Three researchers’ perspectives on Syrian refugees

A hand holds up a suitcase being carried from below with a long road ahead.

Three researchers’ perspectives on Syrian refugees

As Canada prepares to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees over the coming months, there will be adjustments and opportunities for rich relationships. Three CFI-funded researchers weigh in on what we might expect.
December 22, 2015

Calling small-town Canada home

Rural communities often have a hard time keeping newcomers from relocating to larger cities. Western University’s Michael Haan has suggestions for how to make them stay.

When the previous government axed the mandatory long-form census in 2010, it eliminated an important source of information to help explain why immigrants make the location choices they do.

“Some of the groups least likely to respond to the voluntary survey are newcomers, poor people and those who move a lot,” says Western University immigration researcher Michael Haan. “These are the people I’m most interested in.”

So Haan found an even richer vein of data: mandatory tax records. When an immigrant comes to Canada, they must provide information about their intended occupation, level of education, family and age. Statistics Canada links this to tax records, which detail place of residence and annual income.

“This is a relatively new way to study immigration and not a lot of people are doing it. The data are cumbersome, access is challenging, and you have to go to Stats Can in Ottawa,” says Haan.

Using these linked files, he has been able to determine that roughly half of immigrants move to Canada’s biggest cities, regardless of where they initially land. Refugee class immigrants are among the most likely to relocate, he found.

“Refugees are placed — they don’t choose where they go,” says Haan. “So they are highly mobile afterward and they often do pick up and move.”

However, smaller communities hoping to hang on to newcomers for economic and demographic reasons can increase their odds. While Haan has yet to crunch the numbers to prove it, his educated guess is that better language training, better integration of immigrant children into schools, and help finding jobs can make a big difference. In addition, rural communities should favour immigrants from rural areas, who are less likely to migrate to cities, he says.

Haan points to New Brunswick, where the government wants to settle 1,500 Syrian refugees, as an example of where research was used to increase retention. Boosting settlement services and targeting immigrants who are more likely to stay has increased its retention rate from 40 percent in the early 2000s to 67 percent today. 

Learning from each other

In studying the experience of Bahá'í refugees after the 1979 Iranian revolution, St. Thomas University’s Deborah van den Hoonaard found that community support was instrumental in the settling-in process — and that learning from each other is a two-way street

Canada was the first country to accept Bahá'í refugees after the 1979 Iranian revolution. About 200 were sent to the Atlantic region, and just over half moved on to big cities.

Deborah van den Hoonaard, a sociologist at St. Thomas University and a Canadian Bahá'í, set out to discover what motivated those who stayed. “Atlantic Canada is very homogenous,” she says. “It's not like Toronto where everybody looks different. These were Iranians and they looked different.”

van den Hoonaard uses qualitative research methods to explore challenges faced by marginal groups, including immigrants of non-European descent. The strategy encourages members of these groups to tell their own story in their own way, yielding rich insights that can inform similar situations.

van den Hoonaard discovered that Canadian Bahá'ís helped shape the new arrivals’ experience in a way that made many want to stay. The entire local Bahá'í community — sometimes that amounted to just 10 people — would meet the Iranians as they got off the train. They also arranged housing, food, clothes and access to health care and education. One woman taught everyone to drive.

But the learning process went both ways, she found. van den Hoonaard spoke with an Iranian woman who heard that neighbhours suspected her of hiding bombs in her basement. So she gave a neighbhour a complete tour of her home.

“She was very creative and wasn’t angry about it,” recalls van den Hoonaard. “That’s the kind of willingness to reach out that we were hoping to discover.”

van den Hoonaard says she's encouraged by the welcome Atlantic Canadians are already preparing for the Syrian refugees. Some are banding together to knit warm clothes to help refugees weather their first Canadian winter. Families have signed up to be matched with Syrian families so they can regularly socialize with them.

As with the Iranians, van den Hoonaard expects it will be a two-way street. “The Syrian refugees will come with full lives, skills and very human qualities. They have something to offer too.”

Keeping up with Canadians

Over the decades, it has become harder for new immigrants to match the earnings of Canadian-born workers. Western University’s Roderic Beaujot offers part of the explanation.

Once upon a time, immigrants to Canada had average incomes that — after a period of settling in — compared favourably to Canadian-born workers. But starting with those who arrived in the late 1970s, that catch-up in average income largely disappeared, says Western University demographer Roderic Beaujot. His work with Canadian census data suggests some explanations for this change, and may help policy-makers better understand how Syrian refugees might fare.

The initial post-war waves of immigrants came to this country at a time when Canada's education system was not as developed as it is now. These immigrants were often from Europe and were on average better educated than those born in Canada. They eventually secured well-paying jobs and helped to build a stronger human resource base.

“They also arrived after a hiatus in immigration during the two world wars and in the 1930s. This meant they weren’t competing with other immigrants who arrived before them,” says Beaujot.

And as he points out, there is debate among demographers about how much immigrants’ place of origin factors into their ability to move up economically. As immigrants from Europe were replaced by those from Asia, Latin America and Africa, discrimination against visible minorities might also have had an impact on their difficulties in improving their wages.

It’s still possible for some of today’s immigrants, including refugees from Syria, to catch up to Canadian-born workers, says Beaujot, but it is a lot harder. However, he insists economics should not be the main focus when discussing the arrival of refugees and other immigrants.

“The case for immigration should be made in socio-cultural terms: immigration helps build a diverse, multi-cultural society that is in contact with the rest of the world,” he says. “By welcoming refugees, Canada is also playing a humanitarian role in the world community. These are all valuable considerations in welcoming Syrian refugees.”