The migrant crisis in Europe is one of the most consequential events of this century. The millions of Syrians fleeing civil war have redefined the politics and strained the economies of every country they have arrived in. So too have the desperate legions from Northern Africa crossing the Mediterranean in the hopes of a better life.
Arrival countries are reeling in the face of these upheavals. The governments of Italy and Hungary have swung to the right, thanks to politicians who parlayed fear and xenophobia into winning platforms. Other countries, Germany most notably, have seen a rise in far-right parties seeking to exploit the same dark instincts. In the United Kingdom, the backers of Brexit used trumped-up images of hordes of immigrants in flight to scare voters into embracing the folly that has now brought their country to the brink of economic disaster.
Canada responded by accepting more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since 2015. It was a commendable gesture. But it was also a drop in the bucket, given the United Nations estimates that 13-million Syrians have been displaced.
And the world now has another migrant crisis – this time, on our side of the Atlantic. The number of people fleeing violence and social breakdown in Central and South America is now well into the millions.
More than two-million people have fled Venezuela alone, most of them southward but some northward into Central America. Another 300,000 people have fled Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras since 2017, the UN says, the vast majority of whom headed north toward the United States.
This mass movement of people contributed to the hardening of attitudes against immigrants in the United States, where President Donald Trump has reaped a political windfall by exploiting fears of “invasion” at the hands of desperate migrants who tramp north through Mexico in large “caravans” that provide them a modicum of safety.
Canada has felt the effects of upheavals overseas, as well as Mr. Trump’s xenophobia, in the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers at a border crossing in Quebec over the past two years. This week, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said Ottawa is on pace to spend $1-billion over three years processing and housing irregular border crossers, with the provinces on track to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more.
This is a crisis whose impact threatens to get a lot bigger unless Ottawa tries to mitigate the root causes through intelligent foreign policy. Call it compassion or call it enlightened self-interest, but Canada and its North American allies have to help people stay in their own countries.
There is only one way to do that, and it isn’t tougher border enforcement or building walls. The solution is to address the conditions that make desperate people leave everything behind and start walking north.
In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, those conditions include rampant gang violence, corruption, the collapse of the justice system, and dire poverty. They are fleeing economic collapse, brutality, hunger and mistreatment.
In Venezuela, people are escaping from violence, hyper-inflation and food shortages caused by the failure of the country’s oil-based economy – all exacerbated by a corrupt and authoritarian regime.
Ottawa has good relations with Central and South American countries. It has long offered them assistance of various kinds, and it has been pursuing free-trade agreements with many of them. This is the moment to make a priority of offering aid that addresses the most severe social conditions that are causing people to flee.
It’s also time to work with the international community to try to improve life and the lack of effective government in these countries. Costa Rica, to take one example, does not export desperate people. That’s because unlike some of its neighbours, it’s a stable and relatively well-governed society.
Ottawa should also consider increasing immigration from some Latin American countries, and granting refugee status to more people in their home countries so they can fly to Canada, rather than taking their chances on foot.
The best long-term solution is to work to avoid a situation where millions of people feel they have no choice but to flee. Accepting a few thousand more refugees into Canada is a generous gesture, but it isn’t remotely up to the scale of the problem. Until the failed societies from which people are running are made whole, the migrant crisis on our side of the world will only grow.