Blog post by Idil Atak (Ryerson University) and Delphine Nakache (University of Ottawa) and forms part of a series of blog posts examining the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Today, Canada is one of the most active members of the international refugee regime, as the largest resettlement country in the world (when privately sponsored refugees are included), a top-10 donor to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and a significant diplomatic actor in that field (Milner 2020). Canada’s immigration system is also considered as the most “comprehensive and elaborate”, according to a recent OECD report (2019). Although the number of newcomers to Canada has considerably declined during the pandemic, Canada is aiming to welcome over 400,000 immigrants each year over the coming years, which are the highest targets in its history. Canada also played a lead role in the development of both Global Compacts, providing “a strong voice on gender equality and human rights throughout the negotiations” (Hennebry, 2019). This should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the UN Network on Migration invited Canada to be one of the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM) “Champion countries” for the GCM implementation. In response, Canada undertook to incorporate a “GCM lens” in all its migration measures, with a view to “promote its existing areas of leadership in international migration management, and to influence other States to adopt best practices in priority areas that are aligned with the GCM”.
In this blog post, we review the report on Canada’s GCM implementation (“the 2020 report”) submitted by the government to the first regional review held in November 2020. Our aim is to reflect on Canada’s priorities in terms of the GCM objectives and the progress made in their achievement.
Canada’s “migration diplomacy”
The GCM appears to be first and foremost an instrument for Canada to advance its so-called “migration diplomacy”, a term that refers to “States’ use of diplomatic tools, processes, and procedures to manage cross-border population mobility” (Adamson & Tsourapas 2019, 115). “Migration diplomacy” is becoming increasingly significant in world politics. In the case of Canada, it is described by the Canadian government as follows: “…promoting well-managed migration systems and deterring irregular migration; supporting other States’ efforts on settlement and integration; promoting balanced public narratives on migrants and refugees; and responding to emerging policy issues. Together, these policies inform the work Canada undertakes to implement the 23 objectives of the GCM, its vision, and guiding principles” (Government of Canada, 2019, 4). Canada’s migration diplomacy is supported by the Canadian Parliament, especially the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration which urged the government to leverage the fora provided by the Global Compacts to participate in shaping the future global best practices to address migration (House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, 2018). The 2020 report emphasizes Canada’s leadership in various global platforms and the ways in which the country shares its expertise internationally. Take the Global Forum for Migration and Development ad-hoc Working Group on Public Narratives on Migration co-chaired by Canada. Other examples include Canada’s chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Consultations on Migration, Asylum and Refugees from 2019-20 , an IOM-led forum for inter-governmental exchange of information and policy pertaining to the management of international migratory movements, or again, the co-organization by Canada of an international workshop on Migration Health in the Americas in 2021, to promote the GCM during the pandemic.
Canada’s international efforts to support migrants, international organizations and local service providers are welcome. For example, Canada led the development of a communications guide for governments and other stakeholders to promote a balanced narrative on migrants (Government of Canada, 2019, 7). Another illustration is Canada’s assistance to Venezuelan migrants and refugees in third countries. Canada contributed to the Venezuela Regional Refugee and Migrant Response by providing over $18 million in humanitarian assistance to international organizations and civil society groups providing help to internationally displaced Venezuelans. The assistance covered areas such as sexual and reproductive healthcare, the creation of safe spaces for girls in zone borders, and the promotion of access to education in third countries hosting Venezuelans. In addition, Canada is facilitating efforts to bring about a political solution for a peaceful restoration of democracy, and is increasing its international assistance inside Venezuela to respond to urgent needs and prepare for future recovery (Rae, 2020).
However, some components of Canada’s migration diplomacy carry the risk of reinforcing bad practices globally. An example is Canada’s major contribution to international efforts to reduce irregular migration. Canada has implemented for a long time sophisticated interdiction and interception mechanisms abroad (see for example Crépeau and Nakache, 2006; Crépeau and al., 2007), but in the last few years, it has become a key player in this area (Arbel, 2016). The 2020 report points to Canada’s collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to provide training to passport and border officials from 18 countries in 2018 and 2019. Similarly, it mentions the role of the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program (ACCBP) established by Canada. Through its Human Smuggling Envelope, this program provides financial assistance to source and transit States to combat migrant smuggling as well as training in investigative techniques to their law enforcement and border security officials. The overarching aim is to assist States in Asia, Africa and the Americas -especially Mexico- to tackle irregular migration. The 2020 report draws on the GCM Objectives 11, 12, 23 to further justify these initiatives that are presented as Canada’s contribution to capacity building to improve border management. The report doesn’t specify however any safeguards taken to protect the human rights of irregular migrants, including asylum seekers at the borders. Such safeguards are particularly needed in a context where States act beyond their territories, making it extremely difficult for civil society or courts to hold governments accountable for their actions. Research also shows that cooperation among States to reduce the international movement of people can have negative implications for certain categories of migrants and thus impede international human rights law (Guild and Stoyanova, 2018). Capacity building measures have particularly serious impacts for asylum seekers who find themselves restricted from accessing international protection and at an increased risk of being returned to persecution (Zieck, 2018). In addition, it has now been abundantly demonstrated that such cooperation fails to achieve its stated aim – namely, the “prevention” of unauthorized migration – pushing instead migrants to employ criminal networks to better their lives and to opt for increasingly more perilous routes (see e.g. Cornelius and al., 2004; Crépeau, 2015; McAuliffe & Koser, 2017). Thus, Canada’s actions aimed at “improv[ing] border management and reduc[ing] irregular migration” (2020 report, 10) come with deleterious consequences. They also come in stark contrast with Canada’s self-image of openness to immigration, as exemplified by Trudeau government’s response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, when Prime Minister famously tweeted in November 2015: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcometoCanada.”
