From Europe to Canada, how to promote a truly welcoming culture for migrants

Aspects of Canada’s pluralism model may serve Europe well, but is it a fair comparison? In advance of 6 Degrees, the upcoming three-day event on inclusion, diplomat Jeremy Kinsman looks at the challenge of identity and integration in both regions.

By: /
September 14, 2016
A family walks through a field at a makeshift camp for migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The horror of mass murders at the hands of radicalized alienated European Muslim terrorists in Paris, Brussels and Nice gives Canadians the impression we have lessons to offer the world on managing pluralism. But Europe’s situation is more difficult in origin, geography, complexity and scale.

It threatens the future of the European Union. The Euro currency crisis is a governance issue the EU can fix. Brexit, if it even happens, will be digested a lot more easily by Europeans than by the British. But the “immigration” issue (which is to some extent a euphemism about the impact of Islam on European societies) is an existential issue of identity. It conflates politically with disaffection for the EU and is pushing European countries toward nativism.

Canada’s situation can hardly be compared. One of few settlement immigration countries, we select annually about 250,000 permanent residents for employability, adaptability, language skill, and aspiration to become citizens. (In 2015, the number rose to around 278,000. This year, the government estimates more than 300,000 will be welcomed.)

These newcomers indicate respect for the core values of Canada’s Charter of Rights. We want them and we choose them.

Compared to European countries, Canada also responsively resettles a much smaller number of refugees, who are generally pre-screened by UN agencies. Many are sponsored by Canadian families and civil society. Authorities have curtailed the former practice of allowing asylum claims after entering Canada as visitors in order to curb economic migrants.

While multiple programs in Canada support refugee integration, a strong influence is provided by the presence in “arrival cities” (the title of Doug Saunders’ fine book on migration) of 10 times as many landed immigrants to whose positive commitments less prepared refugees can relate.

In contrast, European countries ceased settlement immigration long ago, after post-war influxes of ill-prepared factory workers and fugitives from ex-colonies and colonial wars strained capacities. France and Germany both became officially “zero-immigration” in 1974.

The dark experience with refugees before and after World War II drove Europeans to adopt international covenants to accept refugees and asylum-seekers, initially focused on Europeans, and then extended globally. Europeans also admitted young brides for earlier migrants and guest-workers.
"European countries never shared the spirit of Canadian intention to recruit new citizens as an ongoing objective of public policy."

But European countries never shared the spirit of Canadian intention to recruit new citizens as an ongoing objective of public policy. Europe’s “immigrants” are basically refugees they did not ask for and did not choose.

In time, the flows of refugees and asylum-seekers became floods. The EU’s prosperity, welfare systems, open borders and predictably secure societies became a magnet for peoples, especially young men, whose futures were circumscribed by poverty of opportunity and abundance of corruption and arbitrary violence at home. Wars, especially in the Middle East, spewed forth desperate families in dimensions never expected, to whom Europe, not North America, is virtually adjacent, if only by voyages of great hardship.

While Europeans were unready to receive them in great number, the refugees were equally ill-prepared. Danes, who obtained unrivalled rights for women after generations of democratic struggle, would readily close their borders today to newcomers who unwittingly insult that achievement by shrouding women in submissive black. The Dutch, whose secular political democracy emerged from centuries of religious wars, were jarred when Moroccan-origin advocates pressed for sharia law. Following an influx of nearly one million migrants into Germany in 2015, locals were aghast when thousands of women reported being groped and assaulted by gangs of primarily North African and Arab immigrant men during last year’s New Year’s public celebrations.

The Dutch government tried to warn prospective refugees they would be joining an unfamiliar culture of gender equality, secularism and even gay marriage. But precautionary messages were lost on those desperately seeking sanctuary from deadly wars.

Nonetheless, led by Angela Merkel’s first declaration of a willkommenskultur (or “welcome culture”), most European countries tried to cope (less so the newer EU ex-communist entrants, still struggling with their own transitions and unused to refugees coming in). But the German Chancellor, who over-estimated solidarity, touched off an avalanche of possibly one million unscreened refugees from Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean wars and many others trying to get their piece of European generosity (compared to Canada’s 25,000 hand-picked entrants). The absorption of a million people into an EU of 500 million shouldn’t have been such a political catastrophe, but the vexed background has made it so.

