"Waiting for a wife": transnational marriages and the social dimensions of refugee "integration".

Author:Brunner, Lisa Ruth


This paper addresses the gap in research on the social dimensions of refugee resettlement. This is accomplished by examining refugee belonging and definitions of "integration" through a case study of Acehnese refugees resettled in Vancouver, British Columbia, between 2004 and 2006. We analyze findings based on a survey and in-depth interviews conducted five years after resettlement. Our findings suggest that recently resettled groups like the Acehnese, who are "new and few," face specific integration challenges. Importantly, the lengthy timelines to enact sponsorship of a spouse and/ or family reunification from Aceh unwittingly inhibit the social integration of the sponsors waiting in Canada.


Cet article traite de lacunes en matiere de recherche sur les dimensions sociales de la reinstallation des refugies en examinant Vappartenance de refugies et les definitions de > a travers une etude de cas de refugies acehnais reinstalles a Vancouver en Colombie-Britannique, entre 2004 et 2006. Nous analysons les resultats sur la base dun sondage et d'entrevues en profondeur menes cinq ans apres la reinstallation. Nos resultats suggerent que des groupes recemment reinstalles comme les habitants d'Aceh, qui sont>, sont confrontes a des difficultes d'integration particulieres. Notamment, les longs delais pour etablir leparrainage dun conjoint et/ou le regroupement des families a Aceh empechent sans le vouloir Vintegration sociale des parrains qui attendent au Canada.


This article probes and enhances understandings of the social dimensions of refugee "integration" by focusing on the settlement of a small group of predominantly young, male, government-assisted refugees (GARs) originally from Aceh, Indonesia, in Vancouver, Canada. Their experiences of forced migration, extended detention in Malaysia, and Canada's resettlement and family reunification policies dramatically shaped the circumstances of their settlement. In this article, we explore a tension between the Canadian state's "integration" goals and personal aspirations to start families through marriages with Acehnese women living abroad, or "transnational marriages," so labelled in their organization across international borders. (2) We use original qualitative research to demonstrate that working towards this goal, saving money to realize it, and waiting for such relationships to materialize can impede "integration." Although Canadian immigration and refugee policy officially aspires to facilitate refugee integration, it may also unintentionally stall this process.

In what follows, we begin by providing context that explains how Acehnese refugees came to be resettled in Canada from Malaysia. We then explore meanings of refugee integration, also important to understanding discussion of Acehnese refugee resettlement experiences in Canada. The subsequent section engages ideas about social bonds and belonging as qualitative measures of integration. We then delve more deeply into the empirical material driving this article, addressing the gendering of daily life and related economic decisions made by our participants. Finally, we offer concluding thoughts and policy implications.

Context: Single Male Acehnese and the Road to Integration

Of the estimated 10.5 million refugees in the world, (3) the Canadian government resettles up to 8,000 individuals annually through its government-assisted refugee (GAR) program. (4) Following the passage of the 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), Canada selects these individuals on the basis of their needs for protection, as determined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Between 1999 and 2005, over 300,000 Acehnese were displaced within Indonesia and beyond its borders, to escape danger in the province. (5) Flight was particularly widespread following the May 2003 Indonesian military offensive in Aceh Province, the largest since its 1975 invasion of East Timor. (6) Thousands of Acehnese--young men, in particular--fled to Malaysia because of its similar language and culture. (7) In 2003, the UNHCR office in Malaysia estimated that between 8,000 and 9,000 Acehnese "of concern" were living undocumented in Malaysia. (8) After eligible Acehnese refugees had languished for several years in Malaysian detention centres, Canada and other major resettlement countries agreed to resettle eligible Acehnese refugees from the detention centres. The Canadian government processed the files of a group of 154 Acehnese individuals--predominantly single men but also some families, including women and children who accompanied the principal applicant. All were resettled in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, between 2004 and 2006. (9) Canada had no history of resettling refugees from Indonesia, let alone from Aceh Province; as such, the refugees were considered "new and few." (10) When the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) rebels and the Indonesian government in August 2005 brought relative peace to Aceh, it marked an abrupt end to Acehnese refugee resettlement to Canada.

Ideally, the Canadian government, researchers, and/or service providers would trace settlement experiences of refugees over time by conducting longitudinal, transnational research. However, such data are expensive and challenging to collect, particularly amongst "new and few" groups for whom so little baseline data exist. Not only is information in Canada disaggregated to an Acehnese level non-existent, it is also difficult to conduct research in Aceh as a result of the nature of the conflict and limits on foreign researchers. In an effort to fill the gap in knowledge on "new and few" refugee resettlement, research with the resettled Acehnese was conducted in 2005 (one year after most arrived) and again in 2009 to ascertain settlement outcomes.

Initial research conducted in 2005 found a significant gender imbalance that skewed towards single, young men in their late 20s and early 30s. (11) The refugees from Aceh sponsored for resettlement in Canada were in detention in Malaysia. At that time, of 70 people surveyed, 66 respondents were male; the average age of respondents was 29, and only 18 of the 66 men were married. (12) This article is based on subsequent research in the same urban area conducted in 2009, with approximately 73 adult men and 25 adult women living in Metro Vancouver, many of them the same respondents as in 2005. Our aim was primarily to gauge settlement success, but also to follow up on and analyze the implications of the gender imbalance.

For this study, the lead author of this paper conducted 75 surveys (with 51 men and 24 women), and from among the 75 surveyed, conducted 50 subsequent in-depth semi-structured interviews (with 28 men and 22 women). We intentionally sought out a comparable number of female participants, despite the lower actual percentage of women in the community. The two-stage methodological approach, starting with short surveys, allowed us to ascertain interest among participants for a second-stage semi-structured interview with an interpreter present. In a 2010 paper, authors from the research team outlined detailed methods and overall settlement outcomes in housing, official language acquisition, employment, and participation in Canadian society among both men and women. (13)

Among the 51 men surveyed in 2009, the average age was 35 years, and 16 of these had a spouse in Canada. Of these 16, only 1 had married in Canada after his arrival, to a non-Acehnese Indonesian woman who had immigrated previously to Canada through the Live-in Caregiver Program. The rest were married before coming to Canada and sponsored their wives' immigration. Eight more men married Acehnese women, and 1 was engaged since arriving in Canada. All of these men remained separated geographically from their partners, who were still waiting to come to Canada in 2011. At the time of the survey, none had yet been successful in bringing an Acehnese spouse to Canada. (14) Two men were married when they arrived in Canada but became widowers when their wives died in the December 2004 Indian Ocean Basin tsunami. The remaining (24) men were never married. (15)

Among the men surveyed, 33 had arrived in Canada unattached, having fled Aceh to Malaysia as young unmarried men. They told us that they had few opportunities to get engaged or marry, especially once the Malaysian authorities detained them. The men spent an average of four years in detention before their resettlement in Canada, with the minimum time in Malaysia being 1 year and the maximum 12 years.

Although we did not set out to study marriage aspirations, the desire to marry among single men emerged in nearly every interview and became a central research finding pertaining to integration processes. A clearly hetero-normative perspective of marriage as a common life goal was shared among our respondents. (16) Although research on Acehnese culture remains limited and difficult to find, (17) marriage is described as "essentially universal," (18) with "considerable early marriage" in Indonesia. (19) Five years after their arrival, the initial excitement of life in Canada had been replaced with a sense of waiting and angst among most single male respondents. The resettled refugees' concerns about isolation from wives and potential wives were clearly expressed but difficult to act upon.

In this article, we focus on the social "integration" of the single men from Aceh in relation to their married peers and to Acehnese women. We define and discuss "integration" in some depth below, but use scare quotes around the term to mark its meaning as a state-directed policy goal of refugee resettlement. This is not to negate its importance, but to qualify its antecedents and authors. To us, integration is a proxy for refugee belonging in Canada and participation in all facets of Canadian society. For the...

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