Exploring the migrant experience during COVID-19

How research can help shape more equitable migration and integration policies

Asylum-seekers from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan prepare to leave Tripoli, Libya, after the UNHCR resumed evacuation flights to Rwanda in November 2020 following COVID-19 restrictions.

Photo: © UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders and stranded migrants, presenting countries around the world with a host of unforeseen challenges related to international migration. This makes it more important than ever to understand how migration happens—and how migrants integrate into their new communities—so more equitable policies can be developed that benefit destination and origin countries alike.

Anna Triandafyllidou is the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University. As a migrant herself—born in Greece and having lived in several European countries before coming to Canada—she brings unique perspective to what have traditionally been two separate fields.

“Migration and integration are not often considered together in academic research or policy development,” says Triandafyllidou. “But they’re actually very tightly interconnected, so I jumped at this opportunity to look at them as one.”

COVID-19 border closures have had a deep impact on migration and mobility, which Triandafyllidou experienced firsthand when the international researchers she recruited to join the CERC team were unable to travel to Canada. But she also found that the pandemic has opened up some important avenues of research.

Moving quickly to share international perspectives on a global issue

Triandafyllidou’s team saw the need to connect their research to urgent, real-world problems and emerging policy. Traditional academic publication timelines are often years long, so to share their insights sooner, the team launched the Pandemic Borders blog with contributions from researchers and academics in Canada and around the world.

The blog has looked at the challenges facing refugees and international students, the importance of migrant workers to many essential sectors, the support migrant workers need from governments and corporations, and other topics.

“Some of what we’ve seen has been really positive,” says Triandafyllidou. “There’s been a lot of international solidarity, with countries doing their best to provide things like health care to everyone, whether or not their citizenship status technically qualifies them for it.”

The blog has received more than 65,000 unique visitors since May 2020—and has recently turned its attention to what the future of migration might look like throughout the rest of the pandemic and beyond.

Examining the issues from multiple perspectives

The blog is just one of the projects Triandafyllidou oversees in her role as CERC. With funding from SSHRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Ryerson University, her team has a seven-year mandate to look into a wide range of topics related to migration and integration.

One project involves mentoring international graduate students from across Canada in the creation of short videos exploring who they are and who they want to be. Another looks at how immigrants use social media for information and connection—often before arriving in Canada—and how settlement services could tap into these social networks to provide better support.

Evolving policy

Triandafyllidou sees her work as a way to advocate for real change by providing policy-makers with the data and insights they need to make more innovative and inclusive decisions. One idea that has emerged is the concept of temporary digital permits to allow highly skilled workers to work “in Canada” remotely until travel resumes. The idea has been gaining traction and was promoted by the Business Council of Canada as a way to help the stalled economy.

While Canada is recognized globally for its efforts to support newcomers, Triandafyllidou calls governing diversity a living challenge: “It’s like a relationship—you need to keep working at it so it stays strong. One way to do that is by ensuring policy keeps up with current realities.”

Read more about Triandafyllidou’s work on the Ryerson University CERC website, check out her most recent book, Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe: Evolving Conceptual and Policy Changes, and follow @CERCMigration and @triandafyllidou on Twitter.