A study of the experiences of integration and settlement of Afghan government-assisted refugees in Halifax, Canada.

Author:Nourpanah, Shiva


This article presents a qualitative study of the experiences of a sample of Afghan refugees who have settled in Canada. Using Anthony Giddens's concepts of structure and agency, the author analyzes interview data to explore how the respondents express their agency within the structural constraints of refugee life. In light of the research findings, it is argued that Afghan refugees form a diverse and heterogeneous population, in stark contrast to the essentialized and homogenous portrayals of silent, suffering victims of circumstance as found in popular media and policy discourse.


Cet article presente une etude qualitative des experiences dun echantillon de refugies afghans qui se sont installs au Canada. En utilisant les concepts de structure et d'agentivite dAnthony Giddens, Vauteur analyse les donnees de Ventrevue afin dexplorer lafacon dont les repondants expriment leur entremise dans les contraintes structurelles de la vie de refugie. A la lumiere des resultats de la recherche, on soutient que les refugies afghans forment une population diverse et heterogene, en contraste avec les representations essentialisees et homogenes d'eux comme muettes et soumises victimes des circonstances que Von trouve dans les medias populaires et le discours politique.


Government-assisted refugees (GARs) are refugees who have been recognized by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to meet the definition of refugee as set out in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and referred to a third country, such as Canada, for resettlement. After further screening by the immigration officials of the third country, these people are issued documentation allowing them to leave their country of asylum and enter the resettlement country as legal residents of that country. Upon arrival in the country of resettlement, they are met by state-funded service providers who provide them with a range of services designed to ease their settlement in their new country. Thus, Afghan GARs arrive in Canada as landed immigrants, they become permanent residents shortly after arrival, and, like any permanent residents who have migrated to Canada through other channels, may apply for and receive Canadian citizenship within the foreseeable future.

Afghan refugees have typically lived in other countries of asylum neighbouring their home country of Afghanistan for several years before their entry to Canada. (1) Iran and Pakistan remain the world's largest hosts to Afghan refugees, neither of which offer stable and secure legal and physical protection systems for the refuge population within their borders. (2) From a socio-cultural standpoint, Afghans share the same religion and language as the citizens of these host societies, and many are able to integrate within the labour market, albeit within the black market, and with no access to labour rights. (3)

The research question and fieldwork for this article arose out of a curiosity to study the settlement experiences of Afghan GARs in Halifax, a mid-sized city on the east coast of Canada, which does not have a sizeable immigration or diverse population such as found in larger Canadian cities. Halifax is the largest urban centre east of Quebec, part of the region known as Atlantic Canada, comprising four provinces with a problematic and thorny history of welcoming newcomers in their midst. (4) This research was undertaken to develop an understanding of the integration and settlement process of Afghan GARs living in this city, and the cultural and social challenges of their new society, intending to generate new knowledge of the effects of resettlement in the lives of refugees. Utilizing the concepts of agency and structure as pertaining to the experience of refuge and subsequent settlement, I ask, from a social and cultural standpoint, how Afghan government-assisted refugees adapt to life in Canada, where the culture, values, and lifestyle of the dominant majority are very different from that of their country of origin and the country of first asylum. This study explores the answers to these questions based on 10 in-depth, qualitative interviews with Afghan GARs in Nova Scotia.

There is extensive scholarly literature critiquing the politically silenced and deliberately muted construct of "refugees," examples of which can be found in the writings of Hannah Arendt, (5) Liisa Malkki, (6) Julie Kristeva, (7) and Peter Nyers. (8) These authors vehemently criticise the popular image of refugees as victims and passive sufferers who lack agency. Do Afghan GARs conform to this image, and to what extent are they active agents, able to make valid and significant choices in shaping their new lives?

The theoretical concepts of structure and agency expounded by Anthony Giddens provided the framework for thinking about these issues and bringing together the political (individual, agentic) and the sociological (structural, societal). (9) Giddens provided the tools for examining the interaction of the individual within the social fabric, and the theoretical grounding for the "encountering" and "routinization" that form the basis for this fabric. The interview questions were developed in an effort to concretize how the encountering and routinization takes place in the lives of Afghan refugees in Halifax. How do they spend their days? Whom do they see? What are their current social and cultural practices, and what are their individual interpretations of the received practices, assumed to be uniform for all "Afghans" and, indeed, for all Muslims? (10)

Literature Review

The settlement of immigrant groups in host countries, especially in a country such as Canada, which has not only been "built" on immigration but where there continues to be an active immigration policy, has aroused scholarly and policy interest. A frequently cited definition of integration, positing it as an objective to be achieved, is:"

Key domains of integration are related to four overall themes: achievement and access across the sectors of employment, housing, education and health; assumptions and practice regarding citizenship and rights; processes of social connection within and between groups within the community; and structural barriers to such connection related to language, culture and the local environment." (11)

Yet the issues surrounding the integration and settlement of refugees remain largely divergent from this mainstream literature on "integration" and its achievement by immigrants. In reviewing literature on refugee integration, the scholarly interest in mental health issues as refugees settle into new societies jumps to the forefront.

Nann provides a detailed argument about how the "culture shock" resulting from resettlement exacerbates the stressful and precarious situation of refugees resettled from various countries to North America, and how forced migration "involves high risks to the mental health of those people [who have experienced it]" (12): "

When migrants resettle into a new environment, they are usually exposed to a different culture, different ways of living and perhaps, to various forms of discrimination and prejudice. Previous research of migration populations has shown that homesickness often persists along with an obdurate clinging to the past, thereby prohibiting successful adaptation to the present. Among people who have been oppressed in their home country, a lingering fear of persecution may continue long after migration." (13)

While Lipson and Mileis concur that "migration is a stressful experience requiring accommodation, adaptation or coping," consequently classifying migrants and refugees amongst vulnerable populations, (14) they take issue with what they consider to be the two dominant paradigms in the literature on refugees and health: the first views refugees as "a poverty-stricken and political class of excess people," and the second objectifies refugees as medical phenomena. The authors present a critical feminist view of refugees, which instead of concentrating on health and illness, views refugees as resilient, stating that "refugees provide a vivid example of the human capacity to survive despite the greatest losses and assaults on human identity and dignity." (15)

Witmer and Culvert (16) also critically review the literature available on refugee mental health, specifically the "trauma" and resilience" of Bosnian Muslim families. They argue that the available research is focused on the "post-traumatic stress disorder, psychopathology, and individual-based assessment and intervention, with few studies addressing concepts of adaptation, functioning or resiliency, and even fewer focusing on the family as a unit." (17)

In a study of the role of leisure pursuits in the adaptation of Afghan immigrants and refugees in Winnipeg, the authors' point of departure is that "globally, Afghan immigrants/ refugees are a marginalised minority group who encounter substantial hardships and stress in the processes of adaptation to a new environment." (18) The hardships and trauma experienced by these refugees explain the complexity of negotiating identity and prejudice (in this case, anti-Afghan prejudice) in the modern era of international wars, interethnic conflict, and mass migration across the globe. (19)

Katrin Eun-Myo Park points out the gendered nature of mental health afflictions: "One of the most pressing issues facing Afghan refugees, especially women, today is their mental health, according to the World health organization (WHO) and advocates for women. Although the issue of survival takes priority, more people are recognizing the importance of the mental health of refugees ... Noting that over 2 million Afghans are estimated to suffer from mental health problems, WHO urged the reestablishment of mental health services to treat them." (20)

Parin Dossa resists these tropes of mental problems in her work on Iranian immigrants. She argues that these...

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