York professor to develop a Canadian Refugee Research Network

As issues concerning refugees continue to worsen around the world and in Canada, the need for academics, policymakers and practitioners to share information, ideas and research toward solving the problems is increasingly necessary. That’s exactly what York Professor Susan McGrath is doing with a $2.1-million Strategic Knowledge Clusters grant she was awarded this year from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for her project, the Canadian Refugee Research Network: Globalizing Knowledge.

"The purpose of the project is to mobilize and sustain a Canadian and international network of researchers and research centres committed to the study of refugee and forced-migration issues, and to finding solutions to the plight of refugees," says McGrath, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) at York.

Left: Susan McGrath

The problems facing refugees are not diminishing, they’re growing. Under the UN convention, people facing persecution in their own country can seek protection in another country and be recognized as refugees. However, several countries are actively trying to prevent refugees from crossing their borders. So people fleeing persecution, become displaced inside their own country. People in Darfur, who have been driven from their villages, for instance, can’t cross the border into Chad, yet conditions in Sudan for internally displaced people are intolerable. There is a lack of food, resources, shelter and work, along with heightened tension between various factions.

There are about 26 million internally displaced people and some 9.9 million refugees worldwide. Over six million refugees are in protracted refugee situations, where they have been displaced for over five years – and that’s not including Palestinian refugees. In 2006, only 71,700 refugees were resettled in other countries with the majority going to Canada (10,700), Australia (13,400) and the US (41,300). That still leaves millions of people displaced in their own countries with no means of getting out and refugees with nowhere to go. In 2007, 28,000 people arrived in Canada and claimed refugee status, however, the Immigration and Refugee Board accepted less than 6,000 claimants.

Some of the refugees taken in by Canada settle in the Jane and Finch area. Local schools are finding that kids who’ve been raised in refugee camps have developed certain behaviours that would have served them well in the camps, but not so well in a school situation. That’s one of the difficulties that would lend itself to the network as a place to identify some of these resettlement issues and to figure out how to best help these families adjust to their new life.

"Some of these kids have been raised in a camp in a jungle along the Thai/Burma border, so coming to Toronto is a major transition for them but the parents are enthusiastic and are really working hard to become settled," says McGrath (MES ’90), president-elect of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM). "I guess that’s part of the excitement for us as researchers: having people who have been living in camps or raised in camps so close. It allows us to tap into their real life experiences and problems of resettlement."

Left: Refugees participate in a focus group exercise at El Seref Camp in Nyala, Darfur. Photo by Samer Abdelnour

The Canadian Refugee Research Network (CRRN), builds on a strong core of York academics recognized in the field of refugee research, including: Professor Wenona Giles of the School of Social Sciences in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, associate director of CRS and senior co-investigator of the CRRN; Professor Michael Barutciski of Glendon’s International Studies Department; political science Professor Nergis Canefe of the Faculty of Arts and resident faculty at CRS; and political science Professor Gerald Kernerman of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies and associate director of CRS. Michele Millard, CRS coordinator, will manage the project.

The CRRN plans to establish a Canadian refugee policy network and an international network of refugee research centres, as well as support the development of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, which will facilitate communications across academic disciplines and across academic, practice and policy sectors. The CRRN will also partner with the Canadian Council for Refugees, a non-governmental organization of over 180 agencies serving refugees, and a new international NGO Network on Refugee Rights.

McGrath hopes the network will foster collaboration on developing solutions to the current problems, expand the awareness of global knowledge concerning refugee issues and forced migration, improve communication, build alliances and allow for better policymaking. Key research and policy issues include: resettlement, the refugee-determination system in Canada, human rights, internally displaced people, protracted refugee situations, as well as environmental and development-induced displacement.

"It’s going to take linkages and thinking globally to try and address these issues. We need to create a network or global forum and, hopefully, it will improve our research and make it more relevant and effective, as well as accessible to policymakers and practitioners," says McGrath.

Above: Vendors next to the water station at Dar Es Salaam Camp in El Fashir, Darfur. Photo by Samer Abdelnour

Already, the CRRN has partners on every continent: 17 partner institutions, researchers from 10 international universities, and 22 researchers from 12 Canadian universities. "We’ve been building this idea or concept of a network in Canada and internationally for awhile. The idea of the network is to create collaborations, not only with academics, but also policymakers and practitioners, to form multiple clusters," says McGrath.

The network will give policymakers access to researchers studying issues related to forced migration and refugees and NGO practitioners working in refugee camps. It will also allow researchers working on refugee and displacement issues in Burma to contact researchers working on refugee and displacement issues in Darfur so they can share knowledge and ideas on what has worked and what hasn’t, and to spark further research projects. It will also bring academics, policymakers and practitioners closer to ongoing research in the area. There could be access, not only to published studies, but unpublished reports. "It’s a way to mobilize knowledge and make it accessible," says McGrath.

Above: Refugees at the water station at Dar Es Salaam Camp in El Fashir, Darfur. Photo by Samer Abdelnour

The CRRN will act as a database with profiles of researchers, along with information about their areas of interest and their research projects, facilitating the development of a virtual research community. "So, if someone wants to look at what’s been done in the area of refugees displaced because of civil confict or resource development, they can find out who is doing work on that. It is something that is done informally to some extent now, but with the network, it can be formalized and more effective."

For more information about the CRRN, contact Susan McGrath at smcgrath@yorku.ca or ext. 66662.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.