The worst recession in a generation has already played havoc with the job market, housing prices and the banking system. Now it's doing the same with something else: the worldwide movement of people.
The world's wealthiest nations, from Japan to Spain to Australia, are cutting immigration targets to protect fragile labour markets and encouraging itinerant workers to leave. Only Canada has refused to adjust immigration levels in response to the downturn.
This outlier status has led to concern among border officials that the country's sympathetic refugee system and generous social programs will make it a prime target for migrants rejected elsewhere.
A government intelligence document described as sensitive and not for public distribution warns that more migrants from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America could opt to come to Canada rather than Western Europe or the United States. The report refers to both legal applicants and those who try to enter illegally.
"We're planning for the economic recovery. Cutting immigration levels is a short-term measure," said Alykhan Velshi, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. At the same time, Mr. Velshi said, Canada must guard against those who would try to enter illegally.
Asylum claims in Canada increased dramatically in 2008, and were on pace for another increase in 2009 until visa restrictions were slapped on travellers from Mexico and the Czech Republic, he said.
"Individuals who may not be fleeing persecution are drawn to Canada because of our overly generous asylum system," Mr. Velshi said. Human trafficking rings in Canada and the Czech Republic, for example, were encouraging people to make refugee claims in Canada, he added.
"This is something we have to take very seriously ... We can't allow the creation of a two-tier immigration system: one tier for people who wait patiently and legally in the queue to come to Canada and another for profiteers, for those who engage the services of snakeheads and human trafficking groups."
The trigger for the shift in migration patterns and immigration policy is the domino-effect in labour markets unleashed by the recession, the report says. Unemployment is expected to rise to 10 per cent in developed countries and could stay that high for up to eight years, it states. Those at the bottom of the wage scale, and those with temporary status, or none at all, in their host countries are likely to be among the first and most severely affected.
As jobs disappear, host countries are lowering immigration quotas to trim welfare rolls and quell potential anti-immigrant feeling. They're also bolstering immigration enforcement. Authorities in Italy and Spain, for example, have redoubled their efforts to expel undocumented workers and prevent boatloads of African migrants from reaching their shores. Japan announced plans to send home 400,000 South Americans of Japanese heritage to ease its labour market strain. Spain has returned 300,000 migrants and paid 6,000 others a special supplement to leave the country. Australia reduced its intake targets by nearly 15 per cent.
The report, produced by the Canada Border Services Agency, was obtained by immigration lawyer Richard Kurland through access to information. Mr. Kurland said the document shows that the wisest path is to further integrate the temporary foreign workers already in Canada and not reduce immigration.
The document forecasts unrest in the migrants' home countries that could create a complicated feedback loop of migration issues. Migrants send their families about $283-billion a year, and when remittances from some countries dry up, poverty will be exacerbated, which in turn can destabilize the population and encourage more people to seek any route to a well-paying job. Desperation could lead more people to human smugglers and organized crime, it says.
"The knee-jerk reaction is to yank the welcome mat and this internal intelligence report clearly shows that's not the way to go ... You're going to be exporting political instability by exporting workers into regions already fragile politically and economically. It will inevitably hasten their decline," Mr. Kurland said. "In the short term, protecting foreign workers who are already in Canada is the gateway to future economic growth."