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The Refugees: Canada's Opportunity of the Century

By accepting the desperate we do our nation's future a favour.

Crawford Kilian 6 Sep

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The weekend after the death of Alan Kurdi staggered the world, the Germans staggered us again by welcoming the refugees who'd had to walk partway from Budapest to the Austrian border.

Trapped at the Keleti railway station in Budapest, or deceived into boarding a train to a reception camp, the refugees in disgust set off on foot for the Austrian border. The Hungarians grudgingly sent buses to take them the rest of the way, only to find still more refugees flooding into Budapest from the south.

Novelists know that stress reveals character -- and the lack of it. Under the stress of the greatest mass migration since 1945, the Hungarians revealed themselves as jerks who'd sell refugees train tickets but not let them ride (and not refund their tickets).

The Germans, by contrast, didn't just embrace the refugees at the Munich train station -- they handed out candy, bananas, diapers and baby oil.

In the process, the Germans have scored an enormous political coup. After spending years as the villains of the Greek economic crisis, they've made themselves the heroes of a far greater crisis.

But this is not just a PR success -- it's a human-resources success as well, the exploitation of a huge windfall of workers, and just in the nick of time.

Like most of the self-described advanced nations, Germany and other western European countries face a demographic disaster: too few young people to support too many old people. Last month the Guardian's Observer warned of a "population disaster" as vast stretches of Europe are emptied of their young people by jobs in the cities and of their aging inhabitants by death.

Meanwhile the old people in the cities must depend on fewer and fewer young people to look after them, and governments are reluctant to spend what the old people need for a dignified last decade or two to their lives.

Chickens home to roost

If George W. Bush hadn't responded to 9-11 as idiotically as he did, the Middle East and south-central Asia wouldn't be in their present chaotic condition. The people fighting their way to safety would be home in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, getting on with supporting their families. The refugees are Bush's chickens coming home to roost, like so many of imperialism's flocks, and we'd be daft to reject them now.

After all, weren't these the very people we bombed to liberate from their oppressors? Okay, so we were better at bombing than liberation; but the refugees liked our idea of freedom anyway, and they've come to buy into it.

Notice that the Muslims of Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan may make pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, but they sure don't want to settle there. The Saudis and other oil-rich Gulf states have accepted essentially zero refugees, leaving the burden of Syria and Iraq to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon -- far poorer countries.

Instead the refugees size up their situation and head straight for the infidels of Europe. The Europeans may be the ones who once imposed imperialist fantasies on their grandparents, and carved the old Ottoman Empire into today's nightmare, but they're still better than the barbarians left in power like the House of Saud.

In a just world, Europe's imperialist nations would decline into wilderness as punishment for their folly. But this is not a just world, and Europeans have received an entirely undeserved get-out-of-jail-free card -- the best and brightest people of the vast region they have abused for over a century.

Why the Germans get it

The Germans, at least, understand the windfall they've received. It's not their first. In the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War, the Allies finished what Hitler had started, the ethnic cleansing of Europe. Ethnic Germans were deported from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans. They arrived in their millions in a West Germany utterly destitute and unhappy to receive more mouths to feed.

But the West Germans had the good sense to see these poor relatives as an opportunity, not a problem, and put them to work rebuilding their shattered nation. Within a decade, the German Wirtschaftswunder -- economic miracle -- had put the country at the top of the European economy. It also put Volkswagen Beetles and then BMWs on North American highways.

The economic miracle grew so fast that Germany ran out of German workers in the 1950s and recruited Turkish workers by the thousands. They didn't always treat these "guest workers" as wisely as they should have, but the Turks have settled in as a key component of German prosperity.

Syrian mums are cavalry to the rescue

Since prosperity seems to encourage a low birthrate, the new refugees have arrived with exquisite timing. To the Germans, those exhausted mothers stepping off the trains with their babies in arms are the cavalry riding to the rescue. No quantity of diapers, no amount of baby oil, is too high a price to pay for the kids who will power the Germany economy for the next 60 years.

We should have our own immigration officials on the platform of the Munich train station, elbowing the Germans out of the way while we pitch every trainload of refugees on the attractions of Canada.

After all, we fuelled our own postwar boom on the work of Dutch immigrants grateful for our liberation of Holland (not to mention a lot of Germans and Brits as well). We welcomed the Hungarians in 1956 (including a whole university forestry department that settled in at the University of British Columbia).

We did it again and again: the Czechs after 1968, the Chileans after 1972, the Ugandan Ismailis after 1973. Remembering the old bigots in the civil service who'd rejected Jewish refugees in the 1930s, we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people in 1979-80.

The moral of our postwar experience? If you want to do well, do good. Decades of aggressive immigration policies have boosted our prosperity far beyond the dreams of Mackenzie King. We have profited from our career as worldwide headhunters, stealing smart people from their stupid governments.

Turning losers into winners

It's also worth considering that we have recruited "losers" right from the start: the Loyalists exiled by the American Revolution, the desperate refugees from Ireland's potato famine, the runaway slaves coming north on the Underground Railway, the jobless young men of Guangdong's Pearl River delta. The immigrants in the 20th century were losers too, but in Canada those losers became winners together.

Our own demographics aren't that much better than Germany's. Canadians born in the 1950s will be around until the 2040s or even later. BC Stats projects 558,000 British Columbians over the age of 80 in 2040, up from 215,000 in 2015. Who's going to support them, if not a young generation of smart, hard-working young Canadians from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa?

Under a wiser Canadian policy, Ghalib Kurdi would be enrolled in a Coquitlam kindergarten this month, and his little brother Alan would have followed him in a couple of years. Coquitlam's School District #43 would have given both boys a solid education, followed by post-secondary at Simon Fraser or Douglas College.

Sometime in the 2030s they'd be entering the Canadian workforce, building their own families, creating wealth, paying taxes to look after folks like me in our nineties -- and perhaps surprising us with their success. Have we forgotten that Steve Jobs's biological father was a Syrian?

That opportunity has slipped from our hands like Ghalib and Alan from their father's arms. We are poorer than we might have been, but the refugees are still paddling and walking out of Africa and the Middle East.

If Europe thinks of them as a problem, we should think of them as the opportunity of a lifetime.  [Tyee]

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