Reimagining relocation to Canada, where access depends on potential and not privilege

A software developer landed in Toronto in March 2019, greeted by his new team members from a tech firm in Kitchener. Months later a chef arrived who would start working in Mississauga, and next came an engineer headed for Niagara Falls. 

In a few more months, a healthcare employer from Pictou County would return from a recruitment mission overseas having made job offers to 13 nurses. A manufacturer from Collingwood did the same, returning after hiring 11 engineers. 

All these stories of recruitment and relocation are ordinary, except that each new employee was someone living as a refugee. Getting a job and relocating from displacement is, still, extraordinary. Refugees were largely locked out of skilled immigration to countries like Canada until very recently. 

When conflict or other danger overturns a person’s life and they seek safety on the other side of a border, opportunity becomes scarce. Work permits are rare or prohibited for people living as refugees, forcing many to work illegally with poor pay and protection. This is true across every profession, from mechanics, nurses, and software developers to cooks and engineers. Career plans are upended. Travel to a better, more stable life in another country is nearly impossible through regular immigration routes, so families face choices like staying put in survival mode or risking a dangerous journey by land or sea. 

The primary immigration system available to people living as refugees, humanitarian resettlement, is a vital but unfathomable long shot. Programs are oversubscribed, and the limited number of opportunities available globally means that it works for less than 1% of the world’s 26 million people in need of a permanent, safe home.

Another skilled immigration system exists for millions of people who move around the world each year for work. If you’re a Canadian citizen reading this, and you get a job in Australia or in Spain, there’s a good chance you could move there in mere months. The reason skilled immigration doesn’t work for refugees is because it wasn’t built for them. These pathways often require a valid passport, without considering how someone with an expired passport might apply. It can require money in a bank account, overlooking people who can’t legally open one. Such barriers have unfairly kept refugees out of the global job market.

Against these odds, 29 people living as refugees have relocated for work to Canada under the pilot Economic Mobility Pathways Project, and dozens of others are close behind them. Pioneering work by Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments, employers, civil society groups like Talent Beyond Boundaries and RefugePoint, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reimagined Canada’s skilled immigration system as an opportunity for talented refugees too. The success seen so far led Canada to announce last June an expansion of the pilot to support 500 principal applicants and their families to move as skilled immigrants over two years.

TalentLift emerged to meet this moment and grow opportunities for many more talented candidates and the employers and communities who welcome them. We envision a world where talented people living as refugees can compete for jobs and skilled visas; where access depends on potential and not the privilege of living without fear.

TalentLift is a Canadian non-profit talent sourcing partner. We are the first social enterprise of our kind in Canada to offer in-house recruitment, visa and settlement coordination services. We support employers to hire and relocate talent from within refugee and displaced populations to fill skills shortages – enabling refugees along with their families to lift to their potential, secure their futures and leave displacement behind. We partner with refugee-serving organizations around the world working with diverse and underserved populations. 

Each year, Canada welcomes among the world’s highest per capita levels of permanent immigrants as an essential source of creativity and vitality. In 2019, Canada issued more than 404,000 work permits to applicants in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the International Mobility Program, many of whom become permanent residents. If refugees could access even 1% of work permits to Canada with a pathway to permanence, that would be over 4,000 people moving each year for work and secure futures.

TalentLift is built on our years of work with organizations implementing the Economic Mobility Pathways Project. We know the potential of this solution for employers and those they hire.

Employers across Canada can find immensely talented new team members while deepening their own missions to advance inclusion and enrich communities. 

Individuals like Anas, Mokhles and Nawar can use their skills to relocate out of refugee circumstances. They can reach their potential and contribute in places where they can plan their futures, where their kids can go to school and thrive. 

More inclusive relocation to Canada is possible, and transformative.  

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