The search for safe haven

Michael Lanphier's research into refugees in Canada is grounded in the life stories of real people

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:39:49 PM

When Michael Lanphier watched terrified Vietnamese refugees clinging to rickety boats as they escaped oppression 25 years ago, it didn't take long for the York University professor to spring into action.

The Vietnamese "Boat People" crisis brought Lanphier together with other concerned friends who acted quickly to help people so desperate that they preferred to risk going to sea in open boats and running a gauntlet of offshore pirates rather than remain at home under a punitive Communist regime.

"We thought we had to do something, so we began sponsoring refugees," he says. "The images of the people were heartwrenching and the conditions on the boats were simply horrifying."

The boat people crisis was the first test of Canada's newly passed Immigration Act (1976) that allowed ordinary Canadians to sponsor refugees and opened the country to a greater number of people seeking a better life. Whereas the 1976 change opened the country's shores to people previously refused by restrictive immigration laws, Lanphier insists more refugees and immigrants must be encouraged to choose Canada.

"Today, as a huge number of Canadians slowly creep toward retirement, immigration becomes more critical to the country's growth and long-term economic viability," he adds. "Census data released in March shows that population growth in Canada has reached an all-time low of four per cent, which means that Canada must increase immigration levels if it hopes to offset its declining birth rate."

While Lanphier was always interested in topics relating to migration and immigrants, the firsthand experience he had bringing refugee families to Canada intensified his concern. Since his first sponsorship experience, he has spent his academic career studying a wide-range of topics around the immigration and settlement of refugees in Canada.

In 2002, Lanphier received a $560,000 SSHRC grant for a three-year study of the factors influencing political refugee and migrant integration into Canadian society. The project will examine a dozen different ethnic groups from four continents to help policy-makers understand the changing dynamics of immigration in the Digital Age. It is Lanphier's fifth SSHRC research grant.

Previously, he has received SSHRC grants to study refugee children's integration into the Canadian school system, diaspora, and various issues surrounding settlement in Canada.

"Unfortunately, there is always somewhere in the world where people suffer horrible fates at the hands of others: 25 years ago it was Vietnam, today it's Sierra Leone, and tomorrow it could be any number of other hot spots," he says. "Anyone who says that we should curtail the number of people coming into Canada needs to re-evaluate their position, especially if they consider the consequences of not countering the effects of our aging population."

Michael Lanphier has been associated with York's Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) since its inception as a Documentation Centre in 1982. Deputy director of CRS since late 1999, Lanphier has also served as acting director, director of the resettlement unit and editor of the Centre's periodical, Refuge.