Road to Congress: Hope for refugees comes through research cluster

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on Susan McGrath, director of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, who heads the Refugee Research Cluster that is examining the plight of refugees in Canada.

As if the life of a refugee wasn’t harsh enough, it became a whole lot worse after 9/11. Those escaping severe persecution and civil wars suddenly had to face suspicion about their motives for leaving their countries. Were they terrorists in disguise?

“I have had students of Middle-Eastern origin who were singled out at airports after 9/11,” says Susan McGrath (right), director of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies. “Security concerns are contributing to the restriction of the movement of people, especially refugees, by countries around the world.

“Canada had 45,000 refugee claimants in 2001 but only 20,000 in 2005. There are over 11 million refugees around the world and another 19 million who are displaced inside their own country, unable to flee,” says McGrath.

There is hope for refugees, however. McGrath heads a major collaborative and interdisciplinary project – the Refugee Research Cluster (RRC), funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) – whose members are examining issues facing refugees applying to enter Canada. All aspects of the refugee experience are under the microscope – from the traumas they face leaving families and belongings and the years many spend in holding camps, to problems they encounter getting settled in a new country (employment problems, gender and racial discrimination, language barriers etc.).

Who is allowed to settle here? Who is refused? What unnecessary and/or unfair sanctions are in place today? And, what changes can be implemented to help refugees? These are some of the other questions coming under the scrutiny of McGrath and her colleagues from Toronto, Montreal, Kingston and Edmonton.

McGrath says the tightening of borders worldwide, new requirements for visas and restrictions on carriers regarding the people they transport are slowing the movement of refugees. She makes it clear that she is referring to refugees who have left their homelands under dire circumstances, not immigrants, who willingly ask to live in Canada.

“Now we have a Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States that came into effect in 2004, which has put up even more barriers to refugees wanting to settle here,” says McGrath. “For instance, Colombians who are making their way to Canada through the US to apply for refugee status will be turned back at the border and told to apply in the US. People don’t realize it, but Canada has a history of rejection of refugees, including Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

“Naturally, there are tensions around security since 9/11,” adds McGrath. “But governments have used these fears as a strategy for controlling immigration flows. They have bowed to pressure from public opinion. We see ourselves as warm, caring and compassionate, but, unfortunately, Canada is caught between our commitment to humanitarianism and our perceived need for security.”

Members of RRC are working closely with the Canada Council of Refugees, an umbrella organization of over 180 refugee agencies, to develop policies to help refugees. The research group is focusing some of its attention on seeing if Canada is complying with an agreement not to deport refugees to countries known for torture.

In addition to its research agenda, the Centre for Refugee Studies is committed to public education, offering diploma and certificate courses in refugee studies, holding conferences on relevant issues and running summer school programs for professionals from around the globe, such as lawyers and non-governmental officials.

“We are providing linkages for people studying refugee issues,” explains McGrath. “We are going to make our research findings available to the public in lay language. We want them to be accessible, so we’re hoping to offer them on listserves and interactive Web sites, as well as in academic journals.”

When RRC discloses, McGrath hopes Canadians will have a clearer picture of what the refugee experiences are like; and hopes the government will develop new policies to increase the number of refugees accepted and better ways to help them integrate into society.

The SSHRC-funded project has been funded for two years, and McGrath is hoping to receive further financial aid so RRC can continue its work beyond 2006.

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.