There has been an undeniable global shift in attitudes towards globalization and immigration witnessed over the past year. The shift has resulted in historic events like the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in June, the handling of the Syrian refugee crises in Europe and Canada, and the rhetoric surrounding the presidential election in the United States.
How people move around the world, how politics controls borders and the public perception of refugees and asylum seekers has never been a more urgent and relevant topic for Canadians and policy makers.
Alison Mountz, professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and Canada Research Chair in Global Migration, is a leading researcher on the topic of refuge and asylum in Canada. Her current research takes a unique perspective on asylum, exploring the stories of American refugees in Canada – a topic that has garnered much publicity during the U.S. presidential election, if a little tongue-in-cheek.
“There was an ongoing joke in the media about Americans moving to Canada if someone they didn’t like was elected as president. But in reality, there is a history of Americans seeking a safe haven in Canada during the Vietnam War and more recently, during the war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Mountz.
This history challenges conventional thinking about refugee status and also sheds light on how the relations between countries can politicize the refugee process.
“If Canada grants refugee status to an American, Canada is basically saying that America is unsafe,” said Mountz. “The refugee process doesn’t just look at the individual case as it technically should, it is also about politics. This can make it very difficult for people who feel persecuted or vulnerable in the U.S., particularly in the military, to find a safe haven in Canada.”
Mountz’s research will document the oral histories of American civilians and soldiers from the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq who were both successful and unsuccessful at gaining status in Canada.
The two cohorts are quite different in size and context, but provide an interesting backdrop to the changing dynamics of asylum and immigration over the past 50 years.
Vietnam draft dodgers were a large group, estimated at around 100,000 people, and faced conscription in the war. Dodgers also escaped to Canada during the first Trudeau government, which made a commitment that Canada was a safe haven from militarism.
Asylum seekers from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq were much smaller in size – estimated in the low hundreds – and were fleeing to Canada during the conservative Harper government. They were also faced with the challenge of having “chosen” to be in the military; however, Mountz notes that “choice” is complicated.
“When we say these asylum seekers chose to be in the military, we have to look at if they had other options,” said Mountz. “For many, joining the military is as much an economic necessity as a choice to protect their country. People also came to Canada for different reasons. Some felt they faced persecution in the military for being part of a particular social group, such as the LGBT community.”
Most of the more recent asylum seekers were denied status and returned home to face imprisonment for desertion or have had to lead a life of economic precariousness.
“Canada represents itself as a country that is a safe haven from persecution,” said Mountz. “But recently, there has been a decline in spaces for refugee claimants and a more complex process to gain status – we’re seeing all kinds of contradictions in Canada’s immigration and refugee policies.”
Mountz’s research will add these sometimes forgotten histories of Canadians and asylum seekers to the dialogue around immigration to Canada – an issue that is important to Canadians.
"We’re entering a whole new era of migration, and I suspect we’re going to see changes at the border between Canada and the U.S,” said Mountz. “This research will contribute to a broader understanding of Canada-U.S. relations, which is of the utmost urgency as we move forward.”