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Q&A with Craig Damian Smith

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Craig joined the CERC Migration team on Sept. 1, 2020 as Senior Research Associate. With his commitment to long-term field research, combined with his training in international relations (IR), Craig brings a unique perspective to his work. Through his contributions to CERC Migration’s research theme, Governance of Migration in a Globalizing World, Craig aims to help improve the understanding of Canada in global migration governance.

How did you first get interested in your area of research?

I was very lucky to access early opportunities for field research through my undergraduate at the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. I travelled to Israel and Palestine to research Israel’s separation barrier, which deepened my understanding of historical and ongoing displacement.  

Through my undergrad and master’s, I worked mostly on refugee issues and Middle East politics. Another project took me to Nicosia, Cyprus, in 2007, where I first heard the phrase “fortress Europe” to describe the European Union’s (EU) externalized migration controls in transit states. IR scholarship presents the EU as a paradigm of progress and peaceful change. Its borderless travel and citizenship regime are big parts of that story. I began researching incidents that took place at the borders around Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco in 2005, when several thousand desperate migrants stormed the border fences around these cities. These dynamics were contradictory, to say the least, with the image of the EU as a paragon of progress.  

In 2009, I proposed a PhD to investigate the relationship between open borders “inside” Europe and the ways that European policies affected irregular migration dynamics around its peripheries. It’s funny – advisors cautioned that irregular migration wasn’t an important issue for an IR thesis. Things have obviously changed since then and I’m glad I stayed the course.

PhDs don’t always involve fieldwork. What was driving you to spend so much time in the field?

I spent three years in the Middle East and North Africa, then for the last round of my fieldwork I spent six months in the Western Balkans in 2015 at the height of the European migration “crisis”. I interviewed dozens of people on the move and spent a good deal of time with European policy-makers in Brussels. It gave me an understanding of how individuals experienced big political dynamics around borders, mobility and political community. We need people’s micro-level explanations of how and why they made decisions to understand the real impact of policies. We can look at statistics, but talking to people who are affected is crucial.

Has being in the field changed your views in significant ways?

Migration researchers are often in a tough place: on the one hand, they need to have some kind of distance from individual stories in order to think systemically. On the other, it’s impossible to remove yourself from the human perspective. The inherently unfair access to mobility options hits you right in the face. I’ve learned a lot about how state policies contribute to troubling dynamics like human trafficking, but also appreciate the trade-offs between the moral and the political. There’s a fine line between advocacy and objectivity in providing analysis for policy-makers who face demands from electorates to control migration.

What direction will you take with your work in the CERC Migration program?

I intend to help situate Canada in global migration dynamics. For example, looking at how Canada’s policies directly affect irregular migration patterns, what Canada can learn from other states, and where we can provide positive examples.

Canada has only recently experienced sustained irregular migration. After I finished my PhD, I conducted a two-year, SSHRC-funded project to examine the emergence and evolution of unofficial crossings at Roxham Road, Québec. It was very interesting how quickly people from around the world learned about this crossing and travelled great distances to get here. As the “global closure” to migrants continues – and by that, I mean increasingly restrictive visa and asylum policies – people with migration aspirations are pushed to take longer, more complicated and more dangerous routes.

Canada has an image of being an open society – that’s true-- but we also have very restrictive visa policies.  Because Canada is geographically isolated, we think these policies won’t result in a “deflection into irregularity” as in other regions. My research challenges that assumption. Publications from this project are currently under peer review. 

Another project where I hope to provide a clearer picture of the Canadian experience is a SSHRC-funded study CERC Migration is partnering on with the Centre for Refugee Studies and York University’s Canadian Forum on Civil Justice. We’re running surveys with decision makers at the Immigration and Refugee Board, refugee lawyers, front-line workers and refugee claimants to understand how access to legal aid funding affects our asylum system. As provincial governments look to trim legal aid support, we need to understand how this affects the fairness and efficiency of our system as the world looks to Canada’s example. 

I am also investigating Canada’s role in the Western hemisphere, particularly in response to the displacement crises in Latin America. To take one statistic, only one per cent of refugees resettled to Canada come from the Western Hemisphere, yet we have deep connections through trade, resource extraction, temporary migration and asylum. We’ve left it up to the U.S. to dictate the course of action for the hemisphere. We have a lot of reasons and the capacity to be more proactive.

How can Canada guide global migration policy when our policies may be less than perfect?

A high percentage of our population was born outside Canada, and our public opinion is pro-immigration. Canada has a lot to teach on refugee integration and immigrant incorporation. But because policies rest on positive public sentiment, policies are difficult to export. My recent publication on the private refugee program investigates whether it can be transferred to Europe, for example. Canada can provide examples, but we also need to admit just how contingent our successes are.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Recent publications:

Smith, C.D. (2020). A Model for the World? Policy Transfer Theory and the Challenges to ‘Exporting’ Private Sponsorship to Europe. In S. Labman & G. Cameron (Eds.), Strangers to Neighbours: Refugee Sponsorship in Context. McGill-Queen’s University Press., external link.

Smith, C.D. (2020). Challenging to so-called trafficking-terror finance nexus. Forced Migration Review. (64), 56-59., external link

Banerjee, K., and Smith, C.D. (2020). International Relations and Migration: Mobility as Norm Rather Than Exception. In J. Levin (Ed.), Nomad-State Relationships in International Relations: Before and After Borders. Palgrave. 

Smith, C.D., and Hoffman, S. (2019, November). Will Canada Suspend Its Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States? Here’s what doing so would mean for immigration levels. Foreign Policy., external link

Smith, C.D. (2019). Changing U.S. Policy and Safe-Third Country ‘Loophole’ Drive Irregular Migration to Canada. Migration Information Source. Migration Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., external link