Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Canada

The History of Private Sponsorship and Private-Public Partnership Programs for Resettlement

Contrary to its public perception, Canada’s private sponsorship of refugee resettlement programs commenced just around the time that the Indochinese refugee flow began, and it has continued for almost 40 years since its initiation. Back in 1979, the Canadian government raised the quota of Indochinese refugees to 50,000 and simultaneously introduced a one-to-one matching formula between private and government sponsorship for refugee settlement. This initiative was preceded by the Immigration Act of 1976, making it possible for private groups and local legally incorporated organizations to sponsor refugees. The act also enabled national organizations to enter comprehensive sponsorship deals with the government upon provision of proof concerning their humanitarian mandate and to sign umbrella agreements with the federal government. These Sponsorship Agreement Holders have formal agreements with the federal government. Historically, the majority of them have been faith-based organizations. A smaller number of refugees are also sponsored by ‘groups of five’ – groups of individuals who sign a commitment of support for a specific refugee or refugees. 

Overall, these programs were initially conceived of as complementary partnerships to government policy. However, private sponsorship often played out more as a tug-of-war between the conflicting interests of government and sponsors over selection, control and determination of numbers of immigrants and refugees to be admitted to the country. Furthermore, sponsors have been regularly confronted with administrative and regulatory challenges. The federal election and change of government in October 2015 reset the government-sponsor framework but at the same time, it exposed the vulnerability and malleability endemic to the program. Against the background of the Indochinese and current Syrian resettlement efforts, it is essential to develop a historical and contextual understanding of private sponsorship in Canada, and, the tensions and conflicting interests effecting the maintenance of such voluntary programs for the resettlement of additional but select refugee groups. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, less than 1% of the average annual tally of 20 million refugees is referred for permanent resettlement to third countries. One possible way forward to offset this miniscule percentage has been suggested as the establishment of refugee selection and admission regimes that share costs between governments and private citizens, permitting states to admit greater numbers of refugees where their citizens are willing and able to contribute their own private resources to the resettlement project. However, as evidenced by Canada’s private sponsorship scheme model, there are pros and cons to public–private cooperation in refugee resettlement. On the one hand, these programs permit the resettlement of greater numbers of refugees. On the other hand, they require and often times lack oversight that is essential to protect refugees who are fully dependent on their sponsorship groups.  

Furthermore, in response to publicly aired security concerns, Canada has limited the immigration flow to women, children and families and has been regularly excluding single male asylum seekers for resettlement. Furthermore, while providing asylum to 40,000 displaced Syrians is a good start, it pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of refugees taken in by Middle Eastern and European countries.  

Until recently, Canada has been listed as the only country that offers private sponsorship to refugees. Between 1978 and the current Syrian initiative, more than 200,000 privately sponsored refugees have arrived in Canada. According to the program rules, refugees become permanent residents upon arrival in Canada and sponsors fund the first year of resettlement while the government covers health care and children’s education. In the second year, refugees become eligible for means-tested government social welfare benefits.  

Restrictions on private sponsorship became markedly noticeable after 2011 with the introduction of limits on the number of privately sponsored refugees, including the imposition of caps targeting the applicant pools, in particular Canadian missions abroad. It is true that the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program helped alleviate some of these limitations. In the case of this latter program, the private sponsor provides half of the first year’s financial support while the federal government contributes the other half. Although this initiative led to further involvement of private actors and civil society organizations in refugee resettlement schemes, the BVOR category significantly restricts private sponsors’ ability to choose those who can be sponsored. Coupled with the securitization of the refugee admissions regime and the commonplace depiction of asylum seekers as queue jumpers and potential terrorists, it is not an easy task to sustain operational certainty or widespread political support for these programs. 

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