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How Private Sponsorship Programs Could Help Resettle Refugees

Man holding his toddler daughter in a church.
Syrian refugees at a Toronto church during a welcome service on December 11, 2015. © Mark Blinch/Newscom

When Jennifer Nagel, associate chair of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto, saw the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey, she felt compelled to do something. With a Facebook post, she brought together 15 friends and family to raise the $33,000 they needed to sponsor a Syrian widow and her five children, currently living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Nagel and her friends will be responsible for supporting the family for a year, after which time they will be expected to be self-sufficient.

Canada began encouraging private sponsorship of refugees in 1979. Since then, volunteers there have helped resettle more than 225,000 people.

The current refugee crisis has spurred Canadians to action again. Last week, 164 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada as part of the new government’s commitment to accept 25,000 refugees by February. All 164 were privately sponsored, and the Canadian government aims to have up to 40 percent of incoming refugees privately sponsored by February.

Private groups will support the refugees upon their arrival in Canada, though the government will pay for their transportation, initial medical costs, and arrival expenses. Across the country, NGOs and government agencies have organized information fairs to bring together potential sponsors, educate people about the sponsorship process, and alleviate any apprehension they may feel.

Such sponsorship programs for refugees also exist in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Argentina. Ireland and Switzerland have experimented briefly with private sponsorship to reunite Syrian families, and the UK announced in October that it plans to develop a private sponsorship program.

With the exception of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, these programs only apply to Syrian refugees. In the United States, private refugee sponsorship has been used in the past for Cubans and Soviet Jews, but the current U.S. asylum system involves public–private partnership, in which NGOs partner with the government to resettle refugees.

Private sponsorship programs typically operate in parallel to government resettlement efforts and, in some cases, help expand the number of places available to refugees. A report just released by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) shows how sponsorship of refugees by private individuals or groups can serve as a safe and orderly means for refugees to reach protection. The report is part of a joint project between MPI Europe and the Open Society Foundations called EU Asylum: Towards 2020, which aims to contribute to the reform of the Common European Asylum System.

The report notes that at a time when policymakers are seeking solutions to the ongoing refugee crisis, innovative programs such as these could help spread the costs among different actors, reducing burdens on state entities. They also allow individuals and communities to actively take part in solving the crisis.

As part of the program in Canada, Jennifer Nagel and her friends will help the Syrian family they are sponsoring with school enrollment, housing, job search, health care, and navigating life in Canada. The Canadian organization Lifeline Syria recommends that individual private sponsors form groups of five or more to distribute the hosting tasks and to raise the required funds to support the refugees during their first year in the country. Sponsors need to submit a plan that covers all the practical needs of the families when they arrive, and undergo a background check before they are matched with a refugee family in the Middle East awaiting resettlement.

Some programs also allow organizations, corporations, churches, and other entities to sponsor refugees for resettlement. Australia only allows sponsorship by an organization; individuals and communities wishing to support refugees must work through these entities.

Studies have shown that privately sponsored refugees tend to become self-supporting sooner than government-assisted refugees. While such programs are not without pitfalls—including concerns that governments could offload responsibility for resettlement—they could offer the European Union much-needed alternatives to the current refugee crisis. The MPI report encourages the European Commission, European Asylum Support Office, EU Member States, and NGOs to examine such programs. 

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