Ahmed Hussen during an interview in Dubai. A Somali who migrated to Canada in 1993, Hussen rose from the ranks through education and community work to become a minister. Image Credit: A.K Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: Four months into his new cabinet post, Ahmad Hussen, Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, knows first-hand the long arduous journey refugees fleeing conflict-torn countries face on the road to an uncertain life in a new country.

As a young Somalian teenager aged 16, Hussen fled deepening troubles in his homeland and on February 27, 1993 landed in Canada to start life anew.

Little could he fathom that 24 years later, he would rise through the ranks of his newly adopted country to eventually become one of the leading national voices in Canada for immigrants and his own Somali community in Toronto, one of the largest in the Western world.

Living in Toronto and armed with a comprehensive command of the English language, a young Hussen wasted no time building a future for himself and family, working at a petrol station to save enough money to pursue an undergraduate history degree from York University and then graduate from Ottawa University law school.

Heavily involved in community building, the newly minted lawyer was named head of the Canadian Somali Congress, worked for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and eventually was elected Member of Parliament for York South-Weston, one of the most ethnically diverse ridings in Toronto.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News during his fist visit to the United Arab Emirates, Hussen said refugees are welcomed into Canada because the country understands that immigration helps, not hinders, society.

Asked why, amid rising nationalism around the world Canada embraces immigration as a net benefit, Hussen said immigration is a fundamental underpinning of Canadian society to counter an ageing population, low birth rate and lack of skilled workers.

“One, we’ve done it [immigration] for a very long time,” Hussen said. “Second, is because we have a process ... that comes after consultations with different groups — with academics, with business groups, with ordinary Canadians. The federal government which is responsible for immigration consults with the provinces and [asks] ‘how much do you need, what is the right mix? How many would be refugees?” Hussen said.

“The government plays a leading role but because it’s planned, managed and it’s orderly, it’s well thought out, the public tends to support that because they know the numbers that we land are based on input from them and it’s based on analysis that is based on the best interests of Canada.”

To continue the long-standing tradition of welcoming immigrants, Hussen said his ministry is streamlining its visa-application procedures for international business investors, skilled workers and students.

On a formal mission to the UAE to increase its destination profile abroad, Hussen met with high-level UAE government and education officials in Abu Dhabi and was front and centre at a low-key, meet-and-greet gathering alongside Masud Husain, Ambassador of Canada to the UAE, on Thursday evening in Dubai.

“The UAE is a very important country for Canada and I am here to reinforce that message,” Hussen said. “In that capacity, I am here to encourage more tourism from the UAE, more international students from the UAE and more business travellers from this country.”

Ahead of Canada’s roll-out of its Global Skills Strategy on June 12, Hussen said the country wants to “enable more temporary workers to come and do quick turnaround work as a vice-president of a corporation or as a consultant, or if you are an academic and you are coming to do research for up to 120 days of the year, we will exempt you from a work permit. It’s no red tape. You won’t apply for a work permit.”

Freeing up traditional temporary visa restrictions may encourage top minds in the UAE to come to Canada to work with researchers and boost innovation, he said.

On the academic front, Hussen said the Canadian federal government’s Express Entry programme launched in 2015 to streamline immigration is focusing heavily on welcoming international students such as from the UAE to Canada.

In December, further changes gave international students more points on their student visa applications to study in Canada, he said.

”Now, of the pool of successful applicants, 56 per cent of them are former students where in the past, it used to be a third,” he said, adding that 80,000 global students are expected to apply this year under the programme.

Hussen said 2016 Canada statistics reveal that 367,000 international students studying in Canada generated $11.53 billion for the economy.

“It injects more money into our economy than softwood lumber, and financial services and an equal part to auto parts. But equally important, is the value for Canada. When these people study in Canada and go back to their countries including the UAE, they become great ambassadors for Canada,” Hussen said.

Many graduates who study and gain new skills in Canada return or stay to find work in a national economy that is experiencing serious shortages of skilled workers, Hussen said.

“We have a skills shortage. In some sectors of our economy, there is a strong, consistent demand for skills and those skills can’t be filled by Canadians at the moment. Some are but not enough. There is always a gap. It’s not a small gap. It can’t be ignored,” Hussen said.

In the southwestern Ontario region of Kitchener and Waterloo, Hussen said one five-year projection estimates there will be a shortage of 216,000 skilled workers in that part of the province and the shortage will hinder business expansion.

Some businesses told Hussen that they may be forced to shutter their operations without an infusion of skilled workers.

Hussen said that fortunately, as Canadians celebrate their 150th anniversary of modern nationhood, the country understands that immigration is of a net benefit.

“We have always used immigration for economic growth. It’s a great tool.”