More than 40 people chat and finish their coffees in a high-ceilinged meeting room in Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel. It’s Dec. 15, 2016, -15C outside, one of the coldest days of the winter so far.
There are participants from the governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Some have flown in from their capitals for the three-day conference; others were dispatched from their embassies in town. Joining them are officials from community and faith groups that work with refugees from the U.S., Belgium, New Zealand, the U.K., and elsewhere.
They’ve come to learn about a unique Canadian program that has seen more than 288,000 refugees settle in Canada since the late 1970s, thanks to the support of everyday Canadians. With the Syrian war contributing to an unprecedented global refugee crisis—at the end of 2015, conflict and persecution had pushed more than 65 million people from their homes worldwide, including nearly five million Syrians—other countries are looking to Canada’s private sponsorship program as a model for starting their own.
One of those refugees was a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015 after the crowded boat in which his family was attempting to cross into Europe capsized. Photos of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body galvanized citizens and governments to do more to help refugees.
Prior to the Syrian war, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and a few Nordic nations gave new permanent homes to tens of thousands of UN-recognized refugees annually, if the place where they had originally sought protection wasn’t safe enough for them or didn’t meet their needs. This included some of the most vulnerable people, those with physical or mental disabilities, or single mothers with children, for instance.
But after the Syrian crisis began, staff with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started searching for other ways to resettle refugees in third countries—legally, so they didn’t resort to paying smugglers to lead them on perilous journeys; so there would be no more dead toddlers on the beaches of the Aegean Sea.
The UNHCR estimates 1.19 million refugees under its mandate need resettlement in a third country. There’s no way the refugee agency staff will get all those people resettled, but the more the better, they thought.
The UNHCR had always known that Canada had a unique resettlement program, separate from the usual state-run systems. Though managed by the government, it involves private citizens’ groups stepping up to sponsor refugees. A sponsoring group could select a refugee family living overseas, meet them at the airport, and then look after them for the first year in their new home, including footing the bill for housing, clothing, and food ($12,600 to $32,500, depending on family size), helping the adults find jobs and the children register for school, introducing them to the health-care system, and signing them up for government-supported language programs.
“We were always very supportive of it. But we always left it a bit: that this is the Canadian version, a complementary form of resettlement,” says Johannes Van Der Klaauw, who until late 2016 was the UNHCR’s representative in Canada.
“But the last years, and it was particularly provoked by the Syria crisis, we realized that we are so scarce of resettlement places in these government-run systems that in order to boost the number of places, we could not just continue pushing on the governments.”
It was time to see whether Canada’s outlier system could work elsewhere.
The private stream in the Canadian system—which also includes the traditional government-assisted stream and a blended public/private category—offers many benefits.
Unlike refugees who come through the government stream, which sees high-needs UN-referred refugees get income support and settlement services from the government for up to a year, those helped by private sponsors have an instant social network.
“It’s the difference between arriving in a country knowing no one and going and staying in a hostel or hotel somewhere, and having one paid worker give you the lay of the land, but they’re also serving hundreds of other clients, to arriving at an airport and having 30 people with signs and balloons focused on your well-being greet you, take you to accommodations that have been set up for you and tell you everything that they’ve got organized for you,” says Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, an Ottawa information hub about welcoming refugees.
Privately sponsored refugees, which from 2010 to 2014 accounted for just under half the refugees Canada resettled from abroad, tend to start out with a higher education level and better English or French skills than the government-assisted group. Privately sponsored refugees are more likely to have a higher-paying job and rely less on social assistance than government-assisted refugees, according to Canadian government data.
Sponsorship also benefits sponsors. Many middle-to upper-class Ottawa residents who’ve sponsored Syrians are now getting a crash-course in what it’s like to find decent housing on a tight budget, or how to get from A to B knowing only broken English— things they may never have experienced, says Taylor. “It’s opened a lot of eyes to how the other half lives.”
