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Evaluation of Canada's Student Refugee Program’s (SRP) Services

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3540 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The United Nations Refugee Agency data reveals that 59.5 million people are displaced around the world, the highest level ever recorded (unhcr.org). In a report released in 2015, fittingly titled “World at War,” the U.N. faults war, persecution, military conflicts, climate change, and gendered violence as reasons for the vast amount of displaced people (unhcr.org). This “refugee crisis” has called for action around the world. What has Canada done to mediate this crisis? In this paper I will discuss the Student Refugee Program’s (SRP) services in relation to the refugee crisis in the context of Canadian Human Rights Instruments and Nancy Fraser’s redistribution-recognition model. I argue that SRP is attempting to meet Canada’s human rights obligations towards refugees, but itself exists in a gendered and racialized immigration process. Lastly, I argue that although SRP reflects affirmative redistributive change, Fraser’s model is a polarizing one that lacks necessary context.

The Student Refugee Program

The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) is a non-profit organization “dedicated to improving education, employment, and empowerment opportunities for youth around the world” (wusc.ca). Their initiatives revolve around three main premises for youth: learn, work, and lead. WUSC is governed by a volunteer board of governors and consists of institutional members, local committees, and general members. Local committees have a minimum of five members within a post-secondary institution and hold at least one activity as proposed by WUSC each year, while also supporting other WUSC objectives. The University of Lethbridge (U of L) is one such committee. With 20 active members, the WUSC club at the U of L has been ratified since January of 2016. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the WUSC initiative of resettlement and higher education, known as the Student Refugee Program (SRP), as undertaken by the U of L local committee.

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The SRP mandate is to provide refugee students with an opportunity not only for resettlement, but higher education as well. This program operates through a unique youth-to-youth sponsorship model, which places students in an active role of sponsorship for the refugee students. Local committees fundraise on their campus and in the community and also play a role in day-to-day social, emotional, and academic support for the SRP student. In its 40 years of operation, 1,800 students have been sponsored at over 83 campuses across Canada (wusc.ca). WUSC is an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder in Canada, enabling them to bring refugees student to Canada as permanent residents. Through an application process, WUSC identifies student who are in need, and then grants permission to the Local Committees to sponsor these students. In 2007, it was found that 97% of SRP students had completed or were in the process of completing their degrees. Additionally, 85% had found work after graduation (wusc.ca).

In its first year of operation, the U of L local committee sponsored 1 refugee primarily through fundraising methods. In 2016, a student referendum was passed, and a $2 levy was placed on every undergraduate student’s tuition, allowing them to sponsor another student for the following year.  This levy will stand for the unforeseeable future, allowing the club to sponsor a new student each year. This sponsorship for the incoming student however, lasts for a year only. The sponsorship covers everything from tuition, food, clothing, housing, personal items, etc. It essentially covers the cost of living for the student, for one year. The club is currently working on fundraising for a bursary to extend the financial help beyond one year for the SRP students. It is important to note that this varies across universities. Some universities offer free tuition to the students, some have a $12 levy, some are able to sponsor more students and/or for longer, etc. At the U of L, the student (through the scholarship) is expected to pay the entire cost of tuition. The U of L Housing services holds a room for the student, but again, the entire cost is to be paid. The two SRP students at the U of L are both male and from Kenya and Jordan respectively.

Canada’s Human Rights Instruments and Obligations

What connections exist between the service SRP provides and Canada’s human rights obligations? SRP has two dimensions to take into consideration: resettlement of a refugee, and higher (post-secondary) education. While higher education is not considered a right, it is outlined in Article 13 of the International Convention of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that Canada is signed on to. This article states that higher education should be made equally accessible to all, particularly by the progressive introduction of free (primary and secondary) education (ohchr.org).

The Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights highlights the gaps in Canada’s compliance with ICESCR. They argue that under the Harper government, human rights commitments were treated as a matter of policy choice and not a matter of legal obligation. In this report they highlight the failures of Canada to uphold this convention, especially for the rights of women. In the cases of Article 13 of ICESCR, the report addresses the many barriers to post-secondary education. One of these being a financial barrier, and the resulting spiraling student debt (FAFIA, 91). They write, “enrolling and completing post-secondary education is no longer a golden ticket to prosperity” (91). The cost of post-secondary lays on the individual student in the form of tuition and other fees. These costs, when adjusted for inflation, have risen 199% from 1992 (92). Statistics Canada has reported that the average student debt after completion of a bachelor’s degree is $26,000 (92). Although SRP is providing students with an opportunity for higher education, this opportunity still has barriers for these students. With sponsorship only lasting one year, they are encouraged both to take out student loans and to get a job. Is Canada doing enough to provide these students with a meaningful life here? Access to education may not be enough if they are also met with barriers to other aspects of life – such as obtaining work, accessing social services, etc.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is another human rights instrument Canada is signed onto (albeit, not until 1969). This convention defined who is a refugee, and well as outlining the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of nations who welcome them (unhcr.ca). In 1967, the protocol was amended, removing previous geographical barriers that existed (unhcr.ca). In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act is responsible for implementing the convention (loc.gov), and the refugee resettlement program is administered by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). It is with CIC that WUSC holds a Private Sponsorship agreement. According to the Canadian Council of Refugees, private sponsorship is additional to the number that the government agrees to resettle refugees through the government-assisted resettlement program (loc.gov).

