Refugees as an Urban Phenomenon in Canada


Globalization has changed the context of migration in recent years. Individuals may voluntarily seek to leave their home countries for better opportunities. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) recognized the changing patterns of migration now that wars and conflicts are reduced. The attraction posed by urban centers as primary migration destination because they provide economic opportunities to the mobile population. It is now more difficult to differentiate the asylum seekers or refugees from voluntary migrants, particularly the illegal ones because they used the same routes. It could be surmised that the refugees in the context of new migration patterns have new faces.

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Individuals may migrate out of the desire for a better life, or to escape poverty, political persecution, or social or family pressures. There is often a combination of factors, which may play out differently for women and men. Gender roles, relations, and inequalities affect who migrates and why, how the decision is made, the impacts on migrants themselves, on sending areas, and on receiving areas (Jolly and Reeves 2005, p.1). Individuals who migrate are motivated by economics and reunification with family members who have been away for a long time. Others migrate simply to escape poverty and strife in their homelands.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2006) reported that voluntary migration has become a problem of many nations now that population displacement is no longer affected by war and conflicts. Many factors compel population mobility. They include poverty, survival, and even a skewed view that there are better opportunities outside their home countries (p.9) Other emerging circumstances that displaced the population such as human trafficking, natural disasters, environmental degradation, and development projects also pushed away indigenous populations (p.9).

Migration to some extent is a consequence of globalization. Globalization has developed along two main streams namely economic and cultural. For many, globalization is equated with economic interdependence. At the dawn of the 21st century, “the scale and magnitude of global economic interaction appears to be unprecedented… Contemporary patterns of economic globalization suggest the emergence of a new international division of labor.” (Brahm 2005). Globalization has caused the polarization of society’s affluent and impoverished members.

Saskia Sassen posited that globalization contributed to class polarisation while Janet Abu-Lughod concluded that globalization is contributory to the rise of class disparity.

Saskia Sassen also underscored the effects of globalization in the economic milieu. Changes at various levels beginning at the local to the international level require that there must be a nodal point where everything will converge. World cities emerge to fulfill this function of coordinating global economic activities. The economic base of cities has evolved as a result of the demands for more products and services. Alternative service sectors are emerging because of globalization. Alternative economic base like the informal sector has developed to accommodate the new demands of expanding international market. Characteristic of this phenomenon is the increase in the number of immigrants that make up the majority of the informal sector. Migration not only has economic impacts but also social and cultural effects. While migration is not unique to the present age, communication and transportation technologies allow migrants a greater opportunity to maintain links with their homelands (Sassen 1993, p.32).

The prevalence of mix-migration patterns as described by the UNHCR (2006) makes it difficult to distinguish asylum seekers from mobile populations. Migrant workers form part of the 175 million estimated international migrants in 2005. This new development is attributed to advancements in communication and transportation, both of which are products of globalization (p.24). UNHCR (2006) also cited how asylum seekers and refugees used the same mobility routes like that of undocumented migrants workers. Migrant workers also become vulnerable due to changes in local and political conditions, or the lack of legal protection because of their illegal statuses (p.25). It could be conjectured that the refugees in the context of new migration patterns have new faces.

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Immigrants: The New Face of Poverty

In recent years, the incidence of poverty among immigrants rose at an alarming rate. Fleury (2007) cited the situation in Canada. When compared to immigrants arriving in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, the author revealed that immigrants arriving in the 1990s did not fare well because of “changes in the composition of the immigrant population (country of origin, language, and skill level) to decreasing foreign credential recognition and a general decline in the return on post- secondary education in Canada.”(p.1) When compared to native-born Canadians’ economic performances, the new immigrants were at higher risks of experiencing poverty. New immigrants had been identified as one of the five groups considered most likely to experience poverty. Other groups include “lone parents, persons with work-limiting disabilities, Aboriginal persons, and unattached individuals aged 45-64.”(p.1)ю

Fleury includes the following circumstances that increase the likelihood that new immigrants will experience poverty. Family circumstances and the labor market are determinants of poverty among working age recent immigrants. An immigrant who is a full time student, not working sufficient number or hours or self-employed are considered vulnerable. Ethnic groups such as Asians and Arabs are more likely to experience poverty (p.19). Typical characteristics of at-risk recent immigrants include:

  • be in the core working-age population (to be aged between 30 and 44);
  • live in the large urban areas of Toronto or Vancouver;
  • be a member of a visible minority group;
  • have a university degree; and
  • do not have any work-limiting disabilities (p.25).

