Craig Damian Smith is a senior research associate at the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University. Dana Wagner is co-founder of TalentLift, an agency that works with displaced talent, and co-author of Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada.
More than one million people are expected to claim asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border this year. Most are fleeing violence, government oppression, poverty, and the devastation of severe storms and droughts in Central America. Further south, 4.1 million Venezuelans are displaced in nearby countries – a number approaching international displacement by the Syrian civil war.
Arrivals at the U.S. border will near the scale of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis, which threatened the stability of the European Union. Its legacy includes fortified borders across southeastern Europe and the Balkans, far-right electoral gains, dodgy deals with Turkey and Libyan militias to stop and pull back boats, and the establishment of permanent and squalid detention camps on Greek islands. Those outcomes are the result of burden-shifting between states despite the overwhelming need for co-operation.
Unlike that crisis in 2015, Canada can immediately and actively share responsibility with regional partners by offering displaced people across Latin America safe passage through access to programs for skilled immigrants. Importantly, Canada and NGO partners began pilot programs following the Syrian refugee crisis for exactly these types of situations. The Economic Mobility Pathways Project, launched in 2018, supports displaced people relocating through some of Canada’s skilled immigration programs. The pilot has been transformative for the 29 people relocated so far, and should be expanded.
New research from the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University shows how Canada can help ease regional burdens, empower displaced people and contribute to economic growth by scaling its innovative efforts to Latin America. Displaced people across Latin America likely have the skills to fill essential jobs in agriculture, health care and the trades – all crucial for Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery.
Unfortunately, many of these people can’t qualify for work permits because current regulations throw up near-insurmountable barriers, particularly the requirement that applicants must first demonstrate the ability to leave Canada after their arrival.
This makes little sense, and means Canada has closed the door to tens of thousands of skilled immigrants, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, because they don’t have access to travel documents and bank balances to show they can be readily removed. These rules undermine innovative approaches to matching the skills of displaced people with Canada’s labour market needs.
Last January, one of us visited a job fair hosted by the province of Quebec with more than a dozen Quebec employers in Bogota, Colombia. The organizer explained her regret that she had received quality resumes from Venezuelan refugees, but removed them from the invitation list because they wouldn’t be eligible for Canadian work permits.
The government of Canada could immediately undo this anomaly by dropping the ability-to-leave requirement for displaced job candidates. Instead, they could show their ability to stay. They could arrive in Canada as skilled workers, having demonstrated their eligibility for a permanent residence stream such as the Provincial Nominee Program or Federal Skilled Worker program, many of which require or reward work experience in Canada. This change would require a mere regulatory pivot, with no legislation or additional funding needed. It would also remove an unjust barrier and help meet Canada’s goal of attracting and retaining talented workers. It really is that simple.
Expanding pilot programming to consider refugees as skilled workers is the first priority in the latest mandate letter to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. At the same time, Canada is seeking a leadership role in solving displacement in the Americas, but has yet to deliver any additional new funding or resettle a meaningful number of people from the region.
The Biden Administration’s plan to alleviate pressure on its border is to allocate more development aid to Central America. This is likewise the case with last week’s federal budget, in which the government of Canada allocated $80.3-million over two years to the Venezuelan crisis to integrate migrants locally in Latin America and stop irregular migration.
On their own, these plans will likely fall short of their goals, because research shows that development often increases emigration in the short and medium term. Mobility is part of development, not an alternative to it. That reality is recognized in the Global Compact for Migration, which Canada helped champion. It and the Global Compact on Refugees seek international co-operation to expand safe and legal mobility channels, such as skilled immigration, which embrace the aspirations of people fleeing conflict and other dangers.
Offering work permits would be a clear signal the global talent pool includes displaced people in Latin America. It would play to Canada’s strengths in permanently attracting those who build our workforce, communities and nation. It has the potential to be a quiet but revolutionary contribution.
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