Illegal Means Illegal


Author: Christopher Maule, Professor Emeritus, Carleton University

Illegal migrants (illegals) to Canada are uninvited visitors. We don't know who most of them are, how many there are, and what they bring. We do know that many countries, not just developed ones, have them. Estimates for 2006 put the global stock (number at a point in 2006) of illegal immigrants at 200 million or 3.3% of the world's population with an annual flow of 10 to 15 million persons per year. After the USA, South Africa hosts one of the largest populations of illegals because of political and economic conditions to its north. Mexico is host to about a million, many of whom are American retirees who have settled there without official permission.

In an attempt to penetrate the fog that surrounds the topic and the related guesstimates, let's start with the meaning of terms. Illegal migrants are at times referred to as unauthorized or undocumented persons who have managed to enter a country secretly. Others are those who have presented fraudulent documents or have violated their conditions of entry such as the duration or terms of their visas. The latter include temporary workers, foreign students and tourists. Still others are failed asylum seekers who have exhausted all possible appeals but who have still not left the country.


The number of illegals is difficult to estimate as, for obvious reasons, illegals do not wish to publicise their presence. The difficulty is linked to the absence of reliable data on immigration as a whole. There are two types of statistics to consider, the flow of migrants (legal and otherwise) into a country over the course of a year and the stock of migrants in a country at a point in time. The stock is affected by both inflows and outflows. While some types of inflow are measured, only a few countries, such as Australia, attempt to record the outflow.

With these qualifications in mind, we can examine some numbers. The oft-quoted 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the US refer to the estimated stock figure. The guesstimate for continental Europe is 7 to 8 million illegals. In Canada, estimates vary from about 63,000 to 500,000 depending on the information source. The lowest estimate comes from the Auditor General (AG), who for 2007 reported an inventory of 63,000 persons in Canada who should be deported, 22,000 in Citizenship and Immigration's (CIC's) working inventory and 41,000 of whom the agency has lost track. Some of the latter may have left. However, without exit records, those designated for deportation, but remaining in the country, are unknown. The AG's figures refer to persons who have been identified for deportation and who represent only a part of the total illegals.

The highest figure (500,000) of illegals was reported by a former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Official Canadian sources provide little help. In May 2009, Statistics Canada stated that it does not have data on “undocumented or illegal workers (immigrants)”.

A reasonable conclusion is that no one knows what the stock and annual flow numbers are, nor is it possible to find out unless all entrants are identified on arrival and departure and are closely monitored until they leave.


The EU, like Canada, has two types of borders, the external borders of the Member States and those between these states. Because of NAFTA, the two EU borders are comparable in some ways to the Canadian maritime border and the Canada-US border including that with Alaska. Free movement of persons between EU member states is mandated by the Schengen Convention subject to the Single European Act of 1985. The EU has since developed measures to establish a Common European Asylum Area to deal with asylum seekers with the aim of completing this by 2012.

The Dublin Convention of 1990 and subsequent regulations set out the system for determining which Member State is responsible for deciding on claims for international protection. The regulations are based on the principle that the responsibility for examining a request lies with the Member State that plays the greatest part in the applicant's entry to the EU. A second objective, set out in separate Directives, is to secure common minimum standards for the treatment accorded asylum seekers with the aim of preventing asylum shopping. The standards lay out the level of support to be given applicants regarding subsistence, health care, education, housing and employment.

Since 1999, the EU has adopted nine pieces of legislation on asylum issues. Regulations subsequent to legislation resulted in the establishment of the EURODAC system requiring member states to record the fingerprints of all asylum seekers and other applicants for international protection and to send these to a central database. Fingerprint data must be destroyed after a maximum of ten years for asylum applicants or as soon as a person has become a citizen of a member state.

Member states can also record and send to EURODAC the fingerprints of any alien found on the territory of a member state who has not applied for asylum. From 2005 to 2008, EURODAC received data on 658,000 applicants for asylum and on 49,000 aliens found in the member countries. One problem has been that there is no system to prevent asylum seekers from disappearing once a decision has been made to transfer them to another member state.

These EU procedures deal with persons claiming asylum in order to become a refugee and obtain the necessary protection. However, other persons illegally in one of the member countries escape this administrative net unless they are somehow apprehended. To do that requires a means of finding and detaining such persons. Since many will seek work, often in the underground economy, it is possible to locate a number of them, providing there is a will to do so. For this one has to look at measures countries use to check the identity of those in the work force, especially in certain occupations where illegals are known to find employment. The Netherlands is one country that uses this approach in part through the use of identity cards.


The Netherlands has two types of borders, both subject to EU policies, those with other EU countries and the external maritime border that is particular to the country. Entry for the latter is mainly through the seaport of Rotterdam. Amsterdam Schipol national airport provides another entry point from non-EU countries. Since the 1990s, the government has introduced a much stiffer screening process for both legal and illegal immigrants.

The Dutch approach includes measures to prevent entry, and to screen, detain and remove those who manage to enter the country illegally. The process includes a series of fines levied on businesses which employ illegals so that the local business community becomes an instrument to control the flow. While this may sound Draconian in contrast with Canadian approaches, there remain weaknesses that allow illegals to stay in the country. The Dutch policy is a work in progress as the government has in recent years amended its policies including administrative procedures.


There is no simple solution to controlling the entry and removal of illegal migrants especially in a liberal democracy. The approach has to be to lessen, if not eliminate, the problem. No doubt, authoritarian regimes can take more drastic measures, but there is less likelihood of people fleeing to such regimes in the first place.

Policy can work at two levels, on entry and after entry, because illegals do not disappear. Many become workers, albeit in the underground economy, as well as consumers of goods and services, including public services such as health and education if they can find a way to access these services without being detected and deported.

Thus there are numerous opportunities to monitor contacts that illegals have once they are in Canada, but there also has to be a will to act. If Canadian employers benefit from paying low wages to illegal workers, they are unlikely to cooperate in enforcing Canadian policies, and if politicians see opportunities for votes among communities where illegals tend to concentrate, political pressure for removal will be lessened.

The experience of other jurisdictions such as Australia, the EU and the Netherlands is helpful in addressing these issues. Among the measures that are worth exploring are the use of identity cards and the enforcement of penalties on those who hire illegals. Regarding identity cards, Canadians already have them. They are called passports, health cards, driving licences, bank cards and the many other forms of identification that people carry as well as the numerous ways in which individuals provide information about themselves when shopping, telephoning or surfing the net. Privacy concerns undoubtedly need to be considered in arriving at some sort of benefit-cost assessment of the use of identity cards and fines. Regarding enforcement, the U.S. uses a system entitled e-verify that employs communications technology to verify both the eligibility of a person to work in the US and to authenticate a worker's identity. ( )

In sum, illegals are like persons who take advantage of the benefits of club membership without becoming members, conforming to the rules and taking on the responsibilities. Many countries learn how to monitor and administer such behaviour. Canada has paid and continues to pay a heavy price for its lax refugee claimant policies. To avoid perpetuating the same mistakes, it has to develop firm policies to deal with illegals.