Social Networks Are Key to Refugee Integration

Canada has a positive record of refugee acceptance and a relatively comprehensive integration strategy. Research has shown, however, that refugees still struggle to integrate in a number of areas. Long term data shows that refugees contribute a great deal to the Canadian economy, achieve high educational levels, and integrate relatively well. Despite strong willingness to start over and succeed in Canada, the process of integration can be long and arduous with many structural and social barriers.

From early employment rates to income levels, studies looking at economic outcomes, housing, and even mental health, have shown that refugees fare worse than other immigrants and their Canadian-born counterparts. For example, a study of 342 Ethiopian refugees in Toronto found that they had higher rates of depression than other Canadian groups. They also reported significantly higher rates than their counterparts from Southern Ethiopia, their place of origin.

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada’s labour surveys show that the refugee employment rate is consistently lower than for other immigrant groups and Canadian-born citizens. Perhaps most surprisingly, a long-term study by Hou and Bonikowska showed that despite higher educational attainment of refugee children, their average income levels in adulthood tend to be considerably lower than other groups of Canadians.

Importance of Social Networks

These indicators show that integration of refugees is a complicated process that continues long after initial resettlement and can be a real struggle for some. While it is often reported that language and proof of qualifications are major hurdles for newcomers, it is difficult to isolate single causes of barriers to integration that affect both short and long-term success. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that social networks account for a part of the difference of long-term outcomes between refugees and other groups.

The ability of refugees to integrate themselves into social life, to meet people outside their immediate families and small groups has been found to be highly important as an enabling factor for other functions such as employment, income levels, stable and affordable housing, and more. For example, stronger social networks have a positive impact on the speed of language acquisition, which has been repeatedly identified as a barrier to employment and refugee satisfaction with life upon arrival.

Academic studies conducted by Lamba, and Lamba and Krahn have looked at the employment experiences of Canadian refugees and found that they have difficulty adapting and marketing their skills to Canadian labour markets. They concluded that their limited social networks are a major contributor on the issue. Other studies have also found that social captial, a term used to denote the functional utility that social networks provide, is strongly correlated with successful integration.

Privately Sponsored and Government Assisted Refugees

One way to further identify the importance of social networks in integration is by analyzing the differences between Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) and Government Assisted Refugees (GARs). The former group is granted asylum and supported in the settlement process by private Canadian citizens and community groups. The latter are supported by a federal government system that ensures housing and a basic income for the first 12 months upon arrival.

Both groups have access to free language classes, free health care, and other settlement assistance. Yet PSRs tend to integrate better than GARs. They typically find work much faster as well. A full 50% of PSRs find employment within their first year of arrival, compared to only 17% of GARs. What’s more, they achieve faster language acquisition and report higher levels of satisfaction with life upon arrival. Part of this success can reasonably be attributed to the stronger social supports afforded to PSRs.

Employment rates tend to even out for both refugee groups after ten years. But the finding that PSRs are able to integrate easier and faster is significant nonetheless. It means they struggle less, feel more empowered and happy, have higher identification with being Canadian, and are less likely to take on provincial social assistance once their sponsorship ends (typically after the first 12 months).

What Can Be Done

So what can we do to make sure we are helping all refugees integrate in Canadian life?

A few ways are to continue to support PSRs and to lobby government to expand the number of allowed private sponsorships per year. Currently the government has a capped system for PSRs. Compared to our international counterparts, Canada’s privately sponsored refugees program is unique and accounts for a large number of refugees resettled. The system should be expanded as it continues to show success.

Secondly, citizens can support community organizations such as the Canadian Council for Refugees, MOSAIC, Refugee 613, and many more, that aim to help immigrants and refugees. They are vital in the integration process, especially for GARs, where meeting people outside their immediate and ethnic circles is very difficult. Whereas PSRs have immediate and direct help from, and access to, Canadian citizens, GARs tend to struggle given the institutional nature of their settlement assistance. Community groups, whether religious, ethnic, government-sponsored, or non-affiliated, can all be highly valuable in helping newcomers establish wider social networks. These can help them acquire necessary language skills faster, enter the labour market, find housing, and feel like a part of Canadian society.

For refugees, life after arrival does not always guarantee success or equal opportunities. Even in Canada, where they receive assistance, free education and healthcare, refugees face barriers most Canadians do not. Supporting policy that improves access to greater and more diverse social networks is one way in which their opportunities can be broadened and their process of integration improved.

Further reading:

The Economic Integration of Refugees in Canada: A Mixed Record? By Lori Wilkinson and Joseph Garcea

Best Practices In Supporting the Integration of Immigrant Families Through Small Ethno-cultural Organizations, The Social Planning Council of Ottawa

From newcomer to Canadian: Making refugee integration work, By Jennifer Hyndman and Michaela Hynie

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