When my parents decided to immigrate to Canada in the 1980s, they were sponsored by family members who they knew would be waiting for them at the airport. When you ask them today what the greatest factor was in their decision to immigrate to Canada, they say that it was knowing they’d have a support network waiting for them. The daunting journey was made much easier for them because they knew they had a support system that was prepared to help them find a job and show them the nearest church, grocery store and park. If they had a problem, they had a community of people only a phone call away who could help them navigate the new country they found themselves in. This was the basis upon which they built their new life, which turned into a successful immigrant story.
My family’s story is also the story of millions of newcomers who are lucky enough to immigrate to Canada knowing they have people waiting on the other side to make the transition smoother. Some of these immigrants happen to be refugees, who find themselves in an unthinkable position: displaced by war and civil unrest, forced out of their homes and left to pick up the pieces while living in a refugee camp or on the streets of a country that happens to border theirs, until they are accepted for immigration.
The majority of refugees enter Canada as either government-assisted refugees (GARs) or privately sponsored refugees (PSRs). GARs are refugees who are chosen by institutions such as the UN Refugee Agency and then referred to the government of Canada for resettlement, and they are entirely supported by the government for up to one year. PSRs are refugees sponsored by a private group that promises to financially and emotionally support a refugee for the first year that they live in Canada.
Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program began in 1979 as a response to the massive numbers of people who were displaced by the aftermath of war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In just two years, Canadians sponsored 35,000 people from Southeast Asia. Today many of the refugees arriving are Syrian. Canadians’ response shows that their willingness to sponsor and help refugees has only grown in the past 40 years. Support groups have been overwhelmed with offers to volunteer, and sponsors are pleading with the Canadian government to allow them to sponsor more Syrian refugees.
Private sponsors are a part of civil society, associations that “are formed voluntarily by members of society to protect or extend their interests or values.” Civil society organizations can include clubs, unions and associations, families, firms and, of course, private sponsorship groups. Private sponsorship groups are made up of concerned citizens who have voluntarily come together based on a shared desire to help refugees succeed.
There are many success stories of refugees who arrived in Canada through the PSR program, and who have thrived due to that sponsorship. One Syrian man, Alhakam Alsheikh, was privately sponsored and settled in Newfoundland in March 2017. He quickly found work as a technician in a local computer company using the job-search resource provided by the Association for New Canadians in St. John’s, a nonprofit, community-based organization. A year later, the owner decided to retire. Alsheikh raised the money to buy the company and is now running the business.
Many will remember the story of a Syrian refugee sponsored by a group in Guelph, Ontario, who happened to live next door to a bride in distress. Just four days after his arrival in Canada, he sprang into action when a wedding party at a neighbouring house needed help. The zipper on the bride’s dress had broken, and the Syrian, a tailor, was able to sew the dress back together moments before the ceremony, with the help of Google Translate.
Canadian private sponsorship is so highly regarded that in recent years, countries like Argentina, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have experimented with sponsorship programs based on the Canadian model. The United States also started a program in the late 1980s that was short-lived and has yet to be revived.
Recently, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) conducted a Rapid Impact Evaluation to assess the early outcomes of Syrian refugees admitted between November 4, 2015, and March 1, 2016. These refugees came because of the commitment made by the previous federal government to take in 25,000 Syrians. This study showed that privately sponsored refugees had better outcomes than government-assisted refugees. Among PSRs, 83.0 percent reported having help in learning how to shop for food, compared with 69.9 percent of GARs. When buying clothes, furniture and other essentials, 72.4 percent of PSRs reported receiving help, compared with 54.5 percent of GARs. Among PSRs, 63.9 percent were shown how to find a doctor on their own, compared with only 38.8 percent of GARs. And only 32.7 percent of PSRs said they encountered difficulties in learning English and/or French and faced language barriers when they first arrived, compared with 55.1 percent of GARs.
Over half of adult PSRs (52.8 percent) reported that they were currently employed in Canada, compared with just 9.7 percent of Syrian GARs. For 53.8 percent of PSRs, having to learn one of the official languages was their main barrier to finding a job, compared with 82.1 percent of GARs. The challenges of settling and adjusting to life in Canada were cited by 18.1 percent of PSRs but by 32.1 percent of Syrian GARs as the reason why they hadn’t found a job yet.
The study demonstrates that PSRs have a significantly larger chance of finding a job, getting help settling in Canada and improving their outcomes in general.
Government institutions cannot provide emotional support. A refugee cannot consistently rely on a government institution to introduce them to their neighbours, to give them a tour of the best places to go in town or to help them set up their new business. PSRs are less likely to fall through the cracks because they have a direct connection to people who are motivated to ensure they have a smooth transition into their new life in Canada. And the data are clear: this system works. Private sponsorship is beneficial not only to the Syrian refugee population but to all other refugee populations as well. It can be strengthened in the following ways.
- Shift immigration levels to accommodate more PSRs. The federal government’s caps on refugee application intake and acceptance do not reflect the demand from private sponsors. The government has capped private sponsorship application intake since 2012 due to a lack of resources. It is time to come up with a plan to reallocate the resources it may have set aside for GAR processing and commit them to PSRs. As a recent policy paper released by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute states, “IRCC has…capped the number of applications being accepted so an invisible backlog of applications waiting to be submitted by [private sponsors] exists as well. Measures need to be taken to make the program more responsive to demand.”
- Allow applicants fleeing war zones to be sponsored without official refugee status. In 2015, the government allowed some categories of private sponsorship groups to sponsor people who had fled Syria and Iraq due to the recent conflict but who had not obtained official recognition by the UN Refugee Agency or by a foreign state. At the end of 2016, the government capped the number of this type of application at 1,000 for 2017. Due to the willingness of community groups and individuals to privately aid Syrian refugees, the limit was reached in just a few weeks. This option has now been eliminated completely, closing a pathway that was welcomed by private sponsors. That sort of community enthusiasm and demand should be rewarded rather than held back, especially with the conflict still ongoing.
- Private organizations and individuals should devote more resources to research on private sponsorship. Think tanks, academics and others involved in finding solutions to public policy issues related to immigration must stop asking “How can we get the government to do more for refugees?” and begin asking “How can we get communities more involved in sponsoring refugees and helping them settle?” The amount of work being done on immigration by think tanks is currently quite low, and an increase in research will likely result in a strong case for private sponsorship that cannot be ignored. Private and academic research on immigration in general should be increased.
The stronger civil society is, the greater the positive outcomes are for society and for individual refugees. Canada has a good system for private sponsorship of refugees in place already. Strengthening private sponsorship is worth having a conversation about, because the advantages of civil society to refugees are numerous and undeniable. Voluntary action by individuals and groups within civil society ought to be encouraged, and strengthening the refugee system should be only the beginning.
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