Just recently, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration announced that Canada would resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. This is in addition to the 1300 spaces allocated in 2013 and constitutes 10% of the UNHCR request to the international community for the year 2015-2016. Once again, many Syrians will enter through Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program.
With resettlement needs far out-stretching resettlement spaces worldwide, UNHCR has called for “creative arrangements” to help close this gap.
Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program has long been lauded as one such innovative and flexible resettlement scheme. Indeed, private sponsorship was first conceived as a way to expand resettlement capacity during another refugee emergency: the Indo-Chinese crisis. In that instance, private citizens helped resettle over 34,000 Indochinese refugees. How did the inception of the Private Sponsorship program change the landscape of refugee assistance in Canada?
Just prior to the Indochinese resettlement appeal, Canada had put in place the private sponsorship program, so the timing was fortunate. What was a revelation to all at the time was the willingness of Canadians, including those with no family or ethno-cultural ties, to donate their time and money to enable additional Indochinese refugees to be resettled to Canada. The government set up a matching grant type model where it would resettle a Vietnamese refugee under the national government-assisted refugee program for each one a private sponsor took. However, the response of Canadians far exceeded the government’s planning. Ultimately it demonstrated the capacity and willingness of Canadians to play a role in assisting refugees including refugees outside their own faith or ethno-cultural community.
How has private sponsorship evolved over the years since the Indo-Chinese refugee movement?
The Indochinese refugee movement left a lasting impression on resettlement in a number of ways as it demonstrated the capacity of both society to receive refugees as well as the ability of refugees to integrate even where there was no pre-existing members of the refugees ethnic group. As the Indochinese movement became a smaller component of Canadian resettlement, the program continued resettling thousands each year from a variety of countries around the world. A key change was that sponsors became more involved in identifying the refugees they wanted to sponsor. The government in turn adapted the program at times around select movements. One example was during the 1990s when the government introduced the “3/9 program”. A normal sponsorship involves a group committing to cover the cost of a refugee’s settlement for one year along with providing volunteer time for activities such as orientation, accompaniment to appointments and befriending. In order to encourage private sponsors to sponsor select refugees from the Balkans, the government paid for three months of assistance with the private sponsors paying for the remaining 9 months. The most recent example of this kind of blending of government-private resources is the Blended Visa Officer Referred (BVOR) program which was introduced following the 2012 budget. It involves a select number of UNHCR identified cases for which the government provides six months financial assistance while the sponsor provides the remaining six in addition to volunteer time throughout the year. Another recent trend has been the government’s efforts to reduce application backlogs through a number of different measures including numerical limits as well as an increased focus on applications for persons whom have already obtained refugee status.
The ‘additionality’ component is but one of many benefits that scholars and practitioners attribute to the program. Could you discuss some of these benefits, in your experience as both a Resettlement Officer with the UNHCR and from your previous work in the sponsorship community?
Private sponsors give of their own time and money to enable refugees to be resettled. It involves a wide variety of activities including fundraising, organizing volunteers, finding appropriate housing and befriending. The concept of additionality is that these voluntary contributions should be in addition to a national response and not in place of it. This is an important motivation for many of the organizations who are involved with the program since they recognize that there are a large number of refugees in need of a durable solution and through sponsoring they recognize the role they can play in helping a refugee rebuild his/her life. While some private sponsors are interested in family linked cases (refugees who already have extended family links in Canada), others are specifically driven by the belief that they have aided more refugees to find a solution. UNHCR is well aware of the gap between resettlement needs and resettlement spaces. The private sponsorship program provides a means to enable more refugees to obtain a durable solution through resettlement. A secondary and sometimes overlooked benefit of the program is the public support it builds for refugees among Canadians. Canadians who become involved in private sponsorship do not come away from the experience becoming xenophobes but instead can actually attach a name and a face to the refugee experience. Sometimes sponsored refugees share their stories of why they were forced to flee their homeland. In addition sponsors gain an insight into the hurdles refugees face in integrating in a new country. While faith communities and ethno-cultural groups have traditionally been involved in private sponsorship new groups are also getting involved in the program. Canada has a pilot program encouraging the LGBT community to become involved in private sponsorship. Through this LGBT groups have been assisting LGBT refugees to resettle in Canada.
