The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Erika Schneidereit

Exporting Canada's private sponsorship model

November 1 2016 1 November 2016

In the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis and demands on national governments to do more, other countries have started looking to the Canadian private sponsorship program as a template from which to design their own schemes. Australia and New Zealand have adopted some form of private sponsorship program over the past several years. The United States is looking at the Canadian model. In July, the United Kingdom also launched its own community sponsorship scheme for refugees.

In most developed economies, the resettlement of refugees has traditionally been considered a job for government. In Canada, the federal government plays a key role obviously, but private organizations and groups have been able to fund and sponsor refugees for over three decades. Known as private sponsorship, this process has been garnering considerable attention in recent years both for its distinctiveness (until recently, Canada had the only private sponsorship program in the world) and for its success. Given the positive effects of this program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has praised the Canadian refugee resettlement model and encouraged the exportation of Canadian-style private sponsorship to other countries.

The Canadian private sponsorship program was established in the wake of another refugee crisis – in this case, the thousands of “boat people” fleeing Vietnam in the late 1970s. In response to this humanitarian emergency, Canada agreed to take in 60,000 refugees, but required that each government-sponsored refugee be matched with a refugee supported by private sponsors. Despite the fact that Canada’s program has been around for decades, it has only been in recent years that international attention turned towards private sponsorship as a potential response to the growing numbers of refugees worldwide. In Canada, over 12,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada through private sponsorship as of October 16, 2016.

In Canada, private sponsors are generally able to identify specific refugees they would like to help. This allows individuals with family members abroad to bring their family members into Canada through private sponsorship. In Britain, however, community groups cannot specifically identify a refugee they would like to sponsor. This limits the ability of these groups to facilitate family reunification in this manner. 

The community sponsorship model in the UK also requires sponsoring groups to get consent from local authorities in areas where sponsored refugees will be resettled. Local authorities can object to resettlement on numerous grounds, including “concerns about community tensions in the proposed housