Popular Misconceptions about Canadian Immigration and Refugees
Answers to Canadian’s common questions and fears about refugees.
A solidarity rally to welcome Syrian refugees to Canada on November 22, 2015 in Toronto. Aarindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com
There are many popular misconceptions about immigrants and refugees in Canada. This article will attempt to respond briefly to many of these, grouped under the general topics: First, who, exactly, are refugees and immigrants; second, refugees and immigrants seen as a liability; and third, immigrant/refugee integration into Canadian society viewed as “problematic”.
Who are Refugees and Immigrants?
Are most refugees in Western countries? Actually, more than 85% remain in the “Global South” (ie. beyond Europe and North America). Refugees are forced from their homes by warfare and human rights abuses; all have the right to be protected. Refugees may be international migrants, ie. outside their country of origin (according to the definition of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees), or “internally displaced”. “Refoulement” (repatriation of international migrants) tends to be complicated – unlikely on a voluntary basis, unless forced. A persistent problem of refugee selection in camps remains that those most in need (elderly, health risks, unaccompanied children) may be left behind.
Are almost all refugees men? Perhaps a disproportion of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean, but refugees selected for Canada tend to be families; immigrants supported by families tend to establish themselves more easily. Are most refugees actually economic migrants? The distinction between “economic migrants” and bona fide refugees is questionable, as virtually all adult refugees are aware of economic opportunities in working in countries having a higher standard of living.
Is Canada being “inundated” with asylum seekers and refugees? Hardly. There is a difference between asylum seekers and refugees – the former are people seeking international protection but whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined. Refugees must be outside their country of origin (according to the UNHCR definition), compared with ”internally displaced” remaining within their original country and “third country” migrants attempting to gain refugee status in a third country (such as Canada) after they have already claimed refugee status in an initial country (eg. the United States). Some countries only grant “right of passage” or temporary asylum. In Europe, there has been increasing refusal of several countries within the Schengen Agreement area to allow asylum, or even transit, much less settlement. Moreover, in some world regions few countries are signatories to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and may not have signed without specifying various qualifications).
Are innumerable asylum seekers illegal migrants? Not really, given the problem of legal definition of potential refugee claimants crossing an international border outside a recognized border entry point – the term preferred by Canadian authorities is “undocumented” migrants. According to the controversial Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States in 2004, refugee claimants entering Canada from the U.S. at a regular border entry point would likely be refused admission as refugees, hence their attempts to cross at unofficial points. There are problems of migrants’ unfamiliarity with legal opportunities – or unavailability. Not everyone making a refugee claim is found to be a bona fide refugee; however all have a right to be heard. Approximately 25,000 asylum seekers arrived in Quebec last year (compared to a norm of about 3,500). Almost 20,000 (crossed at Roxham alone; but at the present rate this year the numbers could total as many as 60,000. About 2,000 a month were being intercepted by the RCMP and CBSA in Canada from January through April 2018 (almost entirely in Quebec); this is three times as many as during the same period last year. Last year most were Haitians escaping President Trump’s new policy of allowing “temporary” asylum (actually extending over more than a decade). However, currently the U.S. is granting about 13,000 visas per month to Nigerians; Nigerian migrants had a 50% success rate last year claiming asylum in Canada, leading the Minister of Immigration to travel to Nigeria in mid-May 2018 to try to discourage this sort of emigration to Canada. Of 18,149 known “irregular border crossers” Feb-Dec 2017, 13% were accepted initially, 4% rejected, 2% abandoned/withdrawn, all the rest pending. Of crossers into Quebec, reportedly only about half were accepted but how many remained to be processed? And how many were simply not found? Moreover, internationally there has too often been a dependence on smugglers, sex exploitation, virtual slavery to survive a desperate situation.