Other factors that may influence the probability of new immigrants experiencing low-income include:

  • Employed or unemployed status; number of hours of work accumulated as well as salary conditions;
  • Access to personal market income from other sources (such as investments income);
  • Access to financial support from other family members;
  • Eligibility for and access to government transfers (p.37).

A downturn in high-tech industries in 2000 also contributed to the increasing number of educated and skilled immigrant workers experiencing low-income. Unemployment rate rose from 3.9% to 6.6 %. The most affected were immigrants who were IT professionals. In 2001, about 22% of total Canadian labor engaged in IT were immigrants who entered the country five years previously (Picot, Feng and Coulombe 2007, p.6). Falling earnings according to Feng and Picott (2002), may have their origins in the changing composition of immigrants. More immigrants come from developing countries (p.4).

The discourse on poverty presented a view that the economic disparity resulted from the inclusion/exclusion principles that often “marginalise, neglect, exclude, or ‘leave out’ certain people, and on providing access to resources and participation for all people.” (Reutter et al 2005, p.515) Social processes that promote inclusion/exclusion include “the influence of public economic and social policies, programmes, institutions and actors.”(p.515) Migration posed difficult challenges to immigrants. It not only includes the impact of being in a new environment, it also gives rise to a host of social, cultural and political problems.

The Attraction of Urban Areas for Migrants

Population mobility was also a consequence of changing economic climate. In the United Kingdom, for example, rapid urbanization was the consequence of industrialization. More people preferred to go into main urban centers in search of better work and living conditions. Britain was also the first country to experience rapid urbanization that began in mid eighteenth century and culminated during the First World War (Law 1967, p.125). With the population becoming increasingly concentrated in the urban areas, more problems developed like social and health problems (Brown 1991, p.170). Britain was most ill-prepared among the European nations that experienced rapid urbanization. The existing infrastructures were not ready to accommodate an increase in population in a short period. London was of principal importance to the emerging industries. Other areas like North-West, the West Riding of Yorkshire, the West Midlands, the North East, South Wales and East Midlands were principal industrial areas.

Walks and Bourne (2006) cited how impoverished neighborhoods had growing concentration in major urban areas in Canada. The emergence of minority dominating the low-income bracket also seemed apparent in some urban areas. Most dominant minority groups include Aboriginals, blacks and Latin Americans. Certain groups such as the Chinese showed “a new patterning of cultural pluralism marked by the emergence of ‘ethnic communities’.”(p.294) The increasing visibility of ethnic group enclaves contravened assimilation principles often used to explain the ability of new immigrants to cope with the challenges in their new home. The increased concentration “implies a breakdown of the assimilation process and/or social exclusion on the part of the ‘host’ society.”(p.276).

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A separate view on the increased concentration see this as a positive and strategic assertion of different ethnic groups of their cultural goals and identity. This clustering of ethnic enclaves could be interpreted merely as strategic “in light of increasing transnationalism and/or the global marketing of ethnic spaces.”(Walks and Bourne 2006, p.276) Changes in immigration policies beginning the 1960’s had affected the patterns of settlement, as many recent migrants preferred to stay in major urban centers. The deterioration in income level among recent immigrants had been attributed to “declining returns to foreign work experience and the devaluation and non-recognition of foreign credentials.”(p.278) Concurrently, the situation is further exacerbated by the existence of “institutionalized forms of occupational exclusion as well as racial discrimination within the labour market.”(p.278) Teelucksingh and Galabuzzi (2005) concurred with the observation that racial discrimination occurs in Canadian employment. It could be seen in two forms: “economic discrimination, (when employers make generalized assumptions about the worth of racialised employees), and exclusionary discrimination (when members of a racialised group are not hired, paid equally or promoted regardless of their skills and experience).”(p.1).

Economic well-being is often dictated by three fundamental institutions such as, “1) the market – especially the labour market, 2) the state – with direct transfers of both services and payments, and 3) the family (in explaining how Canadians earn and pool resources).”(Liu and Kerr 2003, p.114) Government policy regarding immigrants had a positive impact on immigrants until recently. This simply reflected the declining labor markets, not only in Canada, but also in other parts of the world. The difference between the selection process in the past and the present is the increasing demand for secondary labor. A mismatch in human capital factors such as education or work experience is experienced by the current generation of migrants. Hence, the job offers are less rewarding to immigrants. (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, 2006).