Europe’s toolkit: Legal status and a sense of true belonging

Wir schaffen das,” Merkel promised (“We shall manage it”). Maybe Germany will manage to settle all the unsought newcomers. The deeper problem is the lack of extension of full citizenship to earlier unsought immigrants, perpetuated in spirit into the second and third generations. (The circulation of labour from within the EU is largely uncontroversial. Even in the UK where the presence of EU workers inflamed the toxic Brexit identity debate, polls now show that 86 percent of Brits want the EU workers to stay.)

Most descendants of Algerian harkis in France, Moroccan labourers imported into Holland and Belgium, and Turkish gastarbeiters in Germany may now have the formal status of citizens (only recently available to German Turks). But many feel like outsiders. They are scapegoated by right-wing populist nativist politicians. The focus on Islamic symbols of female dress stigmatizes some women into isolation. Young French men from originally immigrant communities are already isolated as a group by high unemployment, compounded too often by their ensuant hostility. They are not, however, monitored as a group because official French doctrine does not recognize identifiable “minorities,” in deference to the republican tenet that there are only 60 million equal individual citizens.

Circumstances are anything but equal. Family ties break down and petty street crime and vandalism become outlets for resentment. Prisons breed radicalization. Imams in some mosques offer the comfort of identity, often pitched in opposition to “decadent” European culture, deepening the clash that is destabilizing societies.

What can be done?

Instead of blaming the European Union for the refugee crisis, political leaders should re-commit to keeping internal borders open among them, by enforcing the integrity of the EU’s external perimeter border and sharing more equitably the burdens of the most exposed, such as Italy, Greece and Spain.

It means turning off the intoxicating global notion that migrants and refugees are entitled to leave their region for another, without so much as an effort to find and build safe refuge closer to home. Europeans accept that genuine refugees from war deserve asylum but accommodation needs to be in the Middle Eastern region if possible, and needs to be much better-funded.

"We better not think we have done better because we are better."

European leaders need to double down to support inclusivity and to condemn soft bigotry. There is progress. When I visit now the Sciences Po I see a vast difference from my own Paris student days. Today’s intake of “minority” kids will do well but they are few compared to those left in the high-rise, low-employment banlieux who need a lift in opportunity and inclusion. There has to be a big hike in investment in education to bring these kids up to employable par. They need to feel they are mainstream French, German, Dutch, Danish – and European. Only a more healthy society will eliminate the grotesquerie of Islamic terrorism.

At Ryerson University in Toronto, if I closed my eyes when talking with students, I wouldn’t know who is who. They share an identical Canadian voice because our public schools made language fluency the top priority in our welcome. When I look around, I see a huge array of different faces, some in head scarves. Europe’s narrative is very different.

Canadians can still provide Europeans with the benefits of our experience in managing pluralism. But we better not think we have done better because we are better. The Europeans have a problem from hell, much more dire and demanding than ours, because of geography, history, and choices made back in the day. Working to do their humanitarian duty while strengthening more inclusive identities that conserve core values – that is the greatest challenge of our time.  

6 Degrees runs Sept. 19-21 in Toronto.

Also in the series


Bravery, Resilience and Loyalty: The story of a new Canadian

As the descendant of a determined Apache woman from Mexico, Luis Horacio Najera’s identity has been shaped by his heritage. Only recently did he realize how important that history was in carving out his place as a new Canadian. His story is part of a new series on inclusion.


Five questions with Jennifer Welsh, Canada’s 2016 Massey lecturer

Former UN Special Adviser Jennifer Welsh on the importance of refugee burden-sharing, how pluralism and equality go hand in hand, and how Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ may not have been the end, after all. 


Where does religion fit into Canada’s pluralism model?

The recent wave of Syrian refugees — and acknowledgement of Europe’s flawed multiculturalism — has prompted new ways to think about religion’s place in an inclusive society. Geoffrey Cameron explores whether Canada is post-secular, and what this might mean. 

Ban Ki-moon refugees

Why the world needs a new, more equitable refugee system

How do we create a system that treats refugees with dignity and better distributes the responsibility? As world leaders meet to discuss the global refugee crisis, these five factors should guide their thinking.