On November 24, 2015, the newly elected Trudeau government unveiled its plan to resettle over 25,000 Syrian refugees in response to the conflict in Syria. By the beginning of 2017, the Liberal Government had resettled almost 39,00 refugees (Molnar). This number includes both government assisted and privately sponsored refugees (Molnar). While this was seen as a huge humanitarian effort, Canada has previously supported U.S. air strikes in Syria, as well as dropping our own bombs in Syria (Chase). Despite Syria not explicitly asking Canada to enter its airspace, Prime Minister Harper announced that permission was not needed because Islamic States forces were fleeing from Iraq into Syria to escape air strikes (Chase). Canada is implicated in the actions that have created a crisis that has been ongoing since 2011, despite a ‘humanitarian’ response in late 2015. WUSC and the SRP program also responded to the Syrian refugee crisis, welcoming an additional 9 Syrian students to live and study in Canada (srp.wusc.ca). In a report by the special rapporteur, on the right to education, it is said that despite a significant improvement in scholarship programs, only 1% of refugees worldwide are enrolled in tertiary (post-secondary) education (Barry 12). In light of Canada’s obligations, it certainly appears that SRP is doing valuable work in providing refugee students with an opportunity for higher education. Although one of the mandates of WUSC is youth initiative and leadership, SRP is filling a gap that it perhaps should not need to. WUSC receives funding from the Canadian government, among other private sponsors. Why does the government itself not agree to sponsor these students? Why is the University of Lethbridge, as an institution, not doing more to aid SRP? 

Immigration: A Gendered and Racialized Process in a Political Economy

WUSC only accepts applications from Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, and Tanzania (wusc.ca). I could not find why this was on their website, and in my information interview Farah and Kyra both suggested that it was a matter of logistics. That is, these locations are where WUSC has headquarters set up and is able to process applications. If you are a mandated refugee in one of those countries of asylum, further conditions exist for you to be able to apply. You must be between the ages of 17 and 25, have completed secondary school, be a recognized refugee, express a need to be resettled, be proficient in English or French, be single, without dependents, and be self-reliant and mature (srp.wusc.ca). These conditions in themselves are deeply gendered.

To be single and without dependents ultimately favours males. Females often bear the burden of domestic labour, sibling care, and other familial duties that males do not. No information exists on the WUSC website about the number of males and females accepted to the SRP. When asked in my information interview, both Farah and Kyra acknowledged that most of the successful applicants, and our own two students, are male. They informed me that WUSC is also aware of this inequality, and one of their other initiatives, the Shine a Light Program is seeking to combat this. This program provides girls in refugee camps with lights so that they can study at night, as they often cannot attend school during the day because of their other duties. As the special rapporteur discusses, many factors limit educational opportunities for young displaced children, but girls especially face gender based issues such as early marriage (Barry 12). Thus, the SRP sees an overrepresentation of male students in Canada.

Canada is often described as a welcoming, accepting nation. However, it was not until June 4, 1969 that Canada acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 protocol. In signing, Canada recognized that protecting refugees was a legal requirement, agreeing to not return a person to their origin country if the person had grounds to fear persecution, and that these refugees have rights (ccrweb.ca). Since this point, Canada has gained the reputation of being a world leader in protecting refugees. However, Harold Trooper suggests otherwise, saying:

By the 1970s it was widely held that Canada was then and always had been a haven for the oppressed. In retrospect the public imagination turned a select series of economically beneficial refugee resettlement programs into a massive and longstanding Canadian humanitarian resolve on behalf of refugees (ccrweb.ca).

Canada has a long history of racist and discriminatory immigration policies embedded in a colonial structure. The Immigration Act of 1906’s purpose was “to enable the Department of Immigration to deal with undesirable immigrants,” according to Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior (noii-van.resist.ca). This included allowing the government to prohibit the landing of anyone belonging to a certain race that Canada considers unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada (noii-van.resist.ca). Further amendments to this act were made in 1919, allowing the Cabinet to prohibit any race, nationality, or class of immigrant’s base on economic conditions in Canada, or because of their “peculiar habits” or “modes of life” (noii-van.resist.ca). This is not an exhaustive description of racial policies – from 1901 onwards the Canadian government was selective in who they deemed a person worthy of entering Canada. Not only on the basis of race, Canada was selective in choosing people allowed into Canada to perform labour. Japanese men were paid 1/3 of what white men were paid for the same labour. Any immigrants of the Asiatic race were excluded unless they were agriculturalists, farm labourers, female domestic servants, or the family (wife and children) of a person already living in Canada. These policies continued to serve the colonial practices in places – deeming Europeans as the ideal citizen and only allowing othered populations in for means of labour (noii-van.resist.ca). 