How many is too many? What class of immigrant should Canada be accepting? Canada currently has nowhere near the maximum number of immigrants nor refugees in Canadian history (over 400 thousand immigrants a year at the peak during the early 1900s; and the influx of Vietnamese “boat people” numbered over 80,000). Canada now accepts 300,000 immigrants a year (an increase from an average 250,000 during 2000-15)…but the Canadian Council for Refugees goal is 1% of the total population, ie. 350,000 a year. Immigration comprises about two-thirds of total Canadian pop growth. How open is Canadian refugee acceptance? Minimal, compared with more than 3 milllion into Turkey, and between 1-2 million into Germany in a single year. Canada has reputedly had one of the highest per capita immigration and refugee rates in world…but is this still true? According to UNHCR data, Canadian acceptance is now actually far less per capita than some countries -notably in the Middle East and Africa but also Europe (including Germany, Sweden, Norway, Malta, Switzerland, Austria, Italy). Concerning the demand for different classes, it is often assumed that the more refugees, the less in other classes of immigration. According to current and recent Canadian data: approximately 58% are officially economic immigrants; about a quarter (84,000) family class; and just less than 15% (40,000) refugees. There were 33,000 asylum seekers in 2009 – this many was reached already by September last year. Of resettled refugees in Canada during the past year, 30% were government-assisted refugees (GARS), 65% were privately sponsored, and 5% a mixture (“blended”). There were 7,500 government assisted refugees this past year (compared to close to 25 thousand the previous year) – in fact, this is below the average for the past fifteen years. In 2016-17, 16-18,000 private refugees a year have been processed – but close to 34,000 claimants have their status pending. To put this in perspective, globally, the UNHCR now estimates 1.2 million refugees not yet resettled (not counting millions of internally displaced).
Immigrants and Refugees Seen as a Liability
Do immigrants and refugees take jobs away from Canadians? Actually, immigrants and refugees create employment and expand both the domestic and international economy. Temporary foreign workers (TFWs), while controversial, play major roles in, for example, the fast food industry, seasonal agriculture, domestic cleaning; but have been challenged as competing with Canadians (notably Indigenous who have long been underemployed). The numbers of TFWs in Saskatchewan have tripled since 2005; they now number more than 11,000. Immigrants in Canada for up to ten years actually have a higher rate of over-qualification than Canadian-born. Unemployment and lower employment are initially a problem for new immigrants; yet to an appreciable extent, there is competition for any job (especially professional) in Canada.
Are refugees (and many immigrants) a liability to Canada, bringing physical and mental health issues? The cost of healthcare for refugees actually amounts to only 10% of that for other Canadians. Newcomers need encouragement and assistance in accessing health services. As refugees and immigrants are carefully screened, they actually may be in better health than many Canadians.But this leads to another problematic policy issue: Should the most vulnerable, with serious health or psychological problems, and elderly be admitted?
Don’t immigrants and refugees constitute a security risk? Immigrants and refugees are seeking security, peaceful living, protection (it’s far more difficult to enter Canada as an immigrant or refugee than as a visitor). Immigrants and refugees undergo stringent security checks (unlike Canadians). Those regarded as “security concerns” are in fact statistically insignificant. Inadmissibility includes political security, serious criminality, human rights violations, falsification of entry documents.
Don’t immigrants and refugees bring crime to Canada? Not to any real extent. Immigrants have been far less involved in criminal activities than Canadian-born (according to research by the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy). In fact, ever since the 1970s, increasing immigration has been concomitant with decreasing crime. Yet a persistent stereotype is that “one bad apple spoils the barrel”.
Are immigrants and refugees a strain on the Canadian economy and a drain on our resources? Canadian immigration policy is designed to attract skilled workers. Most immigrants bring diverse education and experience, so are an invaluable resource. Immigrant-owned or managed small to medium businesses are the fastest growing in Canada. Some immigrants come as “business entrepreneurs” (having a minimum net worth of $300,000) – as many as six thousand a year. Immigrants establish businesses, augment the gainfully employed labour force, expand the Canadian economy.
