Posted on June 21, 2006

What Canada Needs Now: A Million Poor Africans

Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, June 20, 2006

LONDON — Here’s what we need to do: Make it a little more difficult for educated, well-off people to get into Canada. And make it much, much easier for unskilled, poor people, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, to immigrate in great numbers, and soon.

That may not sound like the obvious solution to Canada’s problems, to put it mildly.

A million poor Africans? Yes. A million poor Africans. Almost anyone who has studied the realities of modern immigration and economics understands that this is exactly what countries like Canada need. It would solve our country’s immediate economic problems. It would provide a remedy for the future economic and demographic troubles that threaten Canada’s current wave of prosperity.

And it would vastly improve the worst-off corners of the world, and eliminate threats to our security and global prosperity, in ways that no level of foreign-aid spending or peacekeeping could accomplish.

This became vividly evident when I visited Madrid two weeks ago, and discovered the truth about Spain’s immigration crisis. The country’s southern border, and its island outposts, are being overrun by tens of thousands of people from Africa’s western coast. This flood of illegal immigration is seen as a Europe-wide problem, and Spain has made dramatic and expensive gestures toward deporting the Africans and securing its border.

But two important developments have received less attention. The first is that almost all of the Africans, most of whom are dumped onto the streets of Madrid, have found jobs.

Even though they don’t speak Spanish (French and English are the key languages of sub-Saharan Africa), the demand for hard-working wage labourers in the Spanish economy is huge. Official immigration attracts doctors and programmers, who are needed, but there is an even bigger need for the less-educated. Much of Europe has deep shortages of people with muscles and basic trade skills.

And, second, it now turns out that none of the African countries want their citizens back. Senegal took one planeload of deportees, and refused any more. There have been no other takers: Spain is stuck with its Africans.

The reason for this is well understood: For countries such as Senegal, those illegal emigrants are the largest source of national income, by far. The money they send home to their families, through Western Union transfers or envelopes full of cash, far exceeds resource-industry income or foreign aid. In Kenya, one of Africa’s better-off states, those remittances last year put $464-billion (U.S.) into the economy, dwarfing the total foreign-aid contributions of $50.4-billion. In the poor states of the western sub-Saharan region, the effect is even more dramatic.

This has led many well-informed people in Spain, including government officials who would rather not say so publicly, to come to a conclusion: It’s better to let the Africans come. In fact, the best thing to do may be to bring them over.

I visited Rickard Sandell, a well-regarded demographer at Madrid’s Royal Elcano Institute. Fifteen years ago, when he emigrated from Sweden, he was the most exotic immigrant on the streets of Madrid. Now, he spends half his time issuing warnings about the African influx: It’s going to get worse, he repeatedly tells the Spanish media.

But the conclusion he draws from this took me by surprise: To stop it, he says, Europe needs to attract more Africans.

“One way of easing the pressure on Europe’s borders in the future is to put in place mechanisms that allow for more instead of less legal immigration from [Africa] than is currently the case,” he says.

Increased immigration, he adds, improves not only the lives of immigrants, but also the lives “of those left behind, either directly — through remittances — or through increased interaction between the countries of origin and destination in just about any social and economic dimension.”

The immigrants send money that helps to develop their home economies — especially if we’re also spending foreign-aid money helping them get free high-school educations, which are the most important ingredient in making this money build a lasting economy.

Then, the immigrants or their children get advanced educations in their new home, move back and help their countries grow. This is exactly what turned India into the economic miracle it has recently become. Sub-Saharan Africa could be next, if we want it to.

What does this have to do with Canada? Everything. Our immigration system is devoted almost exclusively to attracting the educated and affluent, and weeding out those who aren’t. This weeding-out, and the resultant deportations for those who don’t make the grade, costs a fortune. Yet many of those we’re deporting as “illegal” are exactly whom the economy needs.

Canada is experiencing a huge shortage of trade and unskilled labour. In Alberta last year, 20 per cent of manufacturers, up from 12 per cent the year before, “reported that shortages of unskilled labour were hampering production,” Statistics Canada said last month. British Columbia’s shortages are almost as serious.

In the hotel industry, 32 per cent of hoteliers across Canada reported shortages of unskilled labour, and conditions are the same in dozens of other industries that rely on plain old hard work.

One Statscan analyst called it “the revenge of the old economy” — we need brains, but we also need plenty of brawn, and we aren’t getting it.

Meanwhile, our master’s degree-holding, high-skilled immigrants are working as taxi drivers. Half the food-bank users in Toronto are university-educated immigrants. They are depriving their home countries of much-needed talent — the majority of Africa’s nursing graduates end up taking jobs in the wealthy West, at the very moment when Africa most needs nurses.

If we made it a bit tougher for them to get in, and instead took in a lot more people with basic educations and skills, Canada would be seeing full employment among immigrants, and would end its labour shortages. In the longer run, the demographic crisis would be eased: They would have more children than native-born Canadians do, reducing our risk of poverty-inducing depopulation.

For some Canadians these days, immigration equals terrorism. This idea would help take care of that problem too. If we had a targeted program aimed at African workers, we could eliminate much of our expensive immigration infrastructure. Proof of education and wealth would not be needed. It would put an end to what we now call illegal immigration, as well as much of the distinction between refugee and immigrant: If a poor worker can get in legally, why would he bother filing a false refugee claim?

The whole system could be aimed at weeding out baddies (yes, even using security certificates, if that’s what’s needed), rather than turning back people who happen to be just what Canada needs.

It would make Canada’s contribution to international economic development the largest in the world. And not just by doing an India to Africa. With people flying back and forth, delivering money and skills to their homes and labour and future entrepreneurship to Canada, low airfares would suddenly deliver a global social benefit to counterbalance the environmental loss. And the region most affected by global warming might gain the resources it needs to adjust.

The cultural benefits don’t need to be argued: Even our Alberta Conservatives now speak enthusiastically in favour of Canada’s polyglot diversity.

And even if you just plain don’t like immigrants, there may be a bright side: In the long run, by improving the quality of life in Africa, it might make some people happier to stay home.