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In Our World ...Forced Migration


Refugees and asylum seekers are not immigrants; they did not voluntarily leave their countries to pursue a better life, or greater opportunity. They are fleeing war, genocide, and/or are politically hounded and hunted. The Geneva Convention defines a refugee as one “who, by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside their country of nationality and is unable or, by reason of that fear, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.”2 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children.

Of the many countries that swore to honour the Convention and accept refugees into their borders, some have added or expanded the grounds for being considered a refugee (such as fear of torture, or cruel and unusual treatment, in the case of Canada, which has also recognized homosexuality as a “particular social group”). But no countries uphold this international law unequivocally: everywhere asylum seekers go, they are faced with protectionist and “security” policies that often see them illegally returned to danger, to places that are simply impossible to survive in.

Environmental migration is gaining increasing currency as grounds to consider migration “forced.” Whether a nation state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from environmental disaster such as starvation through drought, tsunami, or earthquake (consider Burma in 2008), or is the cause of that disaster itself (think of the Three Gorges Dam in China), these situations should be recognized as displacing people.

In any event, the violence and danger that force people to move are beyond their control. What could be so grave, so frightening, as to make you leave everything you know—your community, your language, your possessions, your home? No one chooses this, nor such risky routes and methods of travel as are usually necessary. And upon arrival in a potential host country, most refugees are met with suspicion and interrogation, are derided as freeloaders and queue-jumpers—and often turned away.

When permission to remain is granted, it is often conditional or temporary, leaving newcomers in a continued climate of extreme insecurity. Some are detained for appalling periods at Immigration Holding Centres due to missing or inappropriate documentation. Others wait on applications that they hope will stay their deportation. Still others who have been recognized as refugees at their hearing, and are, in principle, protected persons, are nevertheless waiting on Permanent Residence status (for which there is a hefty fee), work permits, social insurance numbers, or travel documents. The most heartrending insecurities belong to those doing battle with family reunification mechanisms, trying to sponsor loved ones to join them, missing (and worrying about) their children for whom they have been asked to submit DNA evidence.

For a long stretch, many newcomers live in limbo. Their adjustment is a very stressful time, fraught with tensions over resources: making sure children settle in school, coping with endless bureaucracy and paperwork (usually not in one’s first language), finding palatable food—all the while dealing with different stages and degrees of culture shock.

This is exactly the time when educators encounter newcomers, especially in, but not limited to, language instruction classes. It is here, in the aftermath of violence and among all this stress and pressure that folks are going to do their learning. Understanding more about the contexts of forced migration, and the issues impacting survivors, may help guide us as we engage in learning with newcomers.


Canadian Centre for Justice Studies.(2005). Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile

Starr, M. (2004). Forward in A. Grant, Finding My Talk. Calgary: Fifth House Books.


2. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland.

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Refugee Stories
Listen to refugees’ stories in their own words

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Sweater, by Heather Lash

Whipped stock still
By the whiteness of my skin
Beholding her half-story about Africa
Every day fighting
Every day no food
Every day no sweater

Oh please
spare me your impression
the death to my ears when you tell me
what you have made of her
(And she can't tell you properly
what she has made of you
And you don't think to ask anyhow,
finding it too far beside the point)
Oh please
don't you tell her what she is

Walk up a mountain
Down again on the other side
Emerge from those shadows
With only 2 of your 6 children
…and be sure to emerge with no food
                                                      and no sweater

Heather Lash

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Print Information

These resources explore the different dimensions of the many violences associated with forced migration – the reasons for it, the experience of it.

Breaking the Silence and Circles of Support: Assisting Survivors of Psychological Trauma by Yaya de Andrade

The Learning of an Embattled Body by Bethany Osborne
This paper has been extensively re-written but was originally written for the course: Women, War and Learning, taught by Shahrzad Mojab, OISE/UT, Fall 2006.

Listening Ethically to the Stories Refugees Tell in Learning Spaces
by Heather Lash

The Politics of Torture: Dispelling the Myths and Understanding the Survivors by Joan Simalchik

Responding to the Needs of Women Who Survive Torture: From Silent Torment to Speaking Out by Sabina Acosta

Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner. ERIC Digest.
by Janet Isserlis.

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