The GCM and its impact on domestic migration policies and practices
At the domestic level, Canada’s GCM alignment record seems still limited. In keeping with its promise of incorporating a “GCM lens” in all migration work, the federal government announced it would undertake an overview of existing domestic and international programming and practices to assess the extent to which they are consistent with the GCM. In addition, it committed to verify that the GCM is accounted for when new policies and practices are considered. At the same time, the government emphasized that Canada is well-aligned with the 23 objectives of the GCM and that most Canadian migration practices already embody the GCM principles and objectives (2020 report, 5; Government of Canada, 2019). This may explain why Canada’s proactive discourse doesn’t translate (as of today) into significant action. Indeed, as is illustrated by the 2020 report, initiatives taken specifically to implement the GCM remain scarce.
One positive initiative is the funding of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, to create an online GCM Gender Hub. Canada also declared it will co-host the next Canada-EU Migration Platform Event on the integration of migrant women. However, Canada’s feminist policy, with its promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment, is not new. The Government of Canada has been committed to using GBA+, a gender and diversity-oriented intersectional analytical process, in the development of policies, programs and legislation since 1995 (see e.g., Chapnick, 2019; IRCC, 2019, 28).
Many other measures listed in the 2020 report have already been on the agenda of the government long before the adoption of the GCM. The changes in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program offer an illustration. The report refers to the introduction, in 2019, of an open work permit for migrant workers experiencing job-related abuse (or risk of abuse) in Canada. This open work-permit allows migrant workers previously hired on an employer-specific work permit to leave an abusive employment situation and seek alternative employment without loosing their legal status is Canada. This “institutionalized” work-permit initiative (through the implementation of new regulatory provisions) is a positive change, however, it is not quite new since migrant workers experiencing abusive employment conditions have for a long time been able to apply directly to the Minister of Immigration to seek relief and to get another work permit. The current process for obtaining an open work permit under the 2019 can also be challenging for some of these workers, as was admitted recently by the Canadian government. Indeed, IRCC officers are not obliged to follow the existing program delivery instructions for victims of abuse. Thus, when they receive applications, they may use their discretion to determine whether an interview (instead of a paper-based review) is necessary. In cases where an interview is conducted, they are encouraged to consult specific instructions on victims of abuse, but they are not obliged to do so. And yet, these instructions provide important information to officers to ensure that they remain sensitive to the applicant and that they do not re-victimize them. (for more on this topic, see Kaga, Nakache and al., forthcoming, 41).
In a similar vein, significant challenges remain in terms of the protection of survivors of human trafficking, although the 2020 report praises the steps taken by the government, such as the allocation of Temporary Resident Permits. These permits allow survivors to reside and work in Canada for 180 days, nonetheless, they can hardly be qualified as measures undertaken as part of Canada’s commitment to the GRC. Not only do they pre-exist the GCM, but also the GCM hasn’t driven any improvements: the number of TPRs allocated remains limited, as are the services available to survivors of human trafficking (Baglay, 2020).
The Canadian government has committed to championing the objectives of the GCM and integrating them into its migration diplomacy. While the GCM can be expected to enhance Canada’s influence in migration governance at the international level, it doesn’t currently seem to drive policy change or new practices within Canada. This may be explained by the GCM’s non-binding nature. Another factor is the government’s understanding that the majority of action items listed under the GCM’s objectives reflect current Canadian practices.
The 2020 report illustrates how any positive migration-related domestic development can be portrayed by Canada as evidence of its commitment to aligning with the GCM objectives. In reality, as illustrated above, such developments often stem from complex internal dynamics, including parliamentary reviews, court decisions, and civil society mobilization. The report also shows the slow pace of positive policy change to address several pressing issues faced by migrants in precarious situation such as temporary foreign workers, survivors of human trafficking, asylum seekers, but also non-status migrants who are over-policed and who experience significant challenges to access basic services, including healthcare. The deportation of thousands of migrants from Canada in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is another illustration of how some Canadian policies are at variance with the GCM which calls upon States to ensure the “effective respect for and protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all migrants” (2018, para 15(f)). Such action is particularly troubling in a context where Canada’s borders have been sealed since March 2020 to non-essential travel. Indeed, as noted by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers in a letter to the government, how can it be safe to compel individuals to leave Canada but unsafe to allow most other individuals – including asylum seekers- to enter Canada?
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 Idil Atak is the lead of the Canadian component of the PROTECT project, an international research initiative which has received funding from the European Union‘s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 870761. Delphine Nakache is the lead of the Canadian portion of the VULNER project, an international research initiative which has received funding from the European Union‘s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 870845.
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