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Knowledge Diasporas on Their Escape to Canada; Stories of Responsibilities and Guilt

Camelia Tigau
17 October 2023

Knowledge Diasporas on Their Escape to Canada; Stories of Responsibilities and Guilt

The link between humanitarianism and the responsibility to protect is a recurring idea in recent migration studies. Frontier ethical contributions have outlined our political responsibility of hospitality (Torres 2018) and our common humanity as a ground for refugee protection (Jarvis 2022). Based on evidence from the Syrian refugee crisis, Panebianco and Fontana have developed a complex argument regarding the lack of conflict prevention that hits back at destination countries, which helps us to rethink the traditional understanding of the responsibility to protect (R2P) and look for ways to reform it.

Yet another way to look at the problem is how exiled populations internalize conflict and the responsibility to protect. This essay is meant the revisit the R2P, now 18 years old, in terms of responsibility to care for the population displaced by conflict. Intellectual exiles and skilled diasporas who have experienced conflict are a good source of information about the conflicts back home, about the key agents they blame for different crises, and what can be done to improve the situation of displaced people.

I have spent 15 years doing research on professional diasporas, a population whose traumas I have recently come to comprehend through the eyes of intellectual exiles in North America. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been asking myself and my key informants, “who is responsible for their displacement?” In my research, I came across many refugees who didn’t want to speak to me, either because they don’t speak the languages I speak, or because they are afraid for themselves and their families. Others simply found it too painful to recall their situation as expatriates. But I also found those for whom up and telling their stories is as necessary as drinking water on a hot day. This type of diaspora is also a highly self-reflective group, active on social media, and willing to leave testimony of their escape.

When I ask Ugandan refugees, “who is responsible for the situation in their countries?” they often thank me. I get the same reaction from Ukrainian refugees. In this investigation comprising 18 countries (see map), responsibility was a result rather than a hypothesis. I started with the basic observation that professionals displaced by force tend to be more easily underemployed and deskilled than those who plan their migration. Voluntary and planned skilled migrants are usually more individualistic and aspirational. They tend to send knowledge remittances, prefer to stay in the countries they chose, and their ethnic and migrant networks tend to be weaker. And most importantly, they usually succeed in recertification to practice their professions.

This is not the case of professional and intellectual refugees displaced by conflicts. Exiled professionals look for ways to send remittances, and they try to bring their families with them. Refugees also help other refugees and give them work, rather than experiencing a crab-like fight with other immigrants. They wish for return, but their comeback seems more symbolic than real: many of the conflicts they fled have no end in sight—thus the protracted nature of their exile.

Map: Countries of origin and destination for the interviewed exiled professionals 


A map of the world with different countries/regions

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Source: own elaboration. Country codes are as follows.

Blue: Countries of destination

Purple: Countries of origin and destination

Red: Countries of origin



This essay is based on qualitative research on 50 forced skilled migrants, mainly based in North America and Europe. Special emphasis was placed on those residing in Canada, a country generally perceived as welcoming to newcomers, with few incidents of direct discrimination. The individuals were approached through a double method that included a qualitative survey with open questions and in-depth interviews that took place between 2021 and 2023. This collective prosopography of intellectual exile opened a Pandora’s box of ongoing political, social, economic, and gendered conflicts. Individuals from the main sources of contemporary professional refugees were included: Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela. However, as the study showed, many of the ongoing current conflicts are not prominent in the media, such as the cases of Yemen, the Kurdish or Uyghur minorities, so interviewing their diasporas was a gateway to learn about hidden situations of conflict.

            My research points to two types of outcomes or needs: 1) the multistakeholder involvement in R2P that should go far beyond state interventionism; and 2) the need to include recertification and dignified work to comply with the responsibilities of resettlement. In what follows, I outline the interpretations of the exiled in both aspects, based on the context of their reception in Canada.    


  1. A Multistakeholder Approach to R2P


There are many ways to understand responsibility to protect and care, beyond the survivor’s guilt that many of my informants have experienced after leaving family and friends in conflict. Their interpretations can be synthesised through a multistakeholder approach that outlines the intervention of four types of actors: a) corporations and employers; b) civil society; c) diasporas themselves; and d) governments.

Companies and institutions that can provide employment are key actors in refugee and migrant resettlement, and their awareness is needed to assist displaced people (Reitz 2023). In this sense, labour associations have a particularly important role in supporting newcomers, such as in the case of health professionals. Impediments to employing foreign-trade professionals often keep them from reintegrating into the labour market and further affect their cultural integration and general well-being.