It all started in the late 1970s. Canadians touched by the Indochinese “boat people” crisis began using a provision in the 1976 Immigration Act that allowed for groups of five or more individuals or agreement holders to sponsor a refugee.
Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government announced that for every refugee sponsored by citizens, it would match it. Canada ended up resettling 60,000 refugees from places like Vietnam and Cambodia between 1979 and 1980, including about 34,000 privately sponsored.
That extraordinary effort helped Canada win the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award in 1986 in recognition of the collective work of the government and residents.
Canada has since spawned a deep network of sponsorship groups, from World University Service of Canada, which involves young Canadians sponsoring refugee students to their campuses, to Rainbow Refugee, which has helped groups to sponsor people facing persecution for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
While other countries have experimented with private sponsorship over the years, Canada is unique in having done it consistently and in large numbers for nearly 40 years.
“As you’ve probably figured out, we’re a bit proud of our model of private sponsorship,” David Manicom, a top Canadian federal immigration official told the Ottawa conference.
Canada has learned from its mistakes and hopes others will learn from them too, he said, noting that the system still is “far from perfect.”
One problem is slow application processing times (upwards of four years in some cases). Even with the high-profile Syrian cases, sponsors have waited months for refugees as rented houses sat empty.
Quebec, which operates its own immigration program, recently announced it would temporarily stop receiving private sponsorship applications to deal with a backlog partly fuelled by the thousands of Syrian cases. Federally, the government has set a cap of 1,000 new Syrian and Iraqi applications for some sponsorship streams in 2017, also to stem a large backlog.
Sponsors have spoken of long, detailed paperwork that’s tough to fill out, especially when they may be working as volunteers with a sponsored family whose members may have fled their home without official documents and don’t speak the same language as their sponsors.
The Canadian Council for Refugees has recently spoken out against what it sees as an erosion of the government’s commitment to additionality: the idea that privately sponsored refugees are above and beyond the government’s own resettlement commitments.
The advocacy group has pointed to the government’s practice of counting refugees arriving through a new blended program that combines government and private support as full government-assisted refugees. The Canadian government insists it’s committed to additionality.
When the UNHCR’s Van Der Klaauw set out to help the world learn about Canada’s private sponsorship program, he got in touch with Jennifer Bond, a University of Ottawa law professor with deep knowledge of the scheme.
Months earlier in 2016, Gregory Maniatis, a senior program adviser with billionaire investor George Soros’ New York- based philanthropic outfit, Open Society Foundations, visited John McCallum, then Canada’s immigration minister. Maniatis had been studying private sponsorship since 2013 in Europe. He’d also watched the Canadian government commit to resettling 25,000 Syrians in a matter of months.
“I came here in February to meet Minister McCallum to basically say, ‘Look, you have to be out there. You have to be out there saying that this can work, with all of its flaws.” The minister, Maniatis says, was immediately supportive of the idea of Canada engaging internationally.
By September 2016, Bond, the UNHCR, the Canadian government, and Open Society Foundations had joined forces, announcing at a UN summit on migration in New York that they would work together to encourage other countries to start or expand private sponsorship programs.
The University of Ottawa later formally joined, as did the Radcliffe Foundation, founded by Canadian businessman Frank Giustra, a mining financier with close ties to former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
They launched the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI) at the three-day Ottawa conference in December.
While Open Society Foundations and Radcliffe shouldered many of the conference bills, Canada’s immigration department gives in-kind support to the partnership, including determining what training tools would most help other countries and giving advice to those seeking to boost their resettlement capacity.
Besides the eight nations at the conference, the department says the United Arab Emirates and others have approached it for help. Some GRSI members estimate that between 10 and 20 countries have expressed an interest in learning from Canada.
Canadians working on sponsorship have also been asked for advice by foreign delegations visiting Canada and at international conferences.
Taylor of Refugee 613 travelled to Ireland in September 2016 to speak at a conference on sponsorship held by the UNHCR’s Irish branch and meet with Irish government officials.
