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A New Model for Refugee Resettlement Puts People First, and Gathers Support

Parents and children in a farmers market
A Syrian refugee family meets with Canadians and other Syrian refugees at a farmer’s market in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on Dec 10, 2016. © Ashley Gilbertson/VII for UNICEF/Redux

In the United States, the children of undocumented migrants are taken from their parents. In Italy, the government is turning away boats that have saved migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been pressured by immigration hardliners to limit access to asylum.

These days, it is hard to find good news about refugees and asylum seekers being afforded protection and support by governments. So it is particularly heartening to see a group of governments take a stand for something far more positive—committing themselves to support an approach to refugee resettlement whose strength lies not with the state, but with ordinary people.

On Monday, July 16, ministers responsible for immigration from Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Argentina, Ireland, and New Zealand issued a statement fully endorsing the concept of community-based refugee sponsorship—a model, initially developed in Canada, which places newly arrived refugee families with networks of community sponsors who take the lead in integrating the arrivals into their new communities.

In their statement, the six ministers declared their commitment to “piloting or implementing community-based refugee sponsorship programs as part of our response to the global refugee crisis.”

Canada began encouraging private sponsorship of refugees in 1979. Since then, one in every three Canadians have helped resettle almost 300,000 people—with demonstrably more successful socioeconomic outcomes than traditional schemes where the state or local authorities try to take a lead role. Canada has shown that, over time, sponsorship develops a deeply engaged and long-lasting constituency sympathetic to newcomers and diversity, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. Critically, sponsorship also is immensely rewarding to the sponsors themselves and helps build stronger communities.

In their joint statement, the six ministers noted that “in countries that have already launched these programs, we are seeing the receiving communities themselves transformed by the experience, as powerful bonds between sponsors and refugees are established, and positive attitudes towards refugees are fostered. Sponsors frequently comment that this is the most meaningful activity they have ever been a part of.”

“We recognize,” they added, “the need to show solidarity with other refugee-hosting states, to maximize refugee integration outcomes, and to find new and innovative approaches to refugee protection.”

The idea of taking the Canadian experience to other countries led to the creation in late 2016 of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, which is jointly supported by the Open Society Foundations, the Government of Canada, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the University of Ottawa, and the Radcliffe Foundation.

Over the past year, the UK community-based sponsorship program has continued to expand, while pilot schemes have begun in Ireland, New Zealand, and Argentina. Spain is the latest country to commit itself to testing the model, with an initial pilot being developed in collaboration with the regional government of the Basque Country.

The Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative has helped promote the model worldwide by educating, training, and supporting government officials and civil society groups interested in developing programs in their own countries.

The joint statement in support of the community-based refugee sponsorship model comes as the international community is preparing a Global Compact on Refugees, which aims to strengthen international refugee responses by better sharing support for refugees globally, in cooperation with refugees and affected host countries.

The joint statement ends with a refreshingly positive call for other countries to “consider joining our growing cohort of countries” who are developing community-based refugee sponsorship, and a commitment to provide joint support for an approach that builds, above all, on our common humanity.

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