Aspirations for higher education among newcomer refugee youth in Toronto: expectations, challenges, and strategies.

Author:Shakya, Yogendra B.


A large percentage of refugees have low levels of education and official language fluency upon arrival in Canada. This paper discusses educational goals of newcomer refugee youth from three communities in Toronto (Afghan, Karen, and Sudanese), and explores how these are linked to pre-migration and post-migration determinants. Guided by community-based research principles, we collaborated with eight refugee youth peer researchers and conducted ten focus groups and thirteen interviews with refugee youth. Results show that newcomer refugee youth develop strong aspirations for higher education in Canada as a proactive response to overcome pre-migration experiences of forced migration and educational disruptions. We then discuss how these youth negotiate educational goals in post-migration context in relation to shifts in family responsibilities and everyday encounter with multiple systemic barriers in Canada. In doing this, we examine the thin line between vulnerability and empowerment that refugee youth straddle and reveal policy gaps and contradictions in the depoliticized humanitarianism within refugee resettlement in Canada.


Un grand pourcentage de refugies a un faible niveau d'education et une faible connaissance des langues officielles a leur arrivee au Canada. Cet article presente les buts educationnels des nouveaux jeunes refugies de trois communautes de Toronto (afghane, karen et soudanaise) et examine en quoi ceux:ci sont lies a des determinants pre et postmigration. Suivant des principes de recherche communautaire, nous avons travaille de concert avec huit jeunes chercheurs de ces communautes, avons tenu dix groupes de discussion et realise treize entrevues avec des refugies. Les resultats montrent que les nouveaux jeunes refugies aspirent fortement a une education superieure au Canada en tant que reponse proactive aux experiences premigration d'un deplacement force et aux interruptions dans leur education. Nous examinons ensuite les facons dont les jeunes concilient leurs buts educationnels dans un contexte postmigration par rapport aux changements dans les responsabilites familiales et aux obstacles systemiques au Canada qui font partie de leur quotidien. Ce faisant, nous etudions la mince ligne entre la vulnerabilite et l'autonomisation que chevauchent ces jeunes et mettons au jour les manques dans les politiques et les contradictions dans l'humanitarisme depolitise de la reinstallation des refugies au Canada.


With the enactment of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) in 2002, Canada made firm commitments to sponsor refugees primarily on humanitarian grounds and removed restrictions on "admissibility" criteria based on medical, economic, educational, and language proficiency that are usually applied to economic immigrants. (1) Data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) indicate that a large and growing percentage of refugees upon arrival in Canada have less than high school level education and no English or French language ability. Arrival data from 2000 to 2009 indicate that on average, refugees fifteen years and older are four times more likely than economic immigrants (32.3 per cent vs. 8.43 per cent) to have had nine years or less of schooling. (2) Since 2005, the percent of refugees fifteen years and older with nine years or less of schooling has been steadily increasing from 27.7 per cent in 2005 to 38.3 per cent in 2009. Similarly, the percent of refugees with no English or French language ability upon arrival in Canada increased from 32.6 per cent in 2005 to 44.4 per cent in 2009. In comparison, only 21.1 per cent of economic immigrants in 2009 had no English or French language ability upon arrival in Canada. (3)

Yet literature on educational experiences of refugees is sparse. In Canada, evidence on educational pathways for refugees is particularly thin because the education sector does not collect or consider data about pre-migration experiences or arrival immigration status. Instead, sector level data on educational experiences tend to lump refugees into a single category of "foreign-born" or "immigrants." (4) There is a pressing research and policy need in Canada to better understand and overcome post-migration educational gaps and challenges that refugees face. Based on a community-based research project with refugee youth from three communities in Toronto, this article discusses the educational aspirations of newcomer refugee youth in Canada and examines how these aspirations for higher education are shaped/negatively influenced by pre-migration and post-migration factors. We situate our analysis within critical discussions about the intersection between ethical and political dimensions in humanitarian refugee policies.

Current Knowledge on Refugees and Education

Access to primary education is widely recognized as a universal right by most nations as mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. (5) In many nations, this right to education encompasses post-primary levels as well. However, this fundamental right to education is often not extended to refugees. Successive reports by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies over the last two decades indicate that refugees and displaced people often experience multiple barriers and disruptions in education. (6) A recent report by UNESCO on armed conflict and education reported that over twenty-eight million children of primary school age are out of school in conflict-affected countries, accounting for almost 42 per cent of the population of children worldwide. In refugee camps in 2008, almost 69 per cent of children aged six to eleven years were attending primary school, while only 30 per cent of children aged twelve to seventeen years were attending secondary school. (7) School closures and drop-out rates tend to be very high in conflict-affected areas. Only 65 per cent of children in conflict-affected low-income countries completed the last grade of school, compared to 86 per cent of children in low-income countries not affected by conflict. (8) In Afghanistan, school-aged children lost on average 5.5 years of schooling during times of conflict from 1978 to 2001. (9) There is little mention in these reports about tertiary education, which suggests that tertiary education for refugees remains a very low global priority. (10) In 2003, UNHCR reported that tertiary and vocational level programs accounted for only 3 per cent of all UNHCR supported education programs. (11)

Graca Machel's landmark report The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children released in 1996 underscored that access to quality education is "essential," and not secondary, to promoting welfare and peace during armed conflict and forced migration contexts. Since this report, a number of international initiatives have been mobilized in this direction. (12) For example, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies was established in 2000 to ensure that nations meet minimum standards of education in emergency and conflict situations. Between 2006 and 2008, humanitarian funding for education doubled from $122 million to $235 million. (13) Some progress has been made in a number of conflict-affected countries to rebuild schools and get children back to school. For example, the Go-to-School Initiative in Sudan has succeeded in bringing 1.6 millions children back to school. However, education continues to receive less than 4 per cent of total humanitarian funding in war-torn nations and is often the first area to be rolled back during budget cuts. (14)

There is now a wealth of literature on the experiences and impacts of forced migration and protracted refugee situations. Studies have documented that refugee youth and their families have often witnessed various types of violence, (15) witnessed the death of family members, (16) and might have lived in refugee camps with deplorable living conditions and minimal services and rights. (17) Members of refugee families may have experienced a fracturing of social order, which may be reflected in a collapse of ordered relationships within families. (18) In some cases, military forces may have actively promoted intergenerational mistrust and conflict as part of their assault on refugee communities. (19) Many studies have examined the relationship between pre-migration trauma and mental health among refugee families. Some of the psychosocial consequences reported in refugee children and youth include sleep disturbance; (20) aggression, regressive behavior, bed-wetting, and nail-biting; (21) violent self-harm; (22) sadness, introversion, and tiredness; (23) suicidal ideation and attempted suicide; (24) and post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders. (25)

However, evidence on the relationship between forced migration and educational experiences of refugees is thin, particularly in the context of resettlement nations in the Global North. Most of the studies are from the UK and Australia. The existing literature reveals the following relationships: (1) pre-migration educational disruptions and traumatic experiences faced by refugees can have serious and prolonged impacts on their educational experiences in the post-migration context; (26) (2) policy and programmatic support in resettlement countries geared at enabling refugees to overcome pre-migration educational disruptions has largely been missing or ineffective; (27) (3) other post-migration determinants such as poverty, linguistic barriers, prolonged or retraumatizing refugee status determination processes (for refugee claimants), and discrimination have important implications on educational access and outcomes for refugees; (28) and (5) in turn, educational experiences in post-migration contexts have critical impacts on the resettlement process and overall well-being for refugee immigrants. (29)

This study adds to this small but growing body of evidence. Findings from our...

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