Hope, Wisdom, Advocacy: An Interview With Toronto’s Deborah Morrish


Cicero wrote that all great achievements require “reflection, force of character and judgment.”

Today’s world certainly needs more of those qualities. In her role as adjudicator, Deborah Morrish applies these talents to help improve the lives of refugees and other vulnerable populations across the globe.

It’s not a job description that you will hear often, but it’s a profession that is uniquely suited to address international crises such as migration, persecution, asylum policy, human trafficking, and more. Beyond the global perspective, Deborah focuses on the way these issues affect individuals and their families, adding one key quality that Cicero forgot: compassion.

As an adjudicator, Deborah is part defender and part negotiator, a professional who works quietly behind the scenes as well as boldly on the public stage. Her interest in this work began more than three decades ago, as Vice Chair of the Ontario Social Assistance Review Board. Deborah went on to make a dramatic impact for refugees as Assistant Deputy Chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board and as a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in South Africa.

Like Cicero himself, Deborah is a lifelong student and educator. Her educational achievements include two master’s degrees, a certificate from the Canada School of Public Service, and a Diploma in Studies in French from La Sorbonne, Paris. She has also earned Alternative Dispute Resolution Certification Parts 1 & 2 in Ontario.

Q: What are the major needs of refugees today?

Deborah Morrish: Well, that’s a broad question, and the answer varies across continents, nationalities and even within specific populations. In Africa, the need can be as basic as food for the family that has just crossed the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. In Europe, it can mean negotiation with state bureaucracies for refugees from the Middle East who are seeking a safe haven from wars, internal conflicts and persecution. 

In North America, it can involve issues of reunification for families that have been separated at the U.S. or Canadian border, or freedom for individuals who find their debts to smugglers have made them essentially indentured servants in their new land. The issues are so varied and vast, that on one hand it’s easy for someone working to solve these problems to feel discouraged. But every success changes your perspective — it’s exhilarating to be a champion for people who so desperately need someone’s help.

Q: What trends have you seen affecting refugees in recent years?

Deborah Morrish: Two developments that stand out are the effect of climate change and a less-welcoming attitude to refugees in many developed societies. As climate patterns shift, some regions have begun to experience chronic droughts, destruction of harvests and more severe weather. Food shortages in turn breed social conflict, and we have seen many parts of the world engulfed in civil wars, revolutions, insurrections and repression. The people who live in these places can’t stay there and still live decent lives, and so they become refugees, seeking asylum where they can find it. 

Q: What does the political reaction of host countries mean for your work as an adjudicator?

Deborah Morrish: The increase in asylum-seekers can create a political reaction in host countries, where the citizenry may be weary of absorbing refugees and even feel resentment about the little assistance refugees receive from governments. 

This is where an adjudicator can make the most impact — defending refugees against both institutional and social prejudice, helping them succeed amid hostility and bureaucratic indifference. Alone in new lands, these refugees are desperate for someone to give them a voice, and that is what a skilled adjudicator can do.

Q: What does your work look like in your daily practice?

Deborah Morrish: On one level, the work of an adjudicator sounds a bit exalted, doesn’t it? You may have an image of a robed philosopher pondering great truths all day, but most of the work is done in the trenches. 

There’s lots of detail involved — finding the right agency for a particular case, submitting the proper paperwork on time, communicating effectively with anxious families and the officials who will make life-changing decisions about them. You must be an advocate, but not strident. You must negotiate, build relationships and earn respect. These are the talents you need and the currency you must have to change our world, one refugee at a time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.