Social Integration of Salvadoran Refugees

By Jacob, Andre G. | Social Work, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Social Integration of Salvadoran Refugees

Jacob, Andre G., Social Work

For the past 15 years, tens of thousands of refugees have sought asylum in the industrialized capitalist countries of North America and Europe. In 1990 Germany opened its borders to 19,000 refugees, while 40,000 went to France (Haut conseil a l'integration |HCI~, 1991) and 30,000 to Canada (Ministere des communautes culturelles et de l'immigration du Quebec, 1990). In these countries, legal immigrants are welcome, but refugees generally are not. A large proportion of refugees are never able to obtain legal refugee status.

In the context of current social and political difficulties, a large majority of refugees display traits that may make them targets of constant discrimination. Many natives of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are discriminated against because of physical features such as skin color, eye shape, and hair type, as well as language, customs, beliefs, political convictions, and working-class origin.

Refugees avail themselves of both public and private social services. The demand for services has increased greatly in recent years, and social workers with training in refugee issues are sorely needed. Only a few agencies offer special programs to assist refugees, such as the Toronto Centre for Victims of Torture and the Douglas Hospital in Montreal, which offer programs to help victims of torture and adolescent refugees who have come into Canada alone.

In general, social services organizations have developed a systematic approach to working in a multiethnic milieu; however, little thought has been given to specific practice to help refugees. It is essential to analyze in greater depth the characteristics and dynamics involved in the social integration of refugees and to better train social workers and develop programs geared to the needs of refugees, who often find themselves greatly disadvantaged in society.

This point of view has led the author to conduct research with a variety of groups, including Salvadoran, Iranian, Ethiopian, Somali, and Lebanese refugees. This article is a summary of a study I conducted with Salvadoran refugees in Canada. My aim was to discover how refugees integrate into the social environment of the host country, as considered from cultural, economic, and political points of view, and ensure their economic, social, emotional, and cultural well-being.


Study and Sample

This qualitative study, carried out with 22 Salvadoran refugees (11 men and 11 women) who arrived in Canada between 1984 and 1989 and who came from rural backgrounds, combined an analysis of the literature and an analysis of their life stories. Little literature exists that pertains to the lives of Salvadoran refugees (Jacob & Bertot, 1991; Neuwirth, 1989; Sehl & Naidoo, 1985; Thomson, 1986); therefore, the study is principally based on the information provided by the refugees themselves in response to themes suggested by the author relating to their childhood, adolescence, and adult life; family life; education; work experiences; political experiences; the migration process; the social integration process; and future plans. Questions were asked in Spanish to allow the individual to relate his or her personal story in depth using his or her native language.

Study group members had an average age of 23 years and less than 11 years of education. All held casual, low-income jobs (averaging Can$11,000 per year) including driving taxis; working in restaurants, hotels, or as domestics; or working in small- and medium-sized factories, specifically in the textile industry.

Seven refugees had resided in the United States for at least a year before coming to Canada. Six had been in Mexico for at least six months, and the others had come to Canada directly from El Salvador. Thirteen participants were refugee claimants, and five had already obtained refugee status. None were living in Canada illegally, because according to Canadian immigration law individuals are allowed to apply for refugee status on arrival. …

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