By Claudia Hepburn
Who can forget that tragic image of a dead boy? It was September 2015 and Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old refugee, had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while his family was escaping Syria for a new life in Canada.
That photo galvanized Canadians to open their arms to Syrians—to sponsor a family, to collect clothes and food, to donate to charities at home and abroad.
This month, a new report from the United Nations Refugee Agency shows that the number of displaced people from all countries reached its highest number last year, a record 82.4 million. Canada can take pride in the fact that we provided a new home to more than a quarter of the 34,400 refugees who were resettled around the globe. Canada’s target for 2021 is to welcome a record number of 59,500 refugees.
What do refugees offer Canada, beyond the chance to feel generous toward desperate, vulnerable families like Alan’s? Let’s look at the evidence from Canada’s significant history with refugees.
Some refugees contribute in extraordinary ways. Two of our governors general came to Canada as refugees, Adrienne Clarkson from Hong Kong, and Michaëlle Jean from Haiti.
Others, like Tareq Hadhad, bring their entrepreneurial drive and skills and build thriving businesses. Peace by Chocolate was founded in 2016 after Hadhad and his family came as Syrian refugees. The company employs dozens of people in Nova Scotia and exports chocolate around the world.
But what of the refugees who don’t make headlines but come to Canada to rebuild their lives quietly by contributing their skills?
A study of more than a million refugees arriving in Canada since 1980 shows that refugees come to Canada poor and vulnerable but don’t tend to stay that way. In their first year in Canada, refugees earn about $20,000, roughly half the Canadian average. Five years later, 23 percent of refugees have joined the middle classes of Canadian society, earning $40,000 to $79,000, strikingly near the 27 percent of all Canadians in this earnings bracket.
At Windmill Microlending, a national charity, we have worked with 540 refugees from 53 countries in the past five years. All are adults who needed an affordable loan and help navigating the hurdles to restart their careers in Canada. What have we learned from them? A lot about refugee resilience.
Our refugee clients are very vulnerable when they apply for a loan. A significant number have little or no income when they apply—on average, about $16,000 per year. They bring expertise from their home countries in a range of professions: most commonly dentists, engineers, IT professionals, and pharmacists. They aspire to return to those professions here in Canada—and they tend to succeed.
By the time our refugee clients repay their loans three to four years later, these same individuals are earning, on average, $67,000. That is more than four times their average income when they applied for a loan. Ninety-eight percent repay their loans.
As Windmill’s data suggests, many refugees arrive in Canada with valuable skills and a high degree of self-efficacy. With a little support and guidance, they quickly fill skilled-labour gaps and attain an income level that exceeds that of the average educated Canadian born in Canada: $66,612 versus $65,131 for Canadians born in Canada with a bachelor’s degree or higher, as reported in the 2016 census.
Their vulnerability was fleeting, and their skills and resilience are a lasting boon to Canada.
Canada is right to be setting ambitious targets for immigrants and refugees and right to have set a goal of welcoming 500 skilled refugees through economic-immigration pathways by next June.
A talent database of 28,000 displaced adults in refugee camps in the Middle East has been compiled by Talent Beyond Boundaries. Many of them have skills desperately needed in Canada’s labour market: 4,300 are skilled trade workers, 1,500 are healthcare professionals, and more than 700 are technology professionals.
Those with the language and job skills Canadian employers are hiring for should be fast-tracked for economic immigration, not merely because they are desperate for resettlement but because their skills are needed in Canada.
The image of Alan Kurdi dead on a beach was powerful because it captured the vulnerability and desperation of refugees, but it obscured an even more important truth: refugees are an untapped pool of human resources that Canada can’t afford to leave behind.