Migrants walking along the road.
Migrants taking part in a caravan heading to the US, walk from Huixtla to Escuintla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 9, 2022. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)


Unlocking the complexities of migration could help solve a challenging global issue

TMU researcher Anna Triandafyllidou's team in three key regions is investigating the drivers of different types of migration

By Michelle Grady

Migrants walking along the road.
Migrants taking part in a caravan heading to the US, walk from Huixtla to Escuintla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 9, 2022. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)

Migration has been in the news cycle in a big way throughout the last year. Our news feeds have been filled with images of millions of people on the move because of increased or ongoing national and global conflict (in the case of Afghanistan, Haiti and Ukraine), climate-related migration (the flooding in Pakistan which displaced upwards of 33 million people), or the need to find temporary work abroad to support families back home (as in the case of agricultural workers in Canada, for instance).

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic pumped the brakes on migration for many, 2020 still saw 281 million people leaving their countries, representing 3.6 per cent of the world’s population. And as conflict, climate-related crises and economic inequality surge and threaten people’s ways of life, Anna Triandafyllidou, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration, and her team at Toronto Metropolitan University are looking at the issue of migration from every angle.

Since Triandafyllidou joined the Faculty of Arts in 2019, she and her growing international network of scholars have been researching migration and post-migration processes, forced and voluntary mobility, internal and international migration, and the role of countries of origin and transit.

Their work is helping to establish TMU as a globally recognized leader in migration, integration, refugee and diaspora studies. The CERC in Migration and Integration is a $21-million, seven-year research program.

Anna Triandafyllidou.

Anna Triandafyllidou in 2022. She joined TMU in 2019 as the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration and Integration and with her team has been looking at the biggest challenges for migration networks around the globe.

In 2022, Triandafyllidou and an international coalition of 37 researchers and 28 partners were awarded $2.49 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to under take the Complex Migration Flows and Multiple Drivers in Comparative Perspective (MEMO) project. The team is investigating the drivers of different types of migration and examining the journeys of migrants and refugees through different systems across three continents.

“To fully understand migration, we need to consider the range of experiences and challenges across the world,” says Triandafyllidou. “We know that drivers of migration and motivations are mixed, which make it impossible to clearly distinguish between economic migrants and refugees. Someone may be looking for protection, but also trying to build a better life.”

Triandafyllidou says we continue to see this with migrants from Syria and Afghanistan, and she believes we will see it again with Ukraine. The team is also paying attention to migrant agency – looking at how migrants are making their decisions. “In the West, we tend to think the decisions people make are entirely rational. But people are rational in very complex ways. And there are many culturally defined perceptions, around risk and uncertainty versus security and safety, as well as gender roles and obligations towards family.”

Migrants cross a bridge to a boat.

People coming from Ukraine descend from a ferry boat to enter Romania after crossing the Danube river at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing between Romania and Ukraine on February 26, 2022. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images)

The MEMO project team spans the globe but is focused in three regions with three different migration systems: Central America, West Africa and South and Southeast Asia. “They have socio-economic drivers, political drivers like conflict or ethnicity, they have environmental issues like significant flooding,” says Triandafyllidou. It also means the team can investigate internal migration, short and medium distance cross-border migration, as well as long distance, including to Canada.

With so many partners, Triandafyllidou says the MEMO project represents a commitment to de-centre the production of knowledge. “We cannot just be Canadians going and studying what is happening in those places, we need to really valorize the knowledge and expertise of our colleagues there,” she says.

MEMO’s outcomes

Triandafyllidou has ambitious hopes for the project’s outcomes. “I hope we can showcase how migration isn’t just impacting affluent, destination countries of the global North. There’s a lot of migration that happens within a world region: 80 per cent of immigration in West Africa happens within the region.”

Triandafyllidou also hopes we may see that we need to broaden the definitions we’re using. “If you say refugees also have economic motivations, you’re endangering the status of refugees without doing anything positive for migrants,” she says. “There’s no clear cut line between who is a refugee, prima facie, and a migrant – it’s much more complex than this.”

