Howard Duncan is one of the editors of the newly published book, International Affairs and Canadian Migration Policy. Dr. Duncan, and editor Yiagadeesen Samy have worked to complete this groundbreaking volume which closely examines Canada’s migration policy as a part of its foreign policy. 

We reached out to Dr. Duncan to get his thoughts on why this volume is particularly relevant today, and what it offers for those interested in the future of Canadian migration policy.

Dr. Duncan’s response to our questions is presented in full below.


Why We Produced This Book

The past thirty years have witnessed an explosion of interest in international migration by academic researchers and policy think tanks.

It is not that there was no interest prior to this but the number of social science researchers focused on migration, the volume of papers and books and conferences, and the attention from the international community are far higher than they once were. Much of this attention has been devoted to migration and integration policy by national governments, sub-national governments, supra-national institutions such as the European Union, and more recently by the various arms of the United Nations. Common to most of this policy-oriented research is its treatment of migration policy as domestic policy. Very little work has proceeded from the vantage point of foreign policy or international relations.

This might seem an odd thing to argue given that international migration, by definition, involves the crossing of borders and therefore matters of international interest.

But in fact, nearly all discussions are about migration policy as domestic policy whether that concerns national economies, effects on domestic social structures, the degree to which social integration has been attained and human rights observed, public attitudes towards immigration and immigrants, or concerns of national security.

Not only does most research in the field explore domestic policy matters, so, too, does most migration policy whether those policies are about bringing immigrants into or keeping migrants out of the country, ensuring their integration, managing migration to enhance the domestic economy or to bolster its population. When it comes to international migration, international relations get short shift.

This book hopes to stimulate interest by academic researchers and policy officials alike into the international relations aspects of migration.

This is a significant gap in the literature and in our collective thinking about international migration despite the efforts of some, including the United Nations, to make migration a foreign as well as a domestic policy issue, an effort that has yet to gain much traction. The UN was brought into the international migration debate through the avenue of the effects of migration on development, principally the development of less wealthy countries that send large numbers of migrant workers who, in turn, send remittances to their families in the homeland. This interest parlayed into the Global Forum on Migration and Development, the including of migration in the Sustainable Development Goals, and more recently in the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and the UN Global Compact on Refugees. Each of these gained the participation of the majority of the world’s states and the resulting decisions and agreements should be seen as important accomplishments.

The question remains whether they will make much difference to migration policy including whether policy-making will begin to take an international relations turn. The predominant behaviour of most states during the Covid-19 pandemic was, by contrast, inward and protectionist, and migration levels have plummeted.

What distinguishes migration policy that is domestic in orientation from that which is international? Or, what makes migration policy foreign policy?

Broadly-speaking, foreign policy is designed to influence the behaviours of other states, usually in one’s national interests. In this sense, all policy is ultimately for domestic benefit, but only some policies are explicitly to influence the behaviour of other states. The UN agreements and the GFMD are intended to change how states manage migration and, in particular, with the well-being of the less well-off countries and the human rights of migrants front of mind.

Whether all signatory states supported the agreements for these reasons or for more direct national reasons is another question that bears investigation. Underlying much of the discussion of these international agreements and initiatives is a liberal idealism form of international relations theory, an approach that would regard the agreements as intended to enhance the well-being of vulnerable individuals and countries. But a realist interpretation may see more of national self-interest being expressed in both the negotiations and the final outcomes. We hope that more analyses of migration policy will be undertaken and with a view towards whether actual migration policy, whether by individual states of through the international community, reflects a liberal idealist, realist, or other approach to international relations theory.

This book is specifically with regard to Canada’s immigration policy and seeks to parse out those aspects that comprise foreign policy. Although a great deal has been written by scholars and other commentators on Canada’s policies regarding immigration, integration, and citizenship, comparatively little has looked at them from an international relations perspective. It is clear that, in the main, Canada’s immigration and integration policies are domestic in emphasis, designed to support the Canadian economy by bringing in foreign skills and labour that will benefit Canada, by supporting the arrival of newcomers through integration programs, many of which are designed to enhance their economic performance, and ensuring that Canada’s national security is not compromised. Each of the contributing authors looks at different aspects of Canadian immigration-related policy including foreign policy aspects.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

The pandemic affected international migration world-wide.

It was not only Canada that witnessed a sharp decline in newcomer arrivals. In fact, Canada was one of the few countries that maintained its immigration aspirations during the pandemic; most closed their borders to all but the most essential of migrants. Canada did not achieve its target for 2020 simply because most of those who were issued visas could not make the trip, such was the state of international travel. The question is whether the downturn will be of long duration. Canada is clearly hoping that it will not be and its recent move to recruit a much larger than normal number of newcomers through the Express Entry program is but one indication that the government wants to see numbers rise sharply. This is ultimately a matter of international competition. Given that Canada was one of the few countries that kept its door open to immigrants possessing a visa, its stance during the pandemic might prove to be an advantage over countries that slammed their doors shut. Many factors define the global competition for talent but visa policy is among them; Canada’s signal that it continues to want immigration at high levels may give it an edge, at least until other countries catch up.

