The following analysis appears in the Special Issue on Refugees & Migrants in Volume 4 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Coffie, A. (2018). Tapping into resettlement for rebuilding: Lessons from peacebuilding engagement activities of resettled Liberian refugees in Canada. African Conflict & Peacebuilding Review, 8(2), 38-62.
Keywords: refugees, refugee resettlement, peacebuilding, Liberia, Canada, remittances
The role of refugees in supporting peacebuilding efforts in their country
of origin is an emerging theme in refugee studies. There is evidence of refugees in neighboring countries or refugees who have returned to their country of origin participating in peacebuilding efforts. But very few studies have looked at similar efforts on the part of resettled refugees. Particularly, how does the experience of resettlement shape refugee engagement with peacebuilding efforts in their country of origin? This research shows that refugees can play a role in supporting peacebuilding, even when they reside in countries distant from their country of origin. They do so through remittances, social capital,1 and political engagement in their host country.
Refugee Resettlement: As defined by the UN Refugee Agency, “the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement.” Resettlement is rare. For example, only 50,500 refugees were resettled in 2018. UNHCR. Resettlement. Retrieved July 11, 2019, from https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/resettlement.html
This research provides a qualitative and exploratory case study based on the experience of Liberian refugees in Canada. The author conducted thirty- five interviews with Liberian refugees who had lived in Canada for five or more years. Additionally, the author interviewed officials in the Canadian government and non-governmental organizations involved in refugee resettlement. Individuals and/or families selected for refugee resettlement receive permanent status in the countries that receive them. They are provided resources and training to help integrate into their new communities, like language classes and access to welfare services. Refugee resettlement is often framed as a burden-sharing tool between neighboring countries that receive an influx of refugees during a violent conflict and (largely) wealthier countries that are willing to offer a path toward permanent residency. The policy discourse on refugee resettlement has “evolved from a protection tool and durable solution for refugees towards an acknowledgement of the benefits accruing to the host state and the international community.” Host countries benefit from gaining both international status as a “humanitarian state” and a means to regulated refugee immigration.
This article suggests that the discourse on the benefits of refugee resettlement should include the support it provides for peacebuilding efforts in conflict-affected countries, particularly those from which refugee communities originate. Peacebuilding initiatives can include top-down activities (those that are implemented by the state or international organizations) or bottom-up activities (those that focus on wide participation in activities at the local community level). These activities can include the provision of basic services, economic revitalization, and support for a new political process. The author argues that refugee resettlement presents an opportunity for both top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding activities. For instance, the host country plays a role in supporting peacebuilding activities by offering safe haven for refugees, providing essential social services, and educating refugee communities about good governance,2 which, should a refugee voluntarily support such efforts, can be applied to the refugee’s country of origin.
From interviews with Liberian refugees in Canada, the author finds support for linking refugee resettlement to peacebuilding activities in Liberia. Refugees faced many challenges integrating into their new communities, which included job security, housing, access to quality education, and safety. Yet, despite these challenges, Liberian refugees reported that they were supporting peacebuilding activities in Liberia. This was primarily expressed through remittances, or the sending of money and goods back to Liberia. Financial resources make up the majority of these remittances and are used for everything from the basic survival of family and friends to the establishment of small-to-medium-sized businesses in Liberia. These constitute a form of economic revitalization for peacebuilding.
A few of those interviewed were involved in the transfer of social capital, which includes knowledge-sharing about democracy or good governance. Because of the low skill capacity of many resettled refugees and residency requirements for Canadian citizenship, refugees avoid traveling to Liberia prior to attaining Canadian citizenship. However, some interviewees discussed wanting to focus their attention on learning more about the Canadian system of government so that one day they could return to Liberia and apply those lessons.
Finally, while Liberian refugees generally assumed that peacebuilding was an activity undertaken by political elites and international NGOs, they also discussed their role in lobbying the Canadian government to extend resettlement opportunities and contribute to peacebuilding activities. This effort was coordinated by community organizations included in this research project, like the Liberian Community Association in Ottawa-Gatineau Region. The leaders of this group report seizing on the political moment of the Ebola crisis in 2014-2016, particularly Canada’s increased involvement in Liberia, to translate into “continuous support for Liberia’s health care and social needs.” They report developing a relationship with the Canadian government, which included an invitation by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to discuss the travel ban and support for Liberians impacted by crises.
Refugee resettlement can contribute to top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding activities.
Liberian refugees in Canada reported being involved in peacebuilding in Liberia primarily through remittances, but smaller numbers reported involvement through the transfer of social capital and engagement in the Canadian political process.
Liberian refugees organized into community associations that advocated for Canada’s increased involvement in Liberia, seizing on the increased attention toLiberia during the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis.
Refugees are often perceived as passive and devoid of choice, victims of warfare rather than potential agents for change. Some scholars have pushed back on this perception, arguing that refugees make an active and nonviolent choice: “Given the choice between staying and fighting, staying and dying, or fleeing and surviving, today’s refugees fled — meaning that, by definition, they actively and purposefully chose a non-violent option in the context of mass violence raging all around them.”3 Despite their choices to flee and survive, refugees are often undervalued resources whose deeply personal knowledge of and experience with violence in their country of origin do not receive they attention they deserve in national or international conversations on peacebuilding. For example, this article mentions a capacity development program in Liberia initiated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The stated purpose of this program is to help with the social and economic administration of post-conflict countries like Liberia by tapping into diaspora communities (the dispersed people from any country of origin). However, interview respondents in this article said this program focuses on elite Liberians living abroad. As one respondent said, “Why will those big organizations and guyswant to employ a former refugee or think of a refugee as having the skill capacity? They [the UN and government of Liberia] seem to believe that we lack resources and expertise because we spent so many years in refugee camps.”
This article helps to demonstrate that many refugee populations do have transferable skills that can directly impact peacebuilding efforts in their country of origin. They present an untapped resource and are potentially powerful advocates for nonviolence. Identifying pathways for their integration into the policy discourse on peacebuilding in the country of origin (in this case, Liberia) provides an exciting option to both tap into refugees’ power and help create a culture of nonviolence in the communities from which they originate.
Chenoweth, E. & Young, H. (2016, January 26). Seeing flight as a non-violent option: One way to change the discourse about the world’s 60 million refugees. Political Violence @ a Glance. Retrieved on July 9, 2019, from http://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2016/01/26/seeing-flight-as-a-non-violent-option-one-way-to-change-the-discourse-about-the-worlds-60-million-refugees/
Moorthy, S. & Wright, T. M. (2017, February 10). Refugees, host country politics, and human suffering. Political Violence @ Glance. Retrieved July 9, 2019, from http://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2017/02/10/will-moore/
Seyle, C. & Coolidge, K. (2017, February 24). Fact sheet: Refugees and U.S. national security. OEF Research. Retrieved July 10, 2019, from https://oefresearch.org/publications/fact-sheet-refugees-and-us-national-security
UNHCR. (2019, February). Refugee resettlement facts. UNHCR. Retrieved July 17, 2019, from https://www.unhcr.org/resettlement-in-the-united-states.html
Canadian Council for Refugees: https://ccrweb.ca/en/information-refugees
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): https://www.unhcr.org
Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO): https://irco.org
Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas: http://ulaalib.org
1. Defined by the author as “ideas about democracy, citizen’s rights, and responsibilities and skills.”
2. Good governance is a subjective term that is used to describe key values, like rule of law, transparency, or responsiveness, that characterize public institutions that work well.
3. Chenoweth, E. & Young, H. (2016, January 26). Seeing flight as a non-violent option: One way to change the discourse about the world’s 60 million refugees. Political Violence @ a Glance. Retrieved on July 9, 2019, from http://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2016/01/26/seeing-flight-as-a-non-violent-option-one-way-to-change-the-discourse-about-the-worlds-60-million-refugees/