Published in the Toronto Star, June 6, 2013
The American writer Maya Angelou was referring to deep matters of the heart when she said, “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” The claim may resonate emotionally – but in the realm of global affairs, each of its assertions raises deeply fraught issues. The potential for immigrants to go home again, and the ways in which they maintain ties with their home countries, are often seen by Canadian politicians and media as not “all right” in the least. And in turn, those views are deeply at odds with current thinking among global experts in the field of migration.
“You can never go home again” is a motto taken by many Canadians as one that immigrants to this country should live by, and that they harm Canada in violating. Media accounts often highlight risks posed by migrants who come to this country only to return home with the benefits of Canadian citizenship. Last month saw a spate of stories about the finding that many migrants from Hong Kong to Canada have gone back after acquiring Canadian citizenship in order to enable a possible return here for retirement or in case of political turmoil.
Before endorsing policy changes based on the relatively limited range of risks, Canadians should understand the much more significant gains to be had by welcoming all the homeland connections that migrants bring.
Another recurrent story concerns “birth tourists” from China who come give birth in Canada in order to secure the benefits of citizenship for their children. Such accounts often reference the dangers of “reverse migration” shown in 2006, when more than 50,000 Lebanese-Canadians used their citizenship rights to be evacuated during Lebanon’s conflict with Israel.
Conversely, the notion that “you can never leave home” is one that is truer of immigrants than many Canadians might wish. Of course, some migrants to Canada do sever all ties with their homelands. But most of them stay connected, to varying degrees, through ethnic media and through communication technologies.
Those ties regularly become matters of concern in Canadian public debate. Newcomers’ continued engagement in homeland politics is often seen to raise worries about potential disloyalty to Canada. And expatriates from certain countries can find themselves forced to maintain homeland ties against their will.
Canada recently announced it was expelling Eritrea’s consul general in Toronto for coercing his country’s expatriates to pay a tax used to finance Eritrean military spending. Diplomats and agents from countries such as Iran and China are also rumoured to pressure expatriates in Canada to conform ideologically to homeland agendas; and during the recent Sri Lankan conflict, Tamil activists were said to pressure Canadian Tamils into contributing funds.
Some of these issues raise legitimate concerns. But before we sound alarms about all that’s not right with migration to Canada today, it’s important to put such phenomena in broader perspective. That was done in spades last week at a conference at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, where many of the world’s leading experts on migration, diasporas and development gathered to share research and policy ideas.
The participants overwhelmingly took a positive view of ongoing ties between global migrants and their homelands, exploring ways in which migrants’ homeland links are an asset for both sending and receiving countries. As World Bank economist Dilip Ratha noted, developing countries can benefit from migrants’ remittances, philanthropy, investment and entrepreneurship, as well as the skills they contribute.
Speakers from northern immigrant-receiving countries (the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia) discussed ways in which their own countries can benefit from such linkages. On the domestic front, they stand to gain skilled workers, foreign students, and economic activity. Australian researcher Graeme Hugo pointed out that businesses and government in his country are considering how to use Asian expatriates’ ties to facilitate Australian trade and investment with their homelands. Moreover, all of these countries realize (in words, if only as yet minimally in action) that their own interest in fostering international development is much helped by the efforts of engaged diaspora populations within their borders.
The conference also made clear that it’s not just northern immigrant-receiving countries who are interested in fostering constructive global links through their people. As New Zealand academic Alan Gamlen observed, an increasing number of countries – now half of all UN members – have formal institutions devoted to maintaining ties with their diasporas abroad. It’s becoming normal (even expected) for states to use diaspora outreach in order to promote economic and political interests.
So what should these perspectives mean for Canadians? Above all, they should lead us to step back and look at the big picture when the latest panic about immigrants’ homeland ties hits the news. Given global inequalities, conflicts and ideological battles, there will always be migrants trying to hedge their bets against uncertainty by acquiring Canadian citizenship. There will be foreign governments trying to influence their expatriates on our soil in more or less benign ways. Egregious or large-scale harms caused in these ways should be addressed.
But before endorsing policy changes based on the relatively limited range of risks, Canadians should understand the much more significant gains to be had by welcoming all the homeland connections that migrants bring. Certain politicians who are fond of telling scare stories about migrants taking advantage of “hard-working Canadian taxpayers” would also do well to keep that big picture in mind.