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Through the eyes of Convention Refugee claimants : the social organization of a refugee determination system Lokhorst, Augusta Louise


The social organization of Canada's inland refugee determination system is explored in this institutional ethnographic study. First listening to refugee claimants' experience from their vantagepoint on the margins of society, the research then explicates the complementary social relations of the refugee determination system in order to examine the contributing social organization and underlying ideology of the politico-administrative system. Three adult, English-speaking single Nigerian men, seeking Convention refugee status or permanent resident status, were interviewed. Phenomenological methods were utilized to analyze the data. An initial explication of the social relations of the system was conducted through the observation of refugee determination hearings and interviews with knowledgeable informants. Through these interviews and textual analysis, ideology at the politico-administrative level was explored. The findings reveal a contradiction between refugees' expectations based on Canada's international reputation in refugee protection and support of democratic rights, and their reception in Canada. Refugee claimants spoke of their dual experience as characterized by exclusion and marginalization from Canadian society at the very time that they needed to reconstruct their sense of self and adapt; of being held suspect as 'criminals' and 'illegals' by the refugee determination system until proven 'genuine'. Inclusion depended on success in the socially, culturally, and politically constructed Canadian refugee determination system; a process that was foreign to them. Comprehension and successful participation in this process depended in part on the support, resources, and information they accessed during their initial settlement period. The organization of the refugee determination system with a focus on the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) revealed complex independent decision-making in a highly decentralized, but hierarchical and non-transparent administrative system. Inconsistencies in decision making and in the degree to which refugees had the opportunity to relate their experience in refugee determination hearings were articulated and observed. Aspects of the system such as selection of members, institutional culture, independence of the IRB, and discourse on refugees in the Canadian media and society were indicators of how the social relations of the system were organized by an underlying ideology. Implications for the profession of social work and for social change were examined.

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