Global Migration and Canadian Policy

“The most fundamental form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to do in the first place.” Nietzsche.

Headlines around the world report Asians arriving by the boatload in Australia, Tamils landing in British Columbia, Roma being expelled from France, refugees flowing from Central America through Mexico to the US to join the 12 million illegal migrants already there, while other refugees move from central to South Africa. Everywhere there are Moving Millions (Wiley 2010) as Jeffrey Kaye’s new book documents.

What does this movement signal and how should sovereign countries like Canada react in terms of immigration policy? Here I examine the background rather than current policies. Many of the figures quoted below are from Peter Stalker’s International Migration (Penguin 2008).


The supply of potential migrants is the result of a global population of 6.9bn persons (as opposed to 2.5bn in 1950), over a billon of which live on under $1.25 a day. This creates pressure for many to move from poorer to wealthier countries and a willingness on their part to take risks when making the journey. The excess demand for permanent residency in Canada is a combination of there being many more people in the world now than sixty years ago, a high degree of income inequality between countries, cheaper international travel, greater ease of communication between family members around the world, and a current limit in Canada of about 250,000 persons accepted each year.

The pressure to migrate from poor to rich countries is reflected in differential wage and salary rates. For example an unskilled worker in Malaysia earns six times more per month in Singapore; a Lithuanian factory worker is paid seven times a month more as a fruit picker in the UK; 38% of doctors working in English hospitals qualified outside the UK; Philippine nurses have been emigrating at a rate of about 3,000 per year and Filipino doctors retrain as nurses in order to emigrate to North America and Europe. Similar differentials exist between Mexico and the US and Mexico and Canada leading to northward migration pressures.

There are now an estimated 190 million foreign-born people living outside their countries of birth, 62 million moved from south to north, 61 million from south to south, 53 million from north to north, and 14 million from north to south; in total 2.8% of world population. In Canada the stock of foreign born persons was 19.1% of the population in 2005 (cc. Australia 23.8% and US 12.9%).

In 2006, there were 10 million refugees around the world (asylum seekers become refugees when their claims are accepted). Canada accepted between 11,000 and 18,000 refugees a year over the past decade.

A total of about 30.5 million people entered Canada legally in 2008, 30 million as tourists, 250,000 as permanent residents and the remainder as temporary foreign workers, short term visitors and foreign students. That works out at about 83,000 persons per day who have to be screened for entry. Unlike some other countries Canada does not record those leaving the country so that it is not known how many persons remain illegally and how many permanent residents depart the country. The 250,000 permanent residents entering each year is a gross not a net figure.

While one in five Canadians is foreign born, many more are second and third generation immigrants. At a macro level all Canadians are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants from some previous generation. National Geograhic research indicates that the earliest settlers came across the land bridge from Siberia 60,000 years ago and spread down through North, Central and South America. Centuries later, migrants arrived from Europe, especially from France, England, Scotland, Ireland and other parts of continental Europe. Scratch any Canadian, both those who promote limiting and expanding current inflows, and they will identify their foreign ancestry. European immigrants altered the social and economic conditions of their predecessors; current immigrants will do the same. Without immigration, Canada as we know it today would not exist.

Contemporary discourse on immigration focuses on current flows and on illegal immigration rather than the stock of migrants. How large is the current inflow of 250,000 permanent residents a year in relative terms? In the early 1900s, immigration reached 400,000 persons a year when the population was about 7 million or about 5.6%; in 2009, immigration was 250,000 and the population 34 million or 0.7%. There are of course other comparisons to consider, such as the origin of migrants, their education, languages and skill levels. These factors will influence the ease and cost with which newcomers are integrated into the Canadian economy and society.

Immigration policy would not exist without the existence of national borders over which nation states try to exercise sovereignty. In 1945 the United Nations had 45 member countries, now there are almost 200. Border control has become a growth industry and the possibilities for illegal migrants greatly enhanced both to leave one country and enter another.


Current immigration policy, the topic for a later posting, will attempt to examine “what we are trying to do in the first place” to paraphrase Nietsche. Issues include the desired overall size of the Canadian population, the rate of growth (which could be negative), the composition in terms of skills and other characteristics, the screening of migrants and the procedure to deal with illegal migrants before and after arrival.


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