Demographers reported that presently, there are 3.1 immigrants for every 1000 citizens in the U.S. Foreign-born individuals comprise 9 percent of the total population. These figures are perceptibly lower compared to those at the beginning of the 20th century when ratio reached a 10 is to 1000. Through time, with the incessant entry of immigrants even at lower concentration, America turned into a sea of ethnicities and races. This condition, whether beneficial or not, would not have taken place if not for the further legislations authorized in the later decades of 1980s, 90s, up to date. (American Immigration Law Foundation).

During the new millennium, the USA Patriotic Act was enacted after an alarming onslaught of terrorism. The Act aims to develop techniques that will intercept and hamper terrorist movements into the country. Furthermore, in 2003, the INS was integrated into the Department of Homeland Security. It cannot be denied that immigration is a socio-demographic issue that poses different ramifications. Immigration policy has been held in constant debates by US citizens, with small voices coming from undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Asia. According to Hardin, as of 1973, the United States has been accepting 400,000 immigrants every year; with another 600,000 undocumented immigrants as per educated guesses (Hardin, September 1974). Of the 1.7 million increase of US population each year, it has been accounted that immigrants shared 19% of it, or if the illegal immigrants were included, it would be 37% (Hardin, September 1974). The issue that revolves around the proposals on US immigration policy is – how such shifting increase in the share of lands and other resources of immigrants affect the original citizens of the United States?

Author Hardin says food supply can be probably increased to meet the demands of the population, but what about some other tangible and intangible resources such as air, water, forests, beaches, wildlife, scenery and solitude? It could be endangered and the balance in ecosystem destroyed. (Hardin, September 2004). The country with the world’s biggest population of 600 million India has seen a series of destruction of its natural resources due to its demographic profile. With an average increase of 15 million in its population annually, its forests that used to occupy a large fraction of its territory are now reduced to a small fraction perhaps to yield the building of residential sites for its growing population and other structures for various purposes. The remaining farmlands are either flooded or eroded, and the environment appears impoverished. (Hardin, September 2004). On one hand, Hawaii residents are very much aware to the limits of their environment that even fellow US citizens from the other 49 states are given restrictions to immigration. The Hawaiian government for the benefit of posterity is preserving their lands. As one Hawaiian government official said when responding to a speaker of Japanese ancestry who opposed the closing of Hawaii doors to immigrants: “Yes, but we have children now, and someday we’ll have grandchildren too. We can bring more people here from Japan only by giving away some of the land that we hope to pass on to our grandchildren some day.” (Hardin, September 1974) The other principle behind the ethics of the common is that of preserving a stable state in society wherein the quality of life of those living in it is not reduced or diminished (Eliott and Lamm, n.d.). You can accept new immigrants and tolerate new births but the welfare of the society in terms of the quality of life must not be exchanged for such purposes. Eliott and Lamm says further in support that at some point when the environment gets crowded, people living in it begin to cause harm to each other: “If acting morally compromises the ecosystem, then moral behavior must be rethought…. Conditions of crowding and scarcity can cause moral acts to change from beneficial to harmful, or even disastrous; acts that once were moral can become immoral.” (Eliott and Lamm, n.d.).

Further, opening the doors of America to Latin and Asian immigrants could be tolerated and legitimized only to the level where such altruism would not harm the current situation of American citizens and their successors and posterity. In one angle this proposition might appear cruel to those intending to immigrate but it is how the concept of intergenerational justice works. Examining the moving force behind the new legislation proposed by the Bush Administration, the immigration is being encouraged first and foremost to meet the growing demand of industries for cheap labor (Intergenerational Justice, n.d.). It just means that those who are given the incentives to migrate are people coming from less developed countries who are willing to work for “less than citizens” (Velasquez, 1992). What kind of altruism or humanitarianism will that be if immigrants will not be taken cared of by the government? There are propositions on pathway to citizenship of immigrants specifically in the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, and some rights and protection to social services like education and health but it would not compensate for the misery of separation of immigrant workers from their families and the typical laborer’s condition. The motive of the new immigration laws is undeniably for commercialization and benefit of industries. Velasquez listed three benefits that could be derived from allowing immigration of Latin Americans (and Asians alike): first, drop in the consumer prices of commodities because of less production cost brought about by immigrants who are only able to bid for lower wages; second, greater consumerism since immigrants are considered new consumers of goods; and three, additional tax revenue from immigrants thru income and social security taxes (1992). It is the usual economic rhetoric that benefits private industries and government but could also probably result to the second-class citizenship. The new immigration laws will bring about the new breed of First World Country poor. This is the worst-case scenario that is described in the tragedy of the commons. It is exaggerated stance thrown to the people opposing the immigration laws that they are racists but could it be that they are just acting out of fear on what will happen in the real world?

