public official, in Canada and worldwide, to toss the term bogus around when referring to refugees and refugee claimants. And he sadly will not be the last. But it is time to take our political leaders to task when they do so. When it comes to refugee protection we need principled leadership, not cheap shot name-calling.

So what exactly does the Minister mean when he talks of bogus refugee claimants? Dictionaries define “bogus” as a claim that is not real or genuine; or is fake or false. And that of course raises the first, fundamental question. How can the Minister possibly be labelling any refugee claimant as bogus before their claim has been evaluated? It may very well be accepted. It may in fact be exceptionally strong and compelling. He does not know.

Therein lies the rub. The rush to tar refugee claimants with the ugly notion of being bogus, before anyone even knows whether their claim is real or fake, genuine or false, so clearly points to this being about politics and nothing more.

The Minister’s definition of bogus most certainly is not, a claimant who has had a hearing and been found to be lying and dishonest and thus having advanced a fake claim. No, his definition of bogus includes refugee claimants coming from countries that the government has decided are “safe” countries of origin and therefore not to be taken seriously even before they have had a hearing.

That list, by the way, includes Mexico. Amnesty International released a new report on February 18th, describing Mexico’s human rights situation as critical and pointing to concerns about widespread torture, a large number of disappearances, abuses against migrants and refugees, attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, and violence faced by women and Indigenous people. But try to flee from that and Minister Alexander is likely to call you bogus. And because you are bogus: no federal health care, expedited processing of your claim and no access to the refugee appeal process if you are turned down.

And what if a refugee claimant is turned down; does that denial make him or her bogus? What if the decision maker made a mistake? Or worse, what if the decision maker simply refuses to believe that there is persecution in a particular country or against a particular group? What if the claimant had simply not been able to gather enough background evidence within the short prescribed timelines to bolster the claim? What if reports about human rights violations in her isolated home village haven’t yet received public attention? What if he was so traumatized he was unable to present his case clearly. What if her story is true and compelling, but doesn’t fit the legal technicalities of the refugee definition? This list of “what if’s” could go on for pages. The bottom line is that there are obviously a multitude of reasons why a refugee claim might be unsuccessful, none of which mean that it was fake, false or bogus.

So, point one; stop using the term because it is meaningless.

But point two, and more critically, stop using the term because it is hurtful, hateful and puts refugees at risk.

And we see that in the circumstances in which it gets used. It is used to justify decisions to violate the rights of refugee claimants and refugees. Calling them bogus is clearly meant to undermine any public sympathy for their plight such that decisions to cut them off from health care or discriminatorily deny them access to vital appeal processes will be welcomed and applauded rather than condemned and rejected.

Outside Canada the consequences are often lethal. I have done a considerable amount of work in western Côte d’Ivoire recently, examining the circumstances behind a horrifying attack on a displaced persons camp that was home to about 5,000 people before it was overrun and razed to the ground by a mob of close to one thousand local villagers in July 2012. Over a dozen people were killed on the spot; others were disappeared or extrajudicially executed in the aftermath. Hundreds were injured or hurt.

I have been to the area twice to look into the Nahibly Camp tragedy. It is complicated. But one thing is glaringly apparent – the toxic rhetoric of bogusness played a very ugly role. Fueled on by local politicians, popular sentiment was whipped up in the weeks and months before it turned to rage and violence. The déplacés are cheating the system; they are responsible for all of the crime; they are the source of all our illnesses.

Nahibly is a wrenching reminder of where the nasty talk of bogus refugees can lead. It may erode public sympathy. It may be used as a pretext to cut health care. It may be used to stir up emotions and garner political support. It can also be a potent spark for hate, violence and death.

And stopping it starts with each of us.

The next time you hear it, don’t let it slide. If it is a news article, write a letter to the editor. If it is a politician, phone his or her office. If it is a friend or co-worker, ask them why?

The rhetoric of bogus refugees is bogus. It is also cruel. And that is not what protecting refugees is all about.


  1. nathalie ricard

    Excellent article! Thank you Mr Neve. Hopefully, many people will follow your invitation to stop using the ”bogus” rhetoric on refugees. This past Monday, during a presentation, I had to insist on this point again. Unfortunately, the dominant rhetoric against migrants in general and targeting refugees in particular, has installed itself in people’s mind, even amongst students who practice critical anthropology. Best regards, Nathalie Ricard

  2. Thank you for this article.
    Mr Alexander’s remarks were distressing but I lacked the right wording to express my complaint.
    Thanks for the words.
    It is alarming that a country as wealthy as ours, whose future is so dependent on on refugees and immigrants given that our population will shrink without them – is so nasty in its treatment of those who sacrifice so much in coming here.

  3. Sasha Cragg-Gore

    Great article! See here for my own piece on the problems with the refugee process in Canada:

  4. Thank you for speaking out.

  5. Elisabeth Meehan

    The issues about false rhetoric are also very big here in Australia.

    The issue has become political, rather than humanitarian. Major parties compete to be seen to have tough policies on “border protection” portraying asylum seekers ( yet to be processed, claiming protection as refugees) as “illegals” and locking them up for years on end in a ” mandatory detention policy.
    This has become more and more cruel, and a man from Iran, a Kurdish asylum seeker was killed in detention, under Australia’s care in detention in Papua New Guinea.
    His name was Reza Barati. His death has not been investigated properly, and no one has been charged.
    Hate speech eventually does lead to the acceptance of terrible cruelty – please take the advice suggested in this article, and counter it when you find it.
    Thank you.