Chapter 3: Migration-Related Trauma and Refugee Mental Health in the Canadian Resettlement Sector

Forced Migration

Definitions of trauma and mental health help us understand the experiences of people who are forced to migrate, but we also need to understand the international laws, policies, and perspectives that countries use to determine how they will respond to those migrants. Forced migration is considered the opposite of voluntary migration. But who decides what constitutes volition or choice?

Forced migration encompasses the idea that people have no choice but to flee their home region or country to seek safety elsewhere. In the case where a country cannot or will not keep its own citizens safe, as may occur in civil war, then those people who flee to seek safety may request formal asylum in the nearest country that is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, often referred to together as the UN Convention on Refugees. Not all countries are signatories to the Convention, and even those who are signatories decide how they will incorporate the international law into their national laws and immigration policies.

Drivers of (Forced) Migration

The drivers of human migration have been long discussed and categorized by policymakers, lawyers, researchers, and more. For migrants and policymakers, the challenge is in navigating the practical applications of those discussions and categories. Migrants must figure out how they fit into laws and policies in order to migrate. Policymakers must interpret and apply immigration laws and policies as part of governing a country. The additional challenge for anyone trying to discern the drivers of forced migration is the question of what constitutes “forced” versus “voluntary.” Currently, conflict and persecution are legally coded as drivers of forced migration. Natural resource scarcity, such as access to arable land or clean water, and social resource scarcity, such as access to employment or education, are still considered drivers of voluntary migration. People who move to find food, water, work, or other opportunities are considered voluntary (or economic) migrants trying to better their lives.

So, what happens when drivers overlap, and something such as water scarcity prompts human conflict? Which driver of migration do we consider? And are the people who move being forced or are they moving voluntarily? What if the water scarcity is caused by people in one region damming a large river that cuts off water supply to the people living downstream? What if the river has dried up because of climate change? When do we consider migration forced or voluntary?

Conflict and Persecution

The UN Convention is often critiqued as a historical artefact. That is, the Convention was written and ratified in 1951 as an international response to the large numbers of refugees coming out of post–World War II Europe. The Convention gave countries a legal standard with which to provide immigration options for people fleeing the persecution stemming from the war. At that time, the forced migration that the international community formally recognized stemmed from persecution, particularly personal persecution as a result of international conflict:

“The term ‘refugee’ shall apply to any person who:

As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it” (United Nations General Assembly, 1951, Chapter 1: General Provisions, Article 1 A (2)).

It was the 1967 Protocol that expanded the definition of refugee beyond events before 1951 and outside Europe. However, the definition of refugee remains tied to personal persecution. Under the Convention, then, forced migration is due to international political conflict that creates personal persecution.

Some countries do recognize refugees and offer asylum or resettlement under broader categories. Canada offers resettlement through the Country of Asylum Class for people who are outside their home country and remain “seriously and personally affected by civil war, armed conflict, or massive violations of human rights” (Government of Canada, 2014a). Some countries also offer resettlement based on humanitarian grounds (for Canada, see Humanitarian and Compassionate Consideration; for Australia, see Special Humanitarian Program).

Although there are immigration programs in many countries for migrants escaping conflict, acceptance through those programs tends to represent only a small percentage of any country’s immigration. In 2018, a year when the UNHCR had identified 70.8 million people forcibly displaced (UNHCR, 2019), Canada admitted 45,758 people as Refugees and Protected Persons from out of a total of 321,035 admissions (see Annex 2: Table 4: Permanent Residents Admitted in 2018, in Canada Immigration Report 2019). That means people admitted based on the need to flee conflict and violence accounted for 14% of Canada’s immigration in 2018, whereas economic migrants represented 58%.

Historically, in 2019 and 2020, immigration numbers were uncharacteristically low across all countries and immigration streams owing to international border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the number of forcibly displaced people rose to 86.5 million by the end of 2019 (UNHCR, 2020).

The challenge for migrants fleeing conflict is in fitting the definitions that bound immigration categories. Demographic research by Conte and Migali (2019) shows that

“[t]he higher the number of deaths caused by any form of organized violence, the higher the number of first asylum applications. These results suggest that people not only flee terror and war but also violence and insecurity emerging from non-conflict-affected areas and perpetrated by different criminal actors” (p. 411).

Conte and Migali’s research looked at situations where people flee conflict caused by types of organized violence that were not necessarily interstate conflict or war. If such migrants applied to be resettled in Canada based on fleeing conflict, they would be considered under the Country of Asylum Class. If you recall, one of the factors linked to trauma in the forced migration experience is a difficult asylum procedure. Narrow and limited immigration categories in receiving countries can represent a difficult asylum procedure.

Can you think of factors or situations other than international conflict that might force people to flee their homes?

Climate Change

Tim Gaynor wrote that “Climate change is the defining crisis of our time” in a UNHCR publication discussing factors affecting forced migration (Gaynor, 2020). Climate change is considered a risk multiplier in cases of forced displacement. When climate change causes natural disasters, people are often displaced for a period of time. Think of how people might have to move from their homes because of wildfires, floods, earthquakes, droughts, or rising sea levels and how such moves might be traumatic. People forced to move might experience loss of family members, loss of resources, loss of employment, loss of safe housing, and more.

People forced to move owing to climate change factors are not considered refugees according to the UN Convention and would not qualify for asylum and refugee resettlement immigration programs. In cases where a person’s home country is able to provide protection, supports, and alternatives for those who flee a disaster situation, displaced individuals may be able to return to their home area after a time or resettle elsewhere within their own country. In cases where the government faces other challenges and is not able to provide safety and stability to those affected by a disaster, displaced individuals may be forced to seek safety by fleeing their country.