In the case of Mexico, the Mexican government must already take steps in addressing the possibility that the U.S. government will reduce if not, will not anymore allow Mexicans to migrate to the U.S. as the latter sees that there are not much benefits to gain from if it allows Mexicans to migrate to the U.S. In short, “by allowing more unskilled workers from Mexico would not be in the best interest of the United States” (Camarota, 2001). Mexican government must finally come up with realistic policies or form of government that prioritizes this pressing need of providing livelihood to millions of that Mexicans unskilled or skilled, highly educated or not if the U.S. would restrict totally or not the entrants of Mexican citizens to the U.S.

Considering that these two countries share a 2000-mile border, one can not just simply ignore the fact that even how much the U.S. government would opt to protect its interest and Mexico would live independently from the former, their futures are still closely bounded. These two states still see that one way or the other they complement each other in some other areas other than the issue on Mexican to the U.S. It is said in the data gathered by Camarota that “available data suggest that the costs to the United States (on Mexican immigration both legal and illegal) clearly outweigh the benefits.” Further findings show that the fields of “trade, investment, the environment, and drug interdiction on which the interests of the two countries do coincide and therefore a strong working relationship is likely to continue” (Camarota, 2001).

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Inspite of it all, Mexico, as a country, has to make a stand as to how it will manage its domestic problems of providing employment opportunities for its citizens. It could not rely on the U.S. forever to solve Mexico’s economic problems or even immigration issues. The Mexican government has to take charge of its own sets of problems and issues and it must strive to work hard to serve its citizens. It must be bold enough to ensure that the interests of its citizens is sought and secured first above all else. It must seek the help from its citizens and not from those in other countries whom it can not truly rely upon to protect the interest of Mexico and its people.

To begin on how Mexico plans to go about its problem is to start with education. Mexico has to improve its system of education that targets educating people from grade school to higher levels, even those who are of working age. This would significantly equip the capacity of Mexico’s labor to compete with other workers from other countries in the world. Moreover, this injection would enhance the capability of Mexico’s citizens to take part in shaping their country to become responsive to the needs of its people and to make a difference in their lives and those of others they impact in the real economic, cultural, political and social settings.

The reformation may take a long process for the government and its people to recover and to become self-sufficient in protecting the welfare of its people but it is rather better to start somewhere, somehow today before it is too late to make up for the lost times and opportunities. The Mexican citizens must be aware of the richness they have in terms of their strong, well-grounded culture and their industry to bring back to their families their hard earned labor to improve their ways of life. The Mexican citizens must envision themselves to be that race that stands up and is self-sufficient in meeting the needs of its people; one who does not rely on others for help but rather are willing and can help others. They must further envision themselves that Mexican people can make a difference in their country and their efforts can impact the whole world in a lot of sense.


Fundamental to admission of immigrants into sovereign states was the need for new labour inputs. People would continue to seek better opportunities away from home if conditions such as political oppression and instability and poverty continue to deprive these expatriates of a life in peace and relative economic stability. The open policy on immigration was intended to fulfill the economic needs of the country like the United States, the major players such as employers failed to extend the benefits of hiring cheap foreign labor to their immediate families. They left the welfare of the second generation immigrants to third parties(p.635). The underlying principle that dominates the immigration policy is “the nation takes care of its immediate labor needs, as defined by powerful economic interests, and lets the future take care of itself.”(p.635).

Some researchers find that ethnic concentration in certain areas have certain value for immigrants. Foremost in their decision to select a particular locality was the presence of “support in a familiar linguistic, religious and familial environment.”(p.166) Ethnic concentration also occurred if the host country had a specific area assigned for these immigrants to settle. Over time, the immigrants can move out and look for better alternatives as condition improves.

The rising number of poor immigrants in recent years merits a second look because it affects the overall economic well being of the community. The lack of appropriate support and legal protection for migrant workers also pose serious consequences, not only to the immigrants but also to the host countries. Many would argue that globalisation has benefited the wealthier nations and pushed developing nations into disadvantaged positions. This is also true for the migrants from impoverished nations.

The situation of the voluntary migrant population is threatened when they are displaced because of the inadequate legal protection accorded to them in some host countries. They become like refugees, stateless and unable to justify their presence in the host country whenever their economic, social and cultural needs are disrupted.


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