Civil society is particularly relevant in its openness to receive newcomers and support them. Private sponsorship of refugees in Canada, talent recruitment associations (see Jumpstart Refugee Talent and Talent Beyond Boundaries) or programs to host refugees (for example, Ukraine Take Shelter and the Canada Ukraine Foundation) can all add to official support from the government.

Creating diaspora associations, sending remittances back home, and speaking up about conflicts are just a few ways in which exiled professionals assume this responsibility to protect the stayers back home. Saleh (pseudonym), exiled from Yemen to Canada, has changed his way of life to help family and friends left behind:


I send money home. I do help some of my family members; I do help some of my friends. And I feel obligated to do that. And thinking about it, with 50 bucks you can go to a good restaurant—I won’t say like a high-end restaurant—and have a meal there. That’s enough for a family to be fed for a month. So, I’d rather save a family’s life than go outside enjoying my fancy dinner. I’ve totally stopped traveling for leisure purposes. I haven’t had any vacations where I travel and enjoy my time for the past … eight years. Yeah. Because I feel that the money that I’m spending this vacation, I would rather send it back home to help families, a lot of families, actually, with that money.  (In conversation, Toronto, January 24, 2023)


Lastly, the governments of origin are held responsible for creating and reproducing conflict. At the same time, diasporas generally believe the international community should apply sanctions or at least stop giving aid to governments that sustain conflict, corruption, and dictatorship. For instance, political refugees from Uganda continuously blame the Museveni government for the situation of poverty in the country, and say the situation would change the moment foreign powers stopped supporting the Museveni government. Journalist Kyumakyayesu Bugandantege complains about the involvement of the Ugandan government in several conflicts around the continent, such as the one in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and about the anti-LGBTQ law signed by the same president. Kyumakyayesu says:


In Uganda people have done their best from 1996, they have been voting against Museveni. He came from the bush in 1986 and he said: “I will not stay long in power, only these 4 years are enough for me”. (…) But then went to the table with the international community he decided to stay in power by force, whether elections take place or not. Africans we have that inferiority and superiority complex. We know that Museveni is in power because of the international community. He has helped them to do dubious deals in whichever part of Africa they want. That´s why Museveni is violating human rights, abusing human rights, violating democracy (…)

I came out broad daylight to oppose the dictatorial regime that has trampled on people´s rights for the last 37 years in Uganda, in East Africa and Africa at large…! It is said and I as I told you, am a journalist, am an eye to the eyeless, I am the ear to the earless and the mouthpiece to those who are silenced. So, without fear or favor, I say that the international community still wants Museveni in power. And that´s not me alone, but the entire crowd… the entire African continent. (Kyumakyayesu Bugandantege, in conversation at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, June 8, 2023)


            Responsibility is also given to the receiving governments that should offer a decorous integration for newcomers. From the perspective of some refugees, integration could certainly improve by using qualitative rather than quantitative evaluation techniques of government programmes.


I think it has to do with the outcomes by which the government or the program leads evaluate the success of the program, I don't think it has much to do with how many persons got an opportunity towards a job or something like that. It's all about how many persons [were] helped, assisted. If we talk about program evaluation, there is the process indicators versus the output indicators. These programs are not result based. The evaluation of the program is “we have assisted 50,000 persons,” for example. But assisted them in what? By doing what? By enrolling them in courses? By giving them access to internet? Which is something ... it's just lame. It's a huge industry, says Amal (Pseudonym, MD and Sudanese refugee; currently a Canadian citizen).


However, beyond the blame there is also gratitude to destination countries. Refugees and forced migrants are generally thankful for having the possibility to start a new life in a new country. Their complaints are often centred on recertification processes and work permits, which vary by country and are detailed in the following section on recertification and deskilling.  


  1. Toward a Dignified Recognition of Abilities


Many of those interviewed are planning to write books about their life stories, surely more exciting than the typical action novel. Some may not succeed because of emotional constraints, or because they don’t have the time and energy to write about their escape. This paper tries to give voice to the best and brightest lost from their societies but won by Canada and sometimes the United States. “Won” is of course a term that is subject to consideration. Some of these highly skilled people suffer from neglect of both their identities and self-esteem; they must discard not only their past lives, but also their past knowledge. In my research, I encountered that only 22% of those interviewed held jobs similar to their previous ones; 54% had to switch occupations, which often means underemployment or deskilling, such as medical doctors driving Ubers, working as maids or in fast-food restaurants; 24% were unemployed or have only occasional jobs. This has an impact in terms of emotional and physical health, and stress levels. The higher the expectations, the bigger the disappointment when work and professional lives don’t evolve as expected.