There is currently no international legal framework that recognizes climate change as a driver of forced migration. To change or amend legal frameworks, one of the challenges is in establishing a causal path between climate change and forced migration. Without a strong causal path, migrants are considered to be migrating voluntarily, which makes them economic migrants, not refugees. In special circumstances, countries can modify immigration policy to accept migrants who might not otherwise be admissible. For example, in 2010, Canada introduced special immigration measures to prioritize applications from Haitians after a devastating earthquake.

Cases to Consider

Case Example: Canada’s Special Immigration Measures – Haiti’s 2010 Earthquake

Haiti: Earthquake 2010, EU civil protection and humanitarian aid.

In January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. The epicentre of the quake was approximately 25 kilometres southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Reports estimated that 220,000 people died in the earthquake and another 300,000 were injured, while another million were displaced by the destruction. The Haitian government was immobilized because many government officials died in the quake. The UN mission in Haiti was also destroyed.

The Canadian government gave priority “to new and existing sponsorship applications from Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and protected persons who [had] close family members in Haiti … [with the requirement that they] identify themselves as being directly and significantly affected by the current situation and notify Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC)” (Government of Canada, 2010).

Although the earthquake was not considered to be a result of climate change and the Haitians who were admitted to Canada were not called climate refugees, the special immigration measures Canada extended in 2010 are an example of immigration policy being modified in response to natural disaster–driven migration.

To read in detail about the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Canada’s immigration responses to the event:

Please note that the photos in the NPR article below may be very disturbing.

Looking beyond special measures to the need for a more consistent and sustainable international framework for responding to climate crises, recent research is establishing a link between climate change and violent conflict that then may force people to migrate. Bayar and Aral (2019) report that their “findings indicate that climate change indirectly affects large-scale forced migration by igniting violent conflicts, although not all conflicts are climate-related” (p. 11). Abel et al. (2019) reinforce that “Climate change … will not generate asylum seeking everywhere but likely in a country undergoing political transformation where conflict represents a form of population discontent towards inefficient response of the government to climate impacts” (p. 246). Their study goes further to discuss the generation of other conflict:

“The existing literature on the impacts of climate change on conflict and migration commonly assesses how environmental pressures instigate outmigration and consequently how climate change-induced migration promotes conflict in migrant receiving areas” (p. 239).

To understand how climate change may or may not produce forced international migration, consider the differences between people displaced by wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, and traditional cattle herders affected by drought in northeastern Nigeria.

Case Example: Wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada

Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray.

In May 2016, 88,000 people were forced to evacuate the city of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The Province of Alberta declared a state of emergency. The province requested and received assistance from the Canadian military and the Canadian Red Cross. People fled to other cities within Alberta, and some companies opened up work camps to serve as temporary shelters. Hospitals were evacuated to neighbouring locations. No one died in the fire, and residents began to return after one month. After a full year, the city was being rebuilt.

So, were the people who fled Fort McMurray climate refugees?

They were certainly internally displaced people, and they certainly reported their experiences as traumatic. The ability of the provincial and federal governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and companies to respond quickly and with significant financial resources provided Fort McMurray residents safety, shelter, and provisions. The BBC reported the Fort McMurray fire of 2016 as “the costliest insured natural disaster in Canada’s history, with insurance costs totalling an estimated C$3.6bn (US$2.6bn/£2bn). Adding the costs to the government brings that price tag to C$5bn” (Murphy, 2017).

However, to be considered a refugee, a person must have the need to seek safety or refuge from another country when their own country is no longer able to provide these things. Because the provincial and federal governments were able to respond as they did, it is unlikely that anyone would characterize the residents evacuated from Fort McMurray as refugees.

The following articles give details about the Fort McMurray fire of 2016 and the emergency and recovery responses to it:

Case Example: Fulani Herders and Conflict Over Land Use in Nigeria

Fulani nomadic cattle herders move cattle across West Africa. They have done this for centuries. The increasing population in Nigeria and climate change temperature increase and drought have shrunk available cattle grazing lands. In response to shrinking land availability, some Fulani herders have moved farther south in Nigeria, which has created conflict with farmers in the Middle Belt region. The conflicts are compounded by religious and ethnic differences between the Muslim Fulani and the predominantly Christian farmers.

There are people fleeing Nigeria, and in 2019, Canada admitted 12,602 of them (Government of Canada, 2021a). However, they were not internationally recognized as climate refugees. Nigerians are fleeing the Boko Haram insurgency that has created a regional conflict in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger (UNHCR, 2021b).

Imagine a person caught between the Boko Haram insurgency and the farmer–herder conflict. If they could not immigrate voluntarily for a job or education, they might be eligible to immigrate to Canada as a Country of Asylum Class Refugee. Although an argument might be made that the person was forced to migrate at least in part because of climate change, using the current legal frameworks, Canada would admit that person based on being personally affected by conflict, not climate.

To read in detail about the the Fulani herdsmen of West Africa and the conditions prompting increased conflict:


The continuing debate around climate change and forced migration revolves around how to respond formally and legally to people whose forced migration can be linked to environmental degradation. While researchers seek to show the links between climate and other already recognized drivers of forced migration such as conflict, academics and policy analysts examine the ways that countries will need to modify their immigration programs.

The following articles give more information on how Canada might respond to climate refugees or environmental migrants:

Learning Activity 4: Drivers of (Forced) Migration Flashcards

Image Credits (images are listed in order of appearance)

Haiti: Earthquake 2010 by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic licence

Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray by DarrenRD, CC BY-SA 4.0 International licence


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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