Why Canada should welcome more Syrian refugees—a lot more

Far from being a drain on the tax base, immigrants and refugees are among the most vital parts of the economy

 
Syrian refugees on the Serbia-Hungary border, with barbed wire in the foreground
Syrian refugees on the Serbia-Hungary border. (Thomas Campean/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

As the Syrian refugee crisis roils onward, it’s kicked loose a foul bit of flotsam from the murkiest parts of the Internet. A post currently circulating on Facebook begins: “It is interesting that the federal government provides a single refugee with a monthly allowance of $1,890, and each can get an additional $580 in social assistance.” Canadian retirees received less than half of that amount in public benefits, the post notes, before leaping to its conclusion: “Maybe our pensioners should apply as refugees!”

The message is inaccurate, confusing a one-time payment for new arrivals with a monthly stipend. It’s also more than a decade old and frequently debunked, including on the Government of Canada’s website. Yet, despite being completely erroneous, the message is pretty useful. It plainly states an oft-implied objection to accepting more refugees. They cost money—and we’d rather spend our cash someplace else.

For the past decade, the Canadian government has been doing just that. It has already slashed health and settlement programs, with a further $10 million in cuts on the way. When the Conservatives cut dental and drug benefits for refugees in 2012, Saskatchewan MP Kelly Block celebrated the cancellation with a mail-out hailing the savings of “your tax dollars.”

Casting refugees as freeloaders may be politically expedient but it lacks a basis in fact. Between 1979 and 1981, Canada accepted 60,000 “boat people” from Southeast Asia. Within a decade, 86% of those former refugees were working, healthy and spoke English with some proficiency, achieving the basic criteria for success set out by academic Morton Beiser in his landmark study of their integration into Canadian society. They were less likely to use social services and more likely to have jobs than the average Canadian. One in five was self-employed. They weren’t a drain on the taxpayer—they were taxpayers.

This mirrors the experience in Germany, where a 2012 study found residents with foreign citizenship paid $218 billion more in taxes than they received in social benefits. German officials have been smart to cast their willingness to accept a half-million asylum seekers each year as not just a humanitarian gesture, but as wise economic policy. “We will profit from this, too, because we need immigration,” said Andrea Nahles, the country’s labour minister.

Like Germany, Canada has a rapidly aging population. To sustain our economy and standard of living, we’ll need to attract 350,000 immigrants annually by 2035, up from 260,404 in 2014, according to a Conference Board of Canada report.

But while Germany forges ahead, Canada’s politicians are timid: the Conservatives promise to accept 20,000 refugees over four years, the Liberals say they’ll take 25,000, and the NDP want 10,000 right away and 9,000 more each year for the next four years. As inadequate as those numbers are, even worse is that the debate begins and ends with those statistics. What’s needed is not just a discussion of how to facilitate immigration—of refugees and others—but how to ensure our new residents integrate swiftly into the economy. Germany has had success with an “early intervention” model that identifies skilled refugees and pairs them with opportunities as soon as possible. But all of this requires a shift in thinking. Done properly, bringing refugees into our country isn’t about charity. It’s about investing in the future—both theirs and ours.

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