Studying technology use cases

Besides the massive MEMO project, Triandafyllidou and her team are looking at migration through other lenses. One is technology. 

“We recently launched the Migration Tech Tracker, an interactive tool that presents all the policies that we could find around the globe that use AI or other advanced technology to govern migration,” she says. “We’re seeing more experimentation to support information and data gathering and processing, and decision-making” – including biometric passports and visitor triaging systems. 

And while advanced technology does have positive use cases, including making the provision of welfare payments more efficient to refugees, Triandafyllidou says there’s also the concern that when automated learning is used, biases are replicated. “When a machine processes data and decisions made in the past and tries to replicate those, we know that these past decisions probably include biases, so the machine may not be objective in its judgment,” she says. “As these technologies become even more pervasive, we need to ask how we can build the necessary checks and balances.”

The team’s research around technology also includes more user-focused work like the Virtual Bridge project, which investigates how newcomers use social media, and then shares this knowledge with service providers so they may develop strategies and services that help immigrants find the jobs that match their skills and experience. 

“We know migrants use social media to find information or prepare themselves and plan where they want to go,” says Triandafyllidou. “So we’re working with settlement organizations to use social media to distribute information and training, and to help them get their word out.”

The team is currently in the first phase of implementation, measuring and mapping the volume, density and reach of the social media networks of the partner organizations; assessing their capacity to deliver services through social media; and completing a comparative analysis of partners’ online accounts with their offline client information. A social media toolkit will be available to assist service providers by winter 2024.

Digital storytelling as a means to connect 

While the country was in lockdown because of the pandemic, the CERC team sought other ways to continue their research. They landed on digital story-telling, and launched two projects: I am..., which explored identity and belonging in Canadian society and featured 28 short films, and Under the Tent, which included 18 multidisciplinary works from across Canada that explored “multiculturalism not as a destination but as a journey towards many destinations.” 

This is particularly so in the case of migration and diversity issues as those narratives tell stories about who belongs and who does not and the projects make explicit hidden barriers in society.

“It was this idea to highlight how dynamic and complex identities are, how diverse the country is and also have people express their experiences of discrimination and how they sought to overcome this,” says Triandafyllidou. “The idea wasn’t to use documentary or photography to disseminate findings or make findings known, but rather as a way of investigating to uncover thoughts and viewpoints that are much harder to get at with traditional research.”

Canada provides a path forward

When it feels like nearly every day we’re hearing about new crises generating ever more refugees and economic migrants, and some key countries are seeing the election of anti-immigration parties, Canada appears to be an outlier in the West, says Triandafyllidou, and is poised to provide lessons on inclusion for those around the globe. “We see far-right populism rising in many countries, including our neighbours to the south,” she says. “So the question becomes what is it that we’re doing well in Canada?”

Through 2021 and 2022, her team of researchers worked with Environics to study public views on immigration in Canada and what shapes them. And unlike other western countries, the report showed that Canadians’ attitudes have trended more positively.

Canada, Triandafyllidou says, is often seen as a land of opportunity and solidarity. “The Canadian welfare system and Canadian multiculturalism help to create an inclusive background where people can find their space to belong,” she says. “It also seems like immigration is now part of the national narrative, with the growing awareness around Canada’s status as a settler colonial country. 

“I think the secret behind the success of Canada is that actors at all levels – government leaders, policy makers, civil society, researchers – are constantly working towards success. It’s not perfect in Canada, there are still many things to work on. But by taking the pulse of the situation regularly and asking if we are doing well and how we can do better, we keep alive the promise of a truly inclusive and welcoming society.”

Improving conditions for migrant workers

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund supported the CERC Fair Work project with a grant of $191,000. The project aims to improve the conditions of migrant workers in the agricultural sector by developing a coalition of employers (including farmers/producers and supermarkets), migrant worker associations, local authorities and consumer organizations in Ontario, and providing guidelines to set up fair-labelling for vegetables and meat that comply with non-exploitative labour practices.

Michelle Grady is a senior writer and editor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

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