Responses to the pandemic have provided a great deal of information to governments about international travel and migration and how to manage both. Countries that prefer very low levels of migration may well have learned more effective ways to keep their borders strictly controlled and may have gained support from their publics for maintaining tight controls. This could have detrimental effects on migrants who wish to work in these countries. Even before the pandemic, the demand to migrate far exceeded the supply of entry visas, and this fuelled irregular migration and the industry that supports it.

Should the global supply of entry visas remain low following the pandemic, this will change the nature of the global competition for talent, allow countries with more open immigration policies to select more carefully those to whom they offer visas, and create greater challenges to those countries that routinely experience high levels of irregular migration. The dangers that crossings of the Mediterranean may grow more severe and casualties may become more numerous.

But Canada could be an overall beneficiary of the long-term migration effects of Covid-19.

It is unlikely that the fundamentals powering international migration will change: demographic imbalances, global economic disparities, and civil strife in some countries. But there may be fewer doors through which migrants can pass, a situation that could benefit countries like Canada that continue to desire high levels of immigration.

Canadian Exceptionalism

Canada has earned itself a strong and positive international reputation for managing immigration and integration which has been called the “Canadian model” by some, the implication being that other countries should consider adopting it for themselves. That Canada has remained comparatively open to immigration over the past few years while many others have tightened immigration controls has further supported the position that Canada is in some ways exceptional. Its generosity with regard to Syrian refugees and its program of private sponsorship to support larger numbers of refugees was noted widely including during the discussions leading to the UN’s Global Compact on Refugees, this program being a sort of best practice that has, in fact, subsequently been adopted by some other countries. Canada has tried to take advantage of this reputation to bolster its standing within the international community.

Exceptionalism is not to be taken to mean ‘of exceptional value’; rather, it is to mean something more like ‘rare’.

It would be difficult to argue that Canada is exceptional because its people are exceptional for the simple reason that Canada is a society built to a large extent through sustained immigration over many decades. There is nothing unusual about the people of Canada given that most of them are either immigrants themselves or are descendants of immigrants. But there is little question that there are many immigration-related policies that are not widely shared such as the system for selecting skilled immigrants, the comparatively large number of immigrants granted permanent residency each year, the role played by NGOs in integration, the multiculturalism policy that underpins much of our thinking on integration, and the relatively easy access to citizenship.

These policies depend on continued public support for their existence and this public support is earned by competent management of migration and border controls. Where countries have lost public support for their immigration policies tends to be over what appears to be a loss of control over their borders, manifest in large numbers of irregular arrivals and asylum seekers. Canada has managed to avoid both to a large degree which can be attributed to a combination of good management, geography, and climate. So long as these fundamentals remain, Canada’s position on migration will be able to endure.

Global Governance and State Sovereignty

For the past two decades, many have urged a form of global governance of migration to diminish the harms that befall some migrants, to regularize movement and accordingly reduce irregular migration numbers, to more equitably distribute the benefits and costs of migration, and so on.

The movement towards global governance perhaps saw its greatest recent influence during the UN deliberations towards the two global compacts. Always the challenge for those advocating global governance regimes, let alone those advocating open borders, has been the traditional responsibility that states have to protect the national interests, and this includes preserving sovereignty over their borders, meaning, among other things, determining who is allowed to reside within these borders and what public goods they are entitled to receive.

Inherent in the concept of global governance is the pooling or sharing of sovereignty, that is, giving over to a central authority the responsibility to decide who and how many are allowed to enter a state’s territory. To a limited extent, we have such pooling of sovereignty with regard to the global refugee system and the Geneva convention on the status of refugees, especially the non-refoulement provisions of this article of international law. Signatories incurred responsibilities under international law in their treatment of asylum seekers.

When it comes to labour migration, which in terms of sheer numbers is the dominant form of human migration, there has never been a global governance mechanism.

The European Union established a limited form of central authority over migration of EU citizens while leaving up to member states jurisdiction over the admission of people from outside the EU. EU member states have never been willing to cede full border sovereignty to Brussels when it comes to international migration. Canada is no different in wanting to maintain sovereignty over its borders and over its immigration policies and programs. One can argue that a succession of Canadian governments has worked hard to establish a strong degree of public trust in migration management, and it would be hard to imagine conditions under which it would turn this task over to a global body that would not be in any straightforward way accountable to the Canadian public.

The UN Global Compacts, it must be noted, are not legally binding agreements. Had they been legally binding, it is unlikely that they would have been signed by many countries and certainly by no country that has been traditionally a receiver of migrants, and that includes Canada. These agreements largely articulate what countries have already agreed to regarding human rights, and they applied these pre-existing provisions of international law to the case of refugees and other migrants. But beyond the respect for human rights, the Compacts require no action on the part of signatories. This is not to say that they will have no effect whatsoever. But there is no mechanism to enforce compliance beyond an expectation to report progress.

For as long as state sovereignty remains at the core of international relations, it is unlikely that we will see the emergence of any form of global governance of international migration.

Banner image by Tim Mossholder, courtesy of Unsplash

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