press and opinions

Goods are freer to move; people are not

  • / Oct 26, 2013 / by Tom Denton /
  • Canada appears close to achieving another major trade agreement, this one with the European Union. While it will have its critics, increasing free trade on a global basis is arguably a good way to increase employment and spread prosperity at home and abroad.

    There is however an ironic side to all this. As goods move ever more freely about the global village, the movement of the planet’s people is increasingly restricted.   Most Canadians won’t notice. They can travel easily for business or pleasure so long as they have the money and a passport.

    There was a time, a few generations past, when the opposite was true, when kings and countries filled their treasuries and financed their governments with duties on the movement of goods, and people migrated freely, populating colonies and continents in the process.

    That was before income tax was invented. It was also before the population explosion that has seen the planet’s people quadruple in number since 1900 after taking two million years to get to that level. Today the developed countries are protective of their borders and restricting who gets in.

    But attempts at human migration continue anyway. We see the pressure movingly as Syrian and Eritrean refugees attempt a Mediterranean passage to Europe and many die in the process. There is consternation across Europe as the pragmatic confronts the moral with the dilemma of choice. It is a reminder of the Viet Nam War and the boat people era.

    Canada’s immigration policy lets in about 250,000 immigrants each year but the demand has been estimated at three times that figure, driven by the reality that most who come here or want to come, are related to someone already here.  There may well be moral or ethical issues surrounding our restrictions, but the pragmatism of the moment prevails.

    Restricting who gets in is only one side of the picture. There are several countries, never democracies,  that restrict who gets out. Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union in their day required exit visas of anyone who wanted to leave.  But it still happens today as if to prevent those who cannot vote in free elections from voting with their feet.

    North Korea and Eritrea are two predictable examples of non-democratic countries that require exit visas before a citizen there can leave (and they are unlikely to be granted). What is less understandable are those countries that require exit visas for refugees that they didn’t want in the first place, and that may indeed by considered as illegal and liable to be deported if caught.

    The method of getting exit visas for refugees and the amount paid for them can be murky and little talked about because it seems to happen at lower bureaucratic levels where payment is more akin to a bribe than a fee. One pays and keeps quiet for fear of rocking a delicate boat.

    For a refugee to leave Ethiopia the cost has seemed to be in the $150 to $500 range, although one Canadian relative reported joyfully this week that there would be no fee for her three young relatives who arrive from Addis Ababa in a few days, saving her $450.  Apparently their UN registration papers had exempted them – a hopeful sign.

    Saudi Arabia is another matter.  One of the world’s wealthiest nations, having declared all refugees to be illegal there, is confronted with a dilemma:  how does one give a legal document (the exit visa) to an illegal person?  The answer lies in money, and payments can run as high as $5,000. There are frequent examples of scheduled refugee departures for Canada being stopped at the last moment until a bribe can be extorted from Canadian relatives.

    Last week’s Strangers in New Homelands conference at the University of Manitoba lacked the scheduled participation of some foreign speakers because they were unable to get visas from Canada.  This is not an unusual occurrence.

    Whether human migration difficulties lie in entrance strictures such as Canada’s, or departure obstacles in non-democratic states, it is ironic that increasing prosperity, at least for some, from freer trade seems to be happening at the same time as a tightening of national borders to the movement of people.


    Tom Denton is Executive Director for refugee sponsorship at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry

    This article appeared in the The Winnipeg Free Press on October 26, 2013.