Are immigrants and refugees “free-loaders”, who don’t pay taxes? A popular myth has been circulating that refugees receive significantly more financial assistance than Canadians on pension. Non-status immigrants still pay HST, property taxes, contribute to the CPP, and may have social insurance. TFWs, refugee claimants, permanent residents all pay taxes but are not permitted to access many services. The amount of financial support GARs receive (through the Refugee Assistance Program) is based on provincial social assistance rates – the minimum required to meet sustenance and accommodation costs, but this is often inadequate and limited to one year. GARs have to prove they have no or insufficient income of their own (adjusted to family size, starting at $781/month for an individual – they are additionally entitled to receive an initial allowance for clothing and basic household needs). Privately sponsored refugees receive minimum funding guaranteed by the sponsor for up to one year after arrival; they may be placed in temporary rent control accommodation. Refugees typically have a significant debt burden for transportation, medical costs, etc.
For every immigrant or refugee, come multiple dependents? Family class immigrants are less likely to be lower income than skilled workers immediately after arrival (Statistics Canada). Contrary to popular belief, sponsored parents and grandparents are not always elderly; 40% are employed (some self- ) within two years. In immigrant families, costs are saved for childcare, healthcare, psychosocial support. Sponsored family members make diverse contributions.
Shouldn’t immigrants and refugees stay put in their original countries, or at least in neighbouring countries, as culturally they can’t fit into another society? Most in fact do….but easier said than done, especially in war-torn countries, whereas Canada is a very diverse country, with a longstanding multiculturalism policy (since 1971). Many Canadian ethnic groups welcome and assist newcomers of the same ethnicity. Historically, ethnic groups in Canada have grown due to immigration flows at certain times. Some have concentrated in cities, developing significant ethnic neighbourhoods, commercial and institutional presence.
How do immigrants affect Canadian population, when almost all are non-White? True enough – historically, immigration has shifted from primarily to non-European; there has long been steady growth of the so-called “visible minority” proportion of the Canadian population. Indeed, “the world comes to Canada”.
Aren’t too many immigrants and refugees poor and less educated…so not an asset to receiving countries? Actually many immigrants and refugees are very well educated. Immigrants and refugees desire to work to improve their status, income, professional experience. Yet unfortunately many immigrants and refugees are initially obliged to temporarily take menial jobs out of necessity….but why and for how long?
Are professionals trained abroad not as qualified as Canadian-trained? A common problem for immigrants is finding employment commensurate with their qualifications. With an emphasis of potential employers on “Canadian experience”, by definition immigrants can’t compete; new immigrants are far more likely to take lower skilled jobs, out of temporary necessity.
Aren’t our schools being overwhelmed with newcomer children unable to speak English? At best, this is an exaggeration. Perhaps some are challenged, temporarily, but there is a need for trained special teachers to upgrade language and writing skills. Immigrant schoolchildren tend to be faster learners than their parents and certainly their grandparents.
A popular opinion is that newcomers don’t need help, shouldn’t they fend for themselves if they decide to come here? Newcomers face isolation, anxiety, confusion and frustration. They need help in finding and accessing services, transportation, housing, education, health, daily living (eg. food shopping).
Why should Canada even bother? First, demographics: population growth closely relates to economic growth. Immigration may contribute to the growth of the labour force and economic development. Fully a third of the Canadian labour force is foreign-born (over 40% in Ontario). Population and labour force growth and economic development depend substantially on continuous immigration. Moreover the Canadian fertility rate (1.6) is substantially below replacement level (2.1). And family immigration offsets the aging of the Canadian population (almost a quarter of the total population is over the age of 65).
Second, and as importantly, Canada has international legal obligations (such as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – Article 33, the Convention Against Torture – Article 3, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Canada’s acceptance and assistance of immigrants and refugees on humanitarian grounds demonstrates compassion (on May 23, 2018 Canada announced $300 million to assist the Rohingya refugee crisis in the Bangladesh camps), international leadership, and enhances Canada’s global standing.
Alan Anderson is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan; a member of the Saskatoon Refugee Coalition and Board of Directors of two settlement agencies; and an Executive member of the local Saskatoon Branch of the CIC as well as active in Amnesty International-Canada.