Despite many years of education, language seems to be a problem, especially for the ones who didn’t study in English or didn’t expect the conflict. This is a significant difference from planned economic migration, since migrants take years to plan their language capital. Language is also responsible for many situations of refugee underemployment. Some professionals do unpaid work as volunteers to get Canadian experience and improve their English or French. In fact, it’s the language issue more than the lack of Canadian experience that seems to worry most of the displaced I found in Canada. One of the representatives of a governmental institution that recruits refugees in Montreal (Quebec's Federation of Chambers of Commerce) said his institution had eliminated Canadian experience due do discriminatory interpretations and consequences.

Remigration is another consequence of under-skilling and underemployment in Canada, and it comes as a rational response to unsatisfactory integration. Several young Ukrainians interviewed for this study decided to leave Canada for the United States, with the hopes that a bigger job market would offer better opportunities even though work permits take longer in the US than in Canada. Recertification in Canada as a dentist, which costs about $30,000, is too expensive for many displaced professionals, especially medical doctors.

Circular migration ends up being the solution for many populations—especially Syrians, with close bonds to the United Arab Emirates. Such is the case of Nael (pseudonym), a refugee dentist in Montreal, who has been travelling back and forth to Dubai every other month for two years, attending patients there, earning money, and returning to Canada to study for recertification. His work in Dubai pays family bills and recertification exams in Canada, as well as remittances for the family left in Syria. Other doctors turn to banks and non-profit organizations for small loans to cover exam fees. Nael feels lucky to be able to practice as a dentist after many years of work in Dubai:


I have a lot of friends that cannot go for this procedure to go to this qualifying exam because of the cost. It’s a really high cost and a lot of effort. … A lot of them work at anything, whatever. Most of them work with Uber—because, you know, we are doctors, dentists; we don’t know anything else. Especially dentists and doctors, they spend all of their lives studying. If you want to go to dental school, or the district school, or medical school, you have to study; you don’t have time to work. So, we don’t know anything else. Most of them are working in Uber, maybe, in supermarkets; or maybe they open a business. One of my friends has a real estate business. Another one made an art business, like that. But they don’t work as medical doctors, no. They don’t have the support to study. And we are lucky like dentists. Dentists in Canada have a clear path to have their certification. The problem here with medical doctors, they cannot actually practice. I don’t know anyone until now, anyone who could make his license work here as a medical worker. It’s impossible. (Nael, in conversation, Toronto–Montreal, October 19, 2022)


It seems paradoxical that the scarcity of skilled workers in Canada is not resolved by the entry of immigrants and refugees. This is even more true given that one of the original criticisms of the Canadian migrant receiving system has been the tendency to select refugees based on their qualifications, rather than on humanitarian grounds (Shachar 2006). Amal, a former refugee from Sudan previously quoted, recalls that when she migrated in 2001, it was known that “the more educated you were, the better opportunity you had to go to Canada.” Even though some representatives of the Canadian government deny refugee selection based on skills rather than humanitarian criteria, there is a general perception that being educated helps to resettle. This is why social workers in Africa have started educating refugees as a way to get them out of holding camps, acknowledging that education is critical in helping and empowering refugees. (Marangu Njogu, CEO of Windle International, interviewed on October 13, 2021)


Discussion and Conclusions


In a world with increasingly more refugees, it is important to understand exile interpretations of the meaning of R2P, or at least what it should be. From the perspective of exiled professionals, responsibility is many times the issue that structures their political understanding of conflict; in this way, research about forced migration has led to a systematic investigation about conflict. People cannot be understood independently from the conflicts they fled, a simple finding that could help in their integration abroad. Underemployment of skilled diasporas as a conflict created by the immigration process has come across as a violation of the responsibility to protect, a term that should be revisited to include not just intervention and conflict prevention, but also to receive displaced people and assist their integration.

Two international institutions are addressing the issues of responsibility and recertification outlined in this article. On one hand, the UN resolution on the responsibility to protect has been further developed to include refugee issues. Since its implementation, academic research has continued to add to practice, through initiatives such as the Global Responsibility to Protect journal. On the other hand, the International Labour Organization has continuously pushed for foreign credentials recognition, in collaboration with the United Nations Human Rights Council and the International Organization for Migration. Given the importance of professionals in a global knowledge economy, and the fact that the number of displaced professionals is increasing to post-World War II levels, evidence shows that the responsibility to protect should be updated to include clear paths to skills recognition.





Camelia Tigau is a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Center for Research on North America. She was a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, Global Migration Lab (2022-2023). She is also serves as a vice-president of the Global Research Forum on Diasporas and Transnationalism (GRFDT). She would like to thank the General Department for Academic Support (DGAPA) at the UNAM for the scholarship that made possible the fieldwork for this article. Contact