What Joe Biden can learn from Canada's private refugee sponsorship program

·5 min read
<span class="caption">Newly arrived refugee children learn how to skate from Ottawa Senators staff in Ottawa in March 2016. </span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand</span></span>
Newly arrived refugee children learn how to skate from Ottawa Senators staff in Ottawa in March 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Among U.S. President Joe Biden’s early executive orders has been a promise to expand the country’s refugee resettlement program. But it will take significant work to reverse the decline of the American program under Donald Trump over the previous four years, when Canada surpassed the United States as the leading nation of resettlement.

In 2020, fewer than 12,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, down from almost 85,000 in 2016.

While the U.S. is looking to reclaim global leadership from Canada on resettlement, there is growing interest in adapting one prominent and long-standing feature of the Canadian model of resettlement: private refugee sponsorship.

Earlier this year, more than 50 organizations called upon the Biden administration to include colleges and university sponsorship programs “as part of any private sponsorship initiative established by the administration.”

Private sponsorship works in Canada

It’s not hard to see the appeal of Canada’s system of private sponsorship. Since it was first introduced into law more than 40 years ago, private sponsors have helped resettle over 300,000 refugees. Two million Canadians report that they personally helped Syrian refugees resettle in Canada.

Next year, the Canadian government expects private sponsors to take responsibility for resettling almost twice as many refugees as the government itself.

Sponsors commit to providing funds to cover the first year of settlement in Canada, while the government provides health care, education, language training and some other costs. In 2018, the government estimated the cost to sponsors at $16,500 for an individual refugee, and $28,700 for a family of four.

A virtual citizenship ceremony is viewed on a smartphone.
New Canadians take part in a virtual citizenship ceremony last December in a video recorded from a livestream on the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration’s YouTube channel, as seen on a smartphone in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Giordano Ciampini

The program has a number of positive effects, in addition to government savings and the expansion of refugee protection.

Some studies indicate that measures of social and economic integration (such as employment rates and earnings) are higher for sponsored refugees, compared to government-assisted ones — although significant differences in selection can make these comparisons challenging. Private sponsorship — possibly by increasing personal contacts with refugees — might also help foster pro-immigrant sentiment among the general public.

However, it’s also important for advocates and policy-makers to be aware of tensions and dilemmas within the Canadian program they are seeking to replicate.

Displaced Europeans

The origins of the Canadian program can be traced to the period following the Second World War, when religious groups sponsored family members and those of the same faith who were displaced in Europe.

This introduced the concept of “naming” into the program, which allows sponsors to choose — by name — the refugees they are resettling.

Many regard this as a strength of the Canadian program; it certainly contributes to the motivation of sponsors, some of whom use the program for family reunification. However, it also creates an ethical dilemma when scarce resettlement spots are not filled by the most vulnerable refugees prioritized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Canada ostensibly tried to address this problem with the introduction of the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program, established in 2013. It lowers the financial burden on sponsors in exchange for government control over selection. The program has been significantly less popular with sponsors, however.

The intimate relationships between refugees and sponsors are also a core feature of the Canadian program. In images popularized by media, sponsors often meet refugee families at the airport, arrange their housing, and become closely involved in their private lives in their first year of settlement.

A Syrian-Canadian man hugs and kisses his newly arrived grand-daughter
A Syrian-Canadian man meets his grand-daughter for the first time in Toronto in December 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

These scenes have positive long-term effects. However, they can also interfere with the sense of agency and self-reliance felt by refugees to define their path of social integration.

The private sponsorship program also leads to the broader privatization of refugee resettlement. This dynamic empowers religious groups and other civil society organizations to become more closely involved in refugee protection. It allows for the underlying humanitarian sentiments in society to be organized and expressed via concrete action.

Rights and responsibilities

However, the problem of refugees is not simply an issue of charity. It’s also a matter of rights and responsibilities.

A refugee program that is primarily run and paid for by civil society groups can risk allowing the state itself to shirk its international responsibilities to help resolve a continuing global refugee crisis. Canada’s increasing reliance on private sponsors to meet resettlement targets suggests a shifting balance in this direction.

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. refugee resettlement program has operated through a partnership between only a small handful of voluntary agencies and the government. One of the merits of the Canadian program is that it’s evolved from similar origins to embrace more than 120 groups as sponsorship agreement holders.

This may be the real upside for the U.S. and the Biden administration: the executive order could significantly broaden the number of organizations and stakeholders actively involved in the work of resettlement. But Canada’s successes and challenges with private sponsorship contain lessons for the U.S. as it charts the next steps in its resettlement program.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Shauna Labman, University of Winnipeg and Geoffrey Cameron, University of Toronto.

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Shauna Labman received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Geoffrey Cameron received funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.