Craig, ensuring integration through community engagement
Written by: Kimberley Ho
Edited by: Olivia Ayes
In 2015, Craig was on the Croatian-Serbian border, watching tens of thousands of people walking in the cold—the sky rainy, the ground muddy. He was doing field research in the Western Balkans, focusing on international politics of Europe’s external migration controls. At the height of the crisis, Craig was in the middle of it, gaining in-depth understanding of forced migration
At the time, European leaders were currying favour by claiming to get tougher on immigration, but back home in Craig’s native Canada, Justin Trudeau won the federal elections by saying the opposite: the country’s private sponsorship model relied on an increase of refugee resettlement numbers. “What I noticed was the stark difference between Europe and Canada, who made this pledge to accept refugees. But, there wasn’t really a plan for their integration,” he shares.
Private and government sponsorships
Whilst Canada is known for successfully integrating privately-sponsored refugees, about half of the refugees who arrived were actually government-assisted. Selected based on criteria of vulnerability rather than family or community ties, the latter have much lower rates of integration.
“If you’re a privately-sponsored refugee, you arrive in Canada to a ready-made group of people who are responsible for your settlement and the first part of your integration. You arrive having at least 5 individuals dedicated to supporting you. If you arrive as a government-sponsored refugee, you go to an intake centre where a settlement agency is responsible for you. It can take a couple months for you to find housing.”
Media reports noted how the settlement sector’s capacity was overburdened: people were stuck in hotels for months at a time without much help. Vulnerable without a support system, these refugees received even less help after having settled in a community. “It’s a massive difference, and it really plays out in the integration outcomes in the two different categories of people.”
Channelling public energy
Craig intervened to address this discrepancy. “The settlement sector was not only overburdened by the increasing numbers of refugees, but also overwhelmed by requests from the public to volunteer and be part of it,” he notes. “There are very high barriers to privately sponsoring somebody. You have to raise money, deal with legal challenges, and accept full responsibility for these people. On top of that, it takes a really long time for it to happen. You can collect all your money together, sign all your documentation, have an apartment ready, and still wait over a year.”
It was the first time that the settlement sector became news and part of people’s common vocabulary. “Before that, it was kind of a specialist issue. But the sector was also criticised because they didn’t have the capacity to train all these volunteers and lacked meaningful systems to channel that energy.”
Establishing a solution
So when he returned to Toronto, Craig pulled together people he knew in the community. “We started the Together Project with the goal to create a venue to channel that will, to give people that opportunity and connect them meaningfully with others. The project emulated the private sponsorship model but with low barriers to entry in terms of legal and financial requirements. It also gave us the room to give volunteers more training and support than private sponsors normally get.”
The idea was simple: help people get housing and settled in their communities. “There’s a lot of people moving into communities, but not a lot of venues for everyday people to meet their neighbours. The project focuses on community events to break down the social isolation that a lot of resettled people face.”
“The project focuses on community events to break down the social isolation that a lot of resettled people face.”
He draws his motivation for bringing people together and increasing engagement from personal experience. “I know a lot of people who have experienced displacement. A lot of my friends who arrived in Canada as refugees when they were young shared a similar story: ‘I wish we had some Canadians to help us out when we first got here. That would have made a lot of difference’.”
It’s not just personal, it’s political, too. At a time when xenophobic, anti-immigrant, right-wing populist sentiments around the world seem to be on the rise, Craig shares how Canada has been resilient to that type of politics. “Even now, we have an election coming up, and the conservative party is trying to create this line about the dangers of asylum seekers—and they’re being laughed at. It’s so silly.”
Because a large percentage of Canadians has direct experience with refugees, as friends, family members, or in their community, Craig finds it’s something you don’t really see in Europe. “The understanding of what integration is in Europe is predominantly what we in Canada would call assimilation. It’s not that we change together over time, but that you become Dutch. You become German. You become part of a fixed-identity category. In such a context it’s just too easy for a xenophobic narrative to work. It’s a type of politics that is dangerous for refugees, society, global governance, and world order in general.”
“In such a context it’s just too easy for a xenophobic narrative to work. It’s a type of politics that is dangerous for refugees, society, global governance, and world order in general.”
Simply bringing people together wasn’t enough. Craig notes how everything we know and say about Canada’s long history of successful refugee integration, and the differences between privately-sponsored and government-assisted refugees, is very anecdotal without much scientific evidence to explain those differences. One thing we do know, however, is that much of the success can be attributed to the established social networks that refugees arrive into.
So together with a team of colleagues at the University of Toronto, Craig developed an algorithm that will now be used to match “Welcome Groups” to newcomers in Justice and Peace’s new pilot project Samen Hier, emphasising a data-driven approach that is much-needed in the European context where governments are faced with a challenge to ensure integration of refugees into their societies.
“We know there are groups of newcomers that are in need of social networks, and that there are groups of people in communities willing to lend a hand,” Craig shares. In the pilot, all members of a Welcome Group will be asked to answer a number of questions about their background and expectations, and the newcomers will do the same. “This programme and the algorithm will give us a venue to translate that into the best match possible.”
During the pilot, integration results like language skills and labour market participation will be measured, along with the refugees’ feelings about Dutch society and their self-sufficiency. “In the true sense of the word, this is a pilot: we’ll learn from it. We (scientists) know a lot about the importance of social networks, but so far we haven’t been able to isolate causal relationships.”
He elaborates further, mentioning how little is known about the effect of specific characteristics such as social networks, or about the different outcomes such as language acquisition, labour market participation, or even health. “In Samen Hier, we’ll collect a broad range of data from participating refugees and follow up with them during the pilot, so that we’ll be able to gather insights for integration results.” In the long term, the algorithm will determine what does and does not work for integration.
Changing the narrative
“The algorithm helps us do two things: it lets us try to make the best possible matches without human bias, and it gives us—and I can get academic about it—a set of independent variables from which we can benchmark success and with which we can understand differences in outcomes. It’s empirical validation of what we do.”
Yet, the algorithm shouldn’t be seen as a driving force. Whilst it does provide an evidence-based approach on changing and fixing the refugee crisis, Craig notes, “Everything starts with community and individuals.” He continues, “To those who are considering taking part in a Welcome Group: you’re not signing up with some Canadian academic’s algorithm. You’re signing up with an established, progressive NGO that can support you.”
Improving the integration of newcomers is not just about volunteering, it’s about engagement: social networks and community engagement are powerful tools. It’s not easy for newcomers to come into contact with locals, yet contact with ordinary people is what they need.
“People really want to learn about others and meet them in person so that they’re not just some faceless other.”
“I think people want a chance. People really want to learn about others and meet them in person so that they’re not just some faceless Other. If you give them the opportunity to do that, create a venue for them, help them be the best volunteers they can be, then people are going to make friends. Over time that story can help change the narrative.”
Learn more about Samen Hier or Craig Damian Smith by following the links.