Skip to main content Skip to local navigation

To stay or not to stay: The geographies of immigrant integration, transnationalism, and return intentions among African immigrants in Canada

To stay or not to stay: The geographies of immigrant integration, transnationalism, and return intentions among African immigrants in Canada

Professor Joseph Mensah

Increasingly, governments at both ends of the migration cycle recognize the value of (im)migrants, and are finding ways to support them for their respective national interest. Generally, countries of origin, especially in Africa, seek to attract their diasporic talents and resources back home for national development, just as countries of destination (e.g., Canada) are using their immigrant populations to open trade links overseas and to supplement their own labour force. That immigrants also explore their own return options in both the origin and destination cannot be overlooked. Concurrently, in the case of many African immigrants in Canada, there are indications that the longer they stay here, the more likely their concerns shift from issues of racism and access to such resources as employment, housing, and education to matters of retirement, investments, return, and reintegration back home. Given these trends, the need to know more about immigrants’ intentions to stay or not to stay in the host country cannot be overstated.  

What kinds of social and human capital characterize those who decide to return? Do returnees have higher education than those who remain in situ? How do gender, marital status, and income, among other background characteristics, affect or complicate the return decision? What effects, if any, do the transnational activities of immigrants have on their return intentions? How does immigrants’ integration in the host country affect their intentions to return? And what are the relationships between the place- and time-dependent attributes of immigrants, on the one hand, and their return intentions, on the other? Clearly, return migration intentions elicit important questions for social science research.  

“My five-year SSHRC Insight Grant project from 2017-22 examines the return intentions of African immigrants in Canada, in the context of their transnational and integration processes, drawing on the experience of Ghanaians and Somalis in Toronto and Vancouver,” says Professor Joseph Mensah. "The study used both qualitative in-depth interviews and a quantitative survey—with a sample of 956 Somalis and Ghanaians drawn from Toronto and Vancouver—for the procurement of its empirical data," he expounds.

To date, the project has yielded several conference papers; two publications (in Canadian Ethnic Studies and International Migration); one forthcoming chapter in a book on Migration in West Africa (Springer), edited by Professor Joseph Teye of the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), University of Ghana; and other papers are in the production pipeline. In fact, based partly on this project, CMS has invited me to join the Advisory Board of its China-Ghana Corridor of South-South Migration, Inequality, and Development Hub a Global Challenge Research, funded by UK Research and Innovation. More recently, I have been recruited to join UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) editorial team to produce the inaugural Southern African Migration Report for the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

These are the main findings of the project:

  • That return migration is a multifaceted phenomenon, imbued with disparate geographies, temporalities, challenges, and prospects, all of which make its associated intentions hard to theorize. Indeed, the key factors that inform the decision to stay or not to stay are scaler, varying at the individual, community, and national levels.
  • That the contemporary migrant experience is primarily Janus-face. Accordingly, immigrants  tend to be transnational in both their pre- and post-return periods; put differently, they do not abandon their transnational activities upon their return home.
  • At the risk of promoting sentiments of crude essentialism, the findings suggest that the basic Africanness of the participants (i.e., per their nationality, race, ethnicity etc.) engender a differential imperative and assessment of what it is to be an immigrant in Canada, which, for most of them entails the urge and expectation to return home someday, especially during the retirement ages. Relatedly, because of their race, they are particularly susceptible to anti-Black racism in Canada, and this also feeds into their longing to return. Similarly, coming from the long-embattled continent, many Africans arrive in Canada with limited resources and, thus, struggle with their settlement and integration processes (including home ownership) — this also promotes their return. Paradoxically, the African immigrant is “unique,” just like any other immigrant.
  • Using multinomial logistic regression, I examined the key variables underpinning the return intentions of these immigrants and found, for instance, that those who were born in Somalia are less likely to have return intentions, compared to their Ghanaian counterparts. Moreover, those who live in Toronto are more likely to have plans to return, relative to those in Vancouver; and those who find the level of racism in Canada to be high are more likely to have return plans. Understandably, those who plan to return tend to see racism as a temporary ordeal, rather than an adversity to endure permanently.
Community conversation with members of the Ghanaian community in Toronto in 2018 at Ghana Presbyterian Church of Toronto. Photo credit: Ghanalinx Media Group.

From the work of historians (e.g., Robin Winks and James Walker) and the celebrations of Black History Month, we know that Black Africans were among the first non-Aboriginal residents of Canada.  Yet, the first major wave of free Black continental Africans arrived in Canada only in the 1980s and 1990s. And since most of them came in their 20s and 30s, it is only now that they are entering their retirement age and, thus, prompting this historic opportunity to study their return intentions—there lies the primary import of this project from the standpoint of social science scholarship.

Insights from this project will help origin countries in their planning to receive and integrate returnees into their society, just as it will help  host countries (e.g., Canada) to deal with issues of immigrant settlement and integration. Additionally, by comparing Somalis and Ghanaians, the project sheds light on how return intentions play out among predominantly Muslim versus Christian immigrant groups. Furthermore, the comparison of Somali and Ghanaian immigrants evinces how varying conditions in the home country (e.g., regarding ethnic violence or democratic governance) affect the return intentions of migrants. The emphasis on spatial- and time-dependent variables, and the use of both Vancouver and Toronto, stand to broaden our knowledge of the geographic dimensions of return intentions. Since the project is very data-hungry,
it has offered opportunities to several undergraduate and graduate students, as research assistants, co-presenters, and co-authors, along the way.

Acknowledgement and Dedication

Thanks to SSHRC for funding this 5-year project and to my research assistants and collaborators for their support and contribution to the project.
I dedicate the findings—and the attendant knowledge celebrations—of this project to the cherished memory of my father, the late Mr. M.Y. Mensah,
who passed away in September of 2021.