When people make the heartbreaking decision to flee their homes and seek asylum due to war or poverty, it is usually the last resort. Backed against a wall by forces beyond their control, they attempt to find a new home in a country with better work and education opportunities, a better life, and a sense of safety and security for them and their families. But what happens if the asylum request is refused?
The assumption is that they return home where they can resume their lives in an environment they know, but Kaltrina Kusari, who is earning her doctorate in social work at the University of Calgary during spring convocation, discovered that there is a significant gap in this area of research. Her master’s degree in social work focused on return migration, and her recently completed doctorate builds on this work by focusing specifically on migrant women returning to their countries of origin.
Originally from Kosovo, she didn’t need to look far for inspiration.
The mass exodus has become a subject of research
“I was doing my master’s in 2014-2015 and we experienced a mass exodus of Kosovars. More than 100,000 Kosovars have left Kosovo and sought asylum in European Union countries. In a way, the subject chose me,” says Kusari. “Regardless of our studies in social work, I kept applying for what was happening in Kosovo because Kosovo is a small country, there are only 1.8 million people there, so if more than 100,000 people leave in three months, that represents a significant portion of the population.”
Kosova is the Albanian pronunciation of the country more commonly known as Kosovo in the West. Kusari, of Albanian origin, makes a point of using the pronunciation to refer to the country that was once part of Yugoslavia in the Balkans before the 1999 war of independence and ethnic conflict.
Kusari left Kosovo in 2005 at the age of 14 to benefit from a scholarship offered to students from post-war countries at a high school in Arizona. After high school, she completed an undergraduate degree at Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia, before transferring to Faculty of Social Work at UCalgary for his graduate degrees.
The mass exodus that Kusari began researching was due to devastating poverty in a country where the unemployment rate was as high as 40 percent at the time. Many factors led to this, according to Kusari, including the imposition of neoliberal measures by the European Union. Yet the EU was unprepared for the influx of asylum seekers, believing that Kosovo’s economy was in better shape than it was.
“When this mass exodus occurred in Kosovo, it was 15 years after the 1999 war. Kosovo is considered a safe country by the EU and that is why 96 percent of asylum seekers asylum were rejected.”
Kusari continues: “What I found from looking at the literature on what happens after return is that there wasn’t much because UNHCR’s refugee mandate ends when someone one receives a negative response to his asylum application. So they fall and we don’t know enough about what happens next.
Findings challenge widely held beliefs
Kusari found that the widespread belief that asylum seekers repatriated to their home countries would do well because they would return home was simply not true in many cases. Asylum seekers who leave their countries usually flee out of desperation and spend whatever they have left to get out, often through costly and illegal means involving human traffickers.
So when they returned home, they were actually in a worse situation than when they left, with few resources and little support. This is particularly true for female returnees who, in addition to the difficulties of return, must also contend with patriarchal practices that shape the opportunities to which they have access.
In Kosovo, there was not even a social work department until 2012. So when the vast majority of the more than 100,000 Kosovar migrants started returning, it caused shock waves not only in the country but also in the EU. Kusari says:
“UNHCR has adopted repatriation as a durable solution to avoid displacement, based on the idea that people return to their country of origin and that the return process is therefore considered natural and problem-free. But what my research and that of other researchers says is that this doesn’t hold up.
“Participants in my study highlighted that returning home is often accompanied by many challenges, particularly when returning home is not the choice asylum seekers make, when they are forced or deported. »
Kusari’s work on migration has won him several prestigious awards, including Killam Predoctoral Laureate (2020-2022). She won the one-year $30,000 Dean’s Doctoral Recruitment Scholarship in 2018, as well as a four-year $20,000 SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship, also in 2018.
Back in Kosovo, making a difference
Kusari returned to Kosovo and is working with social workers and service providers on training to better prepare them to work with the returning migrant population. She emphasized that this does not happen all at once. Kusari is aware of cases of asylum seekers who left during the 1999 war, were only recently repatriated and are struggling because they have not lived there for 15 years or more, have children who do not have never been there and don’t speak the language, which presents unique challenges.
She is very grateful for the contribution of returning migrant women who participated in her research and showed immense courage in sharing their stories and offering insight into the complexity of return.
Help develop the curriculum for a course on migration
Kusari is also working with a professor at the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Prishtina, Kosovo’s largest university, to integrate his findings into the curriculum of a course being developed on migration.
And she is also determined to maintain her ties with Canada. Kusari was hired by the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies provide training on case management with asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants to service providers across Alberta. And she continues as a session instructor at UCalgary.
“I really feel like I have two homes now and can embrace my hybrid identity as a Kosovo Albanian and Canadian. The support I received at the University of Calgary was incredible and I made some of my best friends there.
“I never considered myself a researcher until I came to the University of Calgary. He was my master’s supervisor, Christine Walsh, which really helped me become the researcher I am today. She made me see research as something that is not scary. My thesis director, Yahya El-Lahib, enhanced my theoretical understanding of migration issues and helped me create a unique framework through which to study migration in Kosovo. Thanks to their support and encouragement, I really enjoy research.
“It’s amazing because my idea when I was 14 was to go and have a different experience in high school and then come back, but I got accepted to a Canadian university and now I’m finishing my third degree.”