Canada’s historic response to the Syrian refugee crisis

Sharing lessons learned from one of the largest refugee resettlements in Canada

Photo: REUTERS/Mark Blinch

In 2015, the Government of Canada made a massive commitment to accept and resettle 25,000 refugees fleeing the devastating war in Syria within an extraordinarily short timeframe. The effort was unprecedented in scale and required the coordinated actions of communities, local agencies and governments—and the lessons learned will influence the way Canada and other countries around the world approach future resettlements.

Some of those lessons have been collected in A National Project: Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada edited by researchers Leah Hamilton (Mount Royal University), Luisa Veronis (University of Ottawa) and Margaret Walton-Roberts (Wilfrid Laurier University) and published in August 2020. The book features findings from 12 of the 27 research projects funded through the Syrian Refugee Arrival, Resettlement and Integration Initiative—a partnership between SSHRC and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada—that examined the experiences of Syrian refugees and the communities that helped settle them in their new country.

Exploring individual and community experiences

One of the projects profiled in the book is a study Hamilton conducted with colleagues on the immediate information needs of Syrian refugees when they first arrived in Canada.

“Before they come to Canada, refugees usually have access to pre-arrival programs describing life in Canada so they know what to expect in terms of weather, schools, health care, employment and other important topics,” said Hamilton. “Because of the rapid timelines, many Syrian refugees didn’t get that orientation. So we wanted to find out what they needed to know, when they needed to know it and how they preferred to receive that information.”

Also featured is the work of Walton-Roberts, Veronis and their team on settlement systems in Canada, looking specifically at the role played by local immigration partnerships (LIPs): community-based organizations that support local settlement agencies.

“This was a unique event, so we saw it as a natural experiment,” said Walton-Roberts. “The LIPs weren’t designed to deal with large cohorts like this one. We wanted to know how communities would respond to requests made of them to support rapid resettlement, how they would use and adapt existing resources, and what effect that would have.”

Sharing lessons learned

These are just a few of the projects featured in A National Project, which was conceived of after the outcomes of the SSHRC-funded projects were presented at the National Metropolis Conference in Montréal in 2017.

“There was a lot of buzz around these projects,” recalled Veronis. “We realized pulling some of these rich findings together would make a great capstone to all this work.”

The publication includes sections on the refugee experience, the community actors that contributed and how the resettlement experience played out across different regions of Canada, touching on health care, education, parenting and other areas with a direct impact on refugees’ lives. It highlights practices that worked, such as home visits and the use of social media to support refugees’ immediate needs on arrival—for example, the generous services and supports given to Syrian refugees were not extended to other refugees who arrived at the same time.

“This book tells the bigger story of what motivated Canadians to pour all this goodwill into supporting Syrian refugees,” said Veronis. “Because Canada is going to continue to support refugee resettlement, we hope this book can inform our future efforts—and offer insight to other countries as they develop their own resettlement policies and practices.”

Read more about Hamilton, Veronis and Walton-Roberts’ research at The Conversation and in A National Project: Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Follow the three researchers on Twitter at @Hamilton_Leah, @LuisaVeronis and @mwaltonroberts.