She says her host turned to her at the end of an afternoon of being quizzed on the practicalities of Canada’s program and apologized.
“We didn’t intend to turn you into the human Google,” she recalls him saying. “I came out of Dublin saying to myself, ‘we have got to start sharing our knowledge in a more systematic way to people.’” That’s why the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative makes so much sense. “My government in Brasilia looks at that particular aspect of the Canadian program as a model, something we could be working together to try to replicate,” says Brazilian Embassy counsellor Pablo Cardoso, referring to the fact that faith and community groups are involved in private sponsorship in Canada.
A Brazilian justice ministry official attended the Ottawa conference. The German Embassy, which sent a staffer to the meetings, calls private sponsorship “a Canadian success story.”
A 2013 European Parliament study found no instances of private sponsorship in Europe, according to a 2015 Migration Policy Institute report. But in recent years private sponsorship programs have sprung up, including in Argentina, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the U.K.
The United States started a short-lived private sponsorship program in the late 1980s. Former president Barack Obama’s administration considered restarting it through a pilot program, though his term expired before it could get off the ground.
There’s no carbon copy of Canada’s system. Some other countries’ programs are limited to Syrians and only allow for temporary residency.
GRSI members aren’t looking to create Canadian replicas.
“Canada’s built this elaborate Lego structure…over many years,” Bond told the conference participants. The initiative’s goal is to unpack the pieces of Canada’s program, share them with the world, and let the other countries pick the pieces that will work for them.
The plan is to have a rough draft of training modules ready by a big UNHCR conference in June that other nations could use to start their own programs. From there, the partnership may involve experts visiting other countries to help them set up their own schemes.
The big question is: will it work? Due to its geography, Canada hasn’t experienced a flood of migrants at its borders as many European countries have recently faced. Although the government does process asylum seekers arriving on Canada’s doorstep, it has the luxury of being able to assess whether to admit many candidates while they’re still abroad.
Plus, over the years, the private sponsorship program has sensitized Canadians to refugees. If you haven’t been a sponsor, chances are you know someone who has or you’ve heard about it.
That’s the challenge for Mark Wiggin, whose Catholic charity branch in the U.K.’s Manchester region was the first to welcome a Syrian refugee family as part of the country’s new private sponsorship program. He wants other community groups to do it too.
“The challenge will be that things are much more polarized here,” he told P&I the week after attending the Canadian conference, noting Britain’s planned exit from the European Union was due, in part, to immigration concerns.
He said he thinks people who get involved in sponsorship become the kind of “liberal progressive voice for what can be a very polarized debate about immigration.”
That being said, private sponsorship isn’t tied to the political left. It was started in the U.K. under a Conservative government. It fit former prime minister David Cameron’s ethos, Wiggin said, of “localism:” a transfer of ownership and responsibility into the community. Cynics may say that’s code for downloading government services to the private sector. But Wiggin said at least in Britain, the private sponsorship scheme is not a cost-savings exercise because the government still pays for much of the refugees’ support.
In the U.S., advocates for private sponsorship include the Cato Institute and Niskanen Center, both libertarian think tanks.
Polling done by Ipsos Mori in Germany and Ifop in France in September 2016 for the consultancy firm Purpose suggest 22 per cent of German respondents would very likely or fairly likely participate personally in sponsoring refugees; in France, it’s 20 per cent. Though 64 per cent in Germany and 66 per cent in France said they were not very or not at all likely to participate in sponsorship, sponsorship advocates say the “very likely” camps still amount to millions of people willing to directly support a refugee.
288,000 — Refugees resettled in Canada since the late 1970s.
13,997 — Privately sponsored Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015, as of January 2017.
8 — Countries took part in a December 2016 Ottawa conference on private sponsorship. Immigration officials say more have sought Canada’s advice as they consider putting in place their own resettlement programs.
1.19 million — Refugees in the world need resettlement in a third country, according to the UN refugee agency.