At a time when Canada has seen a shift in immigration policy, particularly when it comes to resettling Syrian refugees, a study reveals that myths and imaginaries created around migrants can influence a country’s immigration policies.
Based on a discussions held among researchers and practitioners during a one-day symposium organized at the University of Ottawa in May 2014, the policy brief defines myths and imaginaries as “symbolic collective representations of individuals’ aspirations, hopes and dreams.”
This can refer to the perceptions and imaginaries of migrants themselves and of policymakers who are concerned with their movements.
The report recommends policymakers examine the diversity of myths created around migrants and adopt a rational approach to deal with the reproduction of these imaginaries rather than take them at face value.
The creation of myths and imaginaries
Luisa Veronis, one of the three authors of the research paper, explains to New Canadian Media that the policy brief applies to the individuals suffering from the processes of “globalization” and who are considered economic immigrants, as their livelihoods in their countries are very limited.
She believes that with technology, we’re much more aware of the conditions and quality of life in other parts of the world. Because of this, we might have preconceived notions of what immigrants and refugees are like, just as they might have preconceptions of Canada and its people.
Veronis says, “What is important to look at are imaginaries — how are they produced [and how they] circulate and influence migrants’ entire journey, from movement decisions to their settlement process. Either they want to travel illegally or wait, as we are seeing in Mediterranean right now.”
We might have preconceived notions of what immigrants and refugees are like, just as they might have preconceptions of Canada.
However, in case of the Syrian refugees, experts believe that “myth” has not significantly influenced their initial movement, as it is necessity-driven.
As the report suggests that, more research is required to document the vast diversity of myths that exist.
“We want to go a little bit broader and show how cultural production and collective values, understanding and notions shape decisions,” she explains.
Perceptions of immigrants influence policy
John Shields, a political science professor from Ryerson University, says that the creation of these myths is not a one-way street.
“The Conservatives’ imaginary about Muslim immigrants from Syria had a particular kind of political imaginary, and some of it is manufactured or propagated for political reasons,” he explains.
Unlike Conservatives, Shields says that Liberals see immigration in broader terms; accepting them is an act of nation-building and they see them as new citizens who can contribute to Canadian nation as a whole.
“Some of it is manufactured or propagated for political reasons.”
Veronis sees the initial welcoming of Syrian refugees as an easy move, but is curious about what the Liberals will do to the changes the previous government made to the country’s immigration policy.
“I think the most difficult [thing] to do is to address the immigration policy, which basically will tell us [whether] they also believe the immigration is mainly [an] economic driving force,” she says.
Refugee and immigrant perceptions of Canada
While comparing migrant imaginaries of US and Europe with those of Canada, Shields says that the perceptions are positive overall.
“What defines Canada as a distinct society, the most common answer is diversity and multicultural instead of hockey players or maple syrup,” he says.
However, Shields thinks that by focusing on the economic benefits of immigrants in their policies, Conservatives might have created an inaccurate perception of the country as a place of economic opportunities.
Criticizing the “point system”, Shields says that it conveys the message to immigrants that they will be offered an automatic job, which is not helping the system.
“I think policy makers need to be aware of what [ideas] immigrants have in terms of coming here,” he says. “We obviously need a lot of shifts in the policies and [to] modify the point system.”
[Shields says] Conservatives might have created an inaccurate perception of the country.
When comparing refugees with skilled immigrants, Shields explains that refugees have a tougher set of challenges to overcome which are far from imaginary. Still, they are driven by certain aspirations.
“They come with some kind of dreams and hopes that help to sustain them along inhumane times of transition,” he says.
Ratna Omidvar, head of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange and an adjunct professor, adds that Canada opens the door of safety and security for them, but they still have to work to get an education, find work and integrate themselves in Canadian society.
“[The refugees] come with little knowledge. What [they] are not prepared for is to open doors of integration and inclusion. People are not prepared for that at all,” she says.
Commenting on the report, Omidvar says that it’s important to deconstruct truth from fiction in order to create policies that are both realistic and to some idealistic.
She saw this blend of reality and idealism following the 2015 election. Before then, Omidvar says “It was a myth that Canada is always a welcoming country to refugees, as our response to refugee crisis was muted.”
Then things changed, and the imagination of the nation caught up in reality.
Omidvar is pleased with the new government’s handling of the resettlement process and calls it a “romantic narrative”.
“We are going to welcome refugees and immigrants with a smile,” she says.