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Posted: April 19, 2001

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Perspective

 
Muslim immigrants to Canada facing discrimination and social problems

by Tahir Mahmood

The migratory patterns of birds and animals in search of food (and therefore survival) are well known. Human beings, too, throughout history have traveled in search of work. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European colonialists embarked upon military expeditions for similar reasons: in their case, however, it was not only for mere survival but for exploitation to improve their own lot at the expense of others.

In the ‘post-independence’ world, there have been other migratory patterns, especially of labor, to different lands. North America, Europe, Australia and South Africa are destinations to which there have been large influxes of people. In some cases (North America and Australia) it still continues. The oil-producing parts of the Middle East have also attracted large numbers of migratory workers, many of them from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.  People from these countries provide cheap labor to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, many of them  working on construction sites, as domestic servants or as waiters and cleaners in hotels.

These people have had few, if any, rights. Many are not permitted to bring their families with them, and nor can they apply for citizenship of countries in which they may spend their wh"649adult lives. Professionals are slightly better positioned, being permitted to bring their families, and able to afford housing and other essentials.  Even their children, however, are denied citizenship of the countries in which they are born and raised. Those working in menial jobs saved money to send to families dependent on their remittances. Recently, Saudi Arabia has proposed a tax for expatriate workers, but not locals.

The families that these migrant laborers leave behind also suffer social problems in their countries. Children growing up without paternal authority often develop anti-social attitudes. Moral corruption has also seeped in, for example in  rural areas of Pakistan, where reports are common of unscrupulous petty officials exploiting and molesting women. This unfortunately is still going on, but now another phenomenon is also occurring.

With the end of the oil-boom, thanks to the skewed policies pursued by Saudi Arabia at the behest of the US, expatriate workers in the Middle East are finding themselves in a quandary. Since the US-led Gulf war of 1991, which cost the Arab governmentsry O620 billion in the first year alone (according to the Arab Monetary Fund report of September 1993), oil-producing countries have been tightening the screws on their expatriate workers. Some have found a novel way to squeeze them. The Saudis, for instance, slashed the salary of workers from 1,000 riyals to a mere 300 or 500 riyals per month. If the workers did not like it, they could go home. Saudi Arabia has also imported thousands of Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans in recent years to replace Pakistanis and Indians who had worked there for decades. Naturally, this has created resentment among Indian and Pakistani expatriates against the Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans. 

At the other end of the scale, the professionals are also beginning to find the going tough. As their children grow up, there is pressure to find proper educational institutions. Although the oil-producing countries were awash with petro-dollars, they paid little attention to education. The few universities established there cannot cater to the needs of even the locals; the expatriates naturally have to wait. This has led to many expatriate professionals seeking opportunities elsewhere. Canada has become a favorite destination for many from the Middle East.

In the last decade, thousands of engineers, accountants and computer-programmers, as well as businessmen who worked in the Middle East, have settled in Canada. Each environment, however, has its own peculiar problems. Canada’s great attraction is that schooling and medical services are free. Immigrants are also eligible to apply for citizenship after three years’ stay in Canada.

But there is a downside to the Canadian experience as well. There is still considerable discrimination in Canada against newcomers. Many employers demand “Canadian experience” from job applicants, a not-very-subtle way of telling newcomers, especially colored ones that they are not wanted. Few white people, on the other hand, face this problem. White doctors from South Africa are immediately given jobs; non-white doctors have had to go through endless bureaucratic procedures. Even after passing all the required exams, they are denied residency in order to qualify to get a license to practice.

Engineers and computer-programmers face similar problems. Many of those who acquired immigration to Canada were careful not to resign their jobs in the Middle East. Thus, after spending a few frustrating months in Canada looking for a job, they have left their families and themselves returned to continue to work in the Middle East. Over the years, a pattern has emerged. People have a tendency to congregate with those they are familiar with. Some of these “Middle Eastern” families settled in apartment buildings in Mississauga, a western suburb of Toronto. Others followed suit. Now there is an entire locality in Mississauga where buildings are literally full of wives and children but no husbands or fathers. The locality has been appropriately dubbed “Begumpura”! (City of Wives).

Again, the absence of husbands and fathers is leading to social problems. Many children are becoming unruly and developing anti-social habits. Unfortunately, the environment in many Canadian schools is not conducive to proper upbringing, and in the absence of any community institutions there is no place these families can turn to for help.

Unfortunately, parents who have been traversing the world in search of a better future for their children are beginning to discover that they are losing them just when they thought they had found the promised land. And there is no place to return to from Canada because they find themselves misfits in Pakistan, where life is undoubtedly much harsher unless one happens to be both well-connected and extremely rich.

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