Can these benefits be translated to a European context?
Absolutely. One thing the private sponsorship program has shown is that it can be flexible. There are numerous examples in Canada how the government has amended the program to either entice new groups to get involved or to respond to public concerns about a particular refugee population. The key ingredients are the government’s willingness to engage with groups in civil society who are interested in assisting refugees and to work with them to develop a model that works for both sides and towards objectives that all support.
Has there been any discussion within UNHCR or among resettlement countries about establishing a similar private model in European countries? Could you discuss what opportunities – and, relatedly, obstacles – you anticipate might accompany a private resettlement option?
UNHCR has been working with Canada to showcase the private sponsorship program to European countries. The program has been showcased in a number of forums most recently at a presentation to EU states that was organized last summer with a follow up scheduled this month. UNHCR has also showcased the private sponsorship program at a regional meeting in South America to explore whether the model might be applicable there. Key elements which will decide whether the program will succeed is whether there is a volunteer culture in the country and whether there is a public concern for refugees. Faith communities can be important allies as many recognize this sort of welcome and assistance as an inherent part of their faith. The Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe has looked at the private sponsorship model as have others as part of expanding resettlement in Europe.
Are there particular refugee populations that a private sponsorship model would best serve? Why?
Not necessarily. It should be recognized though that private sponsors cannot be expected to replace social service programs. At the end of the day sponsors are volunteers. Nevertheless, what they bring is a very practical orientation to the community, the development of friendships and assistance with practical everyday problems and many times they provide refugees with leads to employment opportunities.
Australia recently launched its own pilot sponsorship program. What are some possible rationales for the initiative? How does it differ from the Canadian program in terms of sponsorship and financial structure?
What I happened to hear (firsthand from the Australian Minister at an event in Melbourne) is that he got the idea from a meeting with the then Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Hon. Jason Kenney. I am not sure of the technical differences. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Australia would explore this as there are a lot of parallels between Canadian and Australian resettlement programs.
Coming back to the Canadian context, how has Canada managed the inherent tensions – logistical as well as financial – of a privately-driven program involved in traditionally government functions?
The relationship the government has with NGOs in the private sponsorship program is not the traditional relationship government has with NGO implementing partners. As the NGOs bring their own resources (and are not seeking government funding) the focus of the government-NGO exchange is instead around improving cooperation and program delivery. Topics discussed often relate to pre-arrival issues including application backlogs, acceptance rates and processing time lines. Canada’s challenge in recent years has been managing the program when the number of applications far exceed the number of spaces the government was making available, while at the same time not losing the interest of sponsors.
What are some lessons generally that can be drawn from Canada’s private resettlement experience?
When you consider that thousands of refugees have been resettled involving thousands of volunteers, it is actually amazing how few problems there have been. While some of the issues being debated between the government and NGOs concerning the program are the same as those we debated when I was involved in private sponsorship over ten years ago, one can also lose sight of the significant results. Canada’s private sponsorship program continues to resettle more refugees than the programs of any resettlement country except for the US, Australia and Canada. While it often involves a lot of hard work and generosity, the positive impact cannot be overstated especially at a time when refugees have so few options in terms of solutions.
How does UNHCR-Canada ensure that Syrians most in need are resettled to Canada? What kind of sponsorship mobilization do you anticipate in the next few years – among Syrian-Canadian families, religious and ethnic organizations, or otherwise?
Canada made a commitment in January to resettle 10,000 Syrians between 2015 and 2017. UNHCR and Canada are still working out the operational details at the field level. Nevertheless, already the situation of Syrian refugees has led to an upturn in private sponsorships in Quebec which increased by 350%. With time we are seeing interest grow elsewhere in Canada. When more Syrians arrive in Canada and share their experiences and give witness to the hardships so many Syrians face in the region, I expect the program will grow further. For UNHCR we’ve appealed for the resettlement of 130,000 Syrians between 2013 and 2016. The High Commissioner has been quite clear that as large as this number may seem, it is only a milestone since we are estimating that 10% of Syrian refugees are in need of resettlement. With no sign of a political solution in sight, this movement can be expected to continue for several years.