Global Migration, Activists-in-Exile, and Canada

Global Migration, Activists-in-Exile, and Canada

Alongside the global existential challenge of Climate Change and the Coronavirus pandemic, which have come to dominate news headlines worldwide, there are the old but growing challenges of involuntary migration.  


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with 26.4 million “refugees” (i.e. crossing an international border) and 48 million internally displaced persons (i.e. also often fleeing persecution but having failed to escape their country).  The decline of democracies – labelled by Freedom House as “retreat” in 2019 and “under siege” in 2021 – implies a corresponding increase in authoritarian regimes that generate precisely the persecution and failures of governance that push millions more to flee.  

Canada has enjoyed an uncommon experience in comparison to many other States. Surrounded by three oceans, a vast Arctic, and a sister country to the South, Canada does not contend with millions of refugees arriving on foot (although recently thousands have crossed northward). As other countries mainly in the global South have taken in millions, Canada filtered through, in cooperation with UNHCR, an annual average from 2000 to 2020 of only 30,400 refugees (in fact far fewer without the one-time resettlement of Syrians).

The systematic resettlement of refugees is institutionalized in Canada as part of the overall annual immigration-led economic development, spurring population growth and meeting various market and professional needs.  In the same 2000-20 period, Canada’s annual immigration averaged 257,000.Overwhelmingly, immigrants from all categories naturalise to become Canadian citizens. They bring and share their knowledge and expertise, buy goods and invest, with the same energy and enthusiasm that brought them (irrespective of cause), and the more recently appreciated values of rich diversity and diasporic relations.  


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Asylum is amongst the oldest of norms common to many religions, but in the 20th century the prerogative of granting asylum was recast as a right supported by the League of Nations and later expressed as a “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” stipulated in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this context – before the advent of technologies that reached across frontiers – physical refuge, once achieved, was widely considered synonymous with safety and security. 

Technology has changed this. On the one hand, we see the positive: cultural and familial ties may be happily more easily maintained, beneficial economic relations are enhanced, and fleeing activists remain engaged in their countries of origin. For many, seeking and achieving asylum or refuge is no longer a matter of being “done.” Instead, activism continues for human rights defenders, environmental or social justice campaigners, journalists, academics, peacebuilders and many others.  

On the other hand, this development has not been lost on authoritarians.  In its February 2021 report “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach”, Freedom House has reported on the phenomenon of “transnational repression” whereby abusive regimes extend their tentacles extraterritorially and continue their pursuit and persecution of activists who were once thought safe in places like Canada and elsewhere; family members, associates, property, and much else are targeted and affected. Thus, the complex interdependent world in which we live has become considerably more so.

Yet, at national and international levels, refugee policy and practice appear barely to have grasped (much less adequately responded to) the new realities.  Only this past July did Canada become one of the first countries to offer a dedicated pathway for resettlement of human rights defenders, with as-yet unclarified pathways for others. However, not only are the numbers negligible (including their family members, a total of 250 people a year), but once the human rights defenders arrive, they are treated as all other refugees. This ignores the reality that many are or will become “activists-in-exile,” determined to maintain and actively pursue their relations with their countries of origin. In fact, some even return – occasionally to positions of high office or responsibility.

For many, seeking and achieving asylum or refuge is no longer a matter of being “done.” Instead, activism continues for human rights defenders, environmental or social justice campaigners, journalists, academics, peacebuilders and many others.  

While formally recognized “refugees” or asylum-seekers by definition have fled or escaped persecution whether by virtue of their inherent nature or their belonging or because of their free associations and activities – of who they are or what they do – many others (students, academics, entrepreneurs, etc.) may not be formally recognized but remain actively engaged. Activists-in-exile are thus among the world’s 281 million migrants reported in 2020, and not only drawn from the world’s 82.4 million forcibly displaced. Some were or may become (as a result of their experience or changes in circumstance) active in defence of themselves and their communities or the pursuit of issues of legitimate concern – helping once safe (relatively) in Canada; at one point, four Somali-Canadians even became cabinet Ministers in a transitional government in Mogadishu

It has long been acknowledged that diasporas – especially well-connected and motivated ones – constitute valuable persons and relations.  Indeed, these are often remarkable individuals of demonstrated courage and knowledge.  But Canadian policy and programmes have not viewed them as such or drawn upon them, let alone extended means of support for possibly valuable activity informing and improving Canadian public policy.

Canada’s modest resettlements (although larger than any other State) may be expected to continue and likely grow. Irrespective developments in the world, we can certainly change how we treat the individuals and groups we choose to admit to Canada. We should no longer ignore the growing phenomenon of activists-in-exile in Canada. Instead, we should value them as new Canadians, as a resource and an asset – for our mutual benefit and for a better world.  


Main image: Rohingya Protest on Parliament Hill (CC: Flickr: Mike Gifford)


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