Tragic stories of people fleeing from domestic strife in Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Sudan, South Asia, and Nigeria toward Europe have duly disturbed the world. So far this year, thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea as their desperate attempts to find a better life prematurely ended. Countries like Canada that are able to help those considering—or currently undertaking—treacherous trips to find asylum could make the world a better place for humanity by proactively saving and welcoming these people. Although it seems that politicians and pundits agree something must be done, few are prepared to argue that their own country should take leadership in resolving this moral crisis.
A primary problem with this reasoning is that refugees need not be a crippling cost for the nations that accept them. Though the federal government typically helps them resettle to Canada, refugees are expected to repay the costs of their transportation to the country and for the medical testing required for their admittance to the country. Despite this, refugees have fewer social programmes to draw support from than others in the country and pay taxes to support the services they do receive, such as emergency health care.
Demographic woes loom over Canada’s future, and accepting refugees could both jibe with our moral callings and our desire to counteract population aging and possible population decline. Many have speculated that Germany’s willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of immigrants in part owes to its awareness of its own demographic troubles. The lives Germany has helped could boost its economy. Additionally, refugees resettled in Australia—the persecuted Karen people originally from Myanmar—boosted economic activity in a formerly declining rural town.
A connection between the acceptance of refugees and efforts to bolster long-term economic prospects would not be new to Canada; refugees previously accepted into Canada have been widely viewed as economically beneficial. For instance, the resettlement of Hungarian and Czechoslovakian refugees in Canada in 1956 and 1968, respectively, contributed to the country’s labour pool when badly needed and helped its economy grow.
There is little reason why Canada couldn’t harness the skills of refugees to strengthen Canada’s economy. TD Economics found that immigration targets would need to be raised from 250,000 to 350,000 in the medium term to keep the labour supply growing at a roughly constant rate. If employment levels, and hence income tax receipts, fail to grow at a similar pace as the senior population, health care, old age security, and other services will become more difficult to adequately finance.
A popular concern about the acceptance of refugees—and about immigration more generally—is that newcomers fail to integrate into their countries. The associated worries are that immigrants will transform their new country’s character or that they will stratify society by interacting only with members of their own nationality.
The first concern should sway neither hearts nor minds unless we have good reason to think that new Canadians would change our country for the worse. We don’t have good reason to think this. Canadian culture has always been shaped by the cultures of different peoples living in our country; just as Aboriginal Canadians and French and British colonists shaped its early years, the contributions of more recent immigrants from Asia have helped define modern Canada. If anything, Canadian values have changed for the better as we come to accept people of diverse backgrounds as our compatriots.
Canada is also able to facilitate the integration of refugees. Although culture shock and obstacles to the recognition of credentials may act as initial obstacles to this integration, they are relatively short-run phenomena. Today, people of many original nationalities thrive as Canadians in Canadian society and, even if they fail to master English or French in their own lifetimes, our public education system ensures that their children and grandchildren will have the literacy skills necessary to engage with many aspects of Canadian society. Given that this type of integration has happened time and time again in Canada, there is little reason to think that our experience accepting many new refugees would be any different.
Even in an exaggerated, unrealistic scenario in which refugees made Canadians’ lives tangibly worse, we should still accept them. As residents of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, our economic livelihoods would still far exceed those expected by most others around the world even if refugees became a massive drain. But for those seeking asylum in our country, Canada’s help could decide whether they and their families live for die. Above any concerns of self-interest, a motivation to help our fellow human beings should guide our admission of many new refugees.
Canada stands to benefit itself and humanity by dramatically increasing the number of refugees it accepts. By failing to do so, it would not only damage its reputation in the world but also its people’s economic and social well being and its fundamental moral principles.
Originally published September 17, 2015. The Muse Volume 66, Issue 6.