As Harsha Walia discusses, immigration law in Canada has always been represented by the assertion of Canada’s sovereign right to be selective about who it allows to enter and who it deems worthy of entering (Walia). In Canada, the protection of deserving and rights bearing immigrants and refugees is contingent on the exclusion of others. As Walia points out, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act isn’t really about protecting refugees, it’s about protecting the Canadian nation. The border itself is a form of structural violence that continues to presume who is a good citizen and who is not. Intersections of imperialism, globalization, and migration reveal the uneven relations by which the colonial practices have created political economies that compel people from the global south to move (Walia). So, while SRP is creating change and doing good work by sponsoring students to come to Canada, this still fits into a much larger system of Canada’s neoliberal practices.

Change: Affirmative or Transformative?

Nancy Fraser describes the redistribution-recognition dilemma as two kinds of claims that stand in tension with one another. Redistribution promotes group de-differentiation by seeking to abolish the economic structures that uphold group specificity (Fraser 73). Recognition, on the other hand, seeks to affirm the value of group specificity (74). Thus, the dilemma arises for people who experience both cultural and economic injustice – how can they both claim and deny their specificity? Race and gender are two such examples of this (76). Fraser also distinguishes between two types of change: affirmative and transformative. Affirmative remedies are associated with support and upholding of existing structures in place, whereas transformative remedies are associated with “deconstruction” and to destabilize existing structures (82). I argue that on the surface, SRP is reflected in Fraser’s affirmative redistribution framework. In this case, students are reallocating money to the incoming refugee students, but no transformative change is taking place. It is not transformative because it fails to engage at the deep level in which university is not openly accessible for everyone, or the continuing colonial project that borders uphold. For Fraser, transformative redistribution and transformative recognition results in justice for all. The positions of power between affirmative and transformative power are quite polarizing, and don’t allow for space in between. Thus, in Fraser’s opinion, the work that SRP does would not constitute ‘justice.’ This is largely Nira Yuval-Davis’ critique of Fraser.

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Yuval-Davis argues that the generalizations made in Fraser’s model lack context (Yuval-Davis 200).  What is needed is an analysis of how certain positioning’s, identities, and political values are constructed and related to each other in particular places and contexts (200). I would then argue, that while on the surface SRP is a form of affirmative (and redistributive) change, there is more to the work being done. Often, the seeds of affirmative change can sow the seeds of transformative change. Those involved in WUSC, and the SRP program, including the refugee students, have agency. In the future, club members may take more action to change the current structure of immigration in Canada, they may demand more from the university, and shift the responsibility from students to the administration. As Yuval-Davis points out, the context of this program, and the agency of the actors within it, needs to be considered.


The work done by SRP is admirable work. The students here at U of L are working hard to make a difference in the lives of student refugees by providing them with an opportunity to study in Canada and provide them with financial, emotional, and social support. However, the services of this program need to be thought of in a larger context of human rights commitments and government responsibility. The fact that SRP is student led is impressive, but we must ask why students bear this cost. Canada is not the humanitarian country it is always perceived as, as illustrated by our long history of racial immigration policy. The services provided by SRP are not enough to meet Canada’s international human rights obligations, but they are certainly helping by doing what they can. Providing even just one refugee student with an opportunity for resettlement and access to education is a success for the hard working members of the U of L local committee. The affirmative change done by SRP is not necessarily complicit in injustice as Fraser would suggest, and while this program lacks transformative change that would dismantle borders entirely, it is important to consider the context of the actors within this program, and the work they are doing.

Works Cited

Barry, Koumbou Boly. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.” United Nations General Assembly, 73rd session, 2018. 

“Brief history of Canada’s responses to refugees.” Canadian Council for Refugees. http://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/static-files/canadarefugeeshistory4.htm. Accessed 14 Oct 2018.

Chase, Steven, “Canadian jets drop first bombs on Islamic State stronghold in Syria.” The Globe and Mail, 8 Apr 2015.

Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA). “Women’s Economic Social and Cultural Rights in Canada: 2006-2015,” Report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the Occasion of the Committee’s Sixth Periodic Review of Canada, 2016.

Fraser, Nancy. “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemma of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age.” New Left Review, vol.1, 1998, pp. 68-93.

“Historical Issues”. No One Is Illegal. noii-van.resist.ca/issues/historic-issues/. Accessed 15 Oct 2018. 

Molnar, Petra. “Canadian Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2017. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-response-to-the-syrian-refugee-crisis. Accessed 20 Oct 2018.

“Potential Sponsored Students.” Student Refugee Program. 2018. https://srp.wusc.ca/students/. Accessed 18 Oct 2018. 

“The Core International Human Rights Instruments and their monitoring bodies.” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2018. www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CoreInstruments.aspx. Accessed 20 Oct 2018.

Walia, Harsha. “Colonialism, Capitalism and the Making of the Apartheid System of Migration in Canada.” ZNet, 4 Mar 2006, zcomm.org/znetarticle/colonialism-capitalism-and-the-making-of-the-apartheid-system-of-migration-in-canada-by-harsha-walia/. Accessed 16 Oct 23.

“World at War.” UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2014. 2015. www.unhcr.org/556725e69.pdf. Accessed 17 Oct 2018.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics,” European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol.13, no. 3, 2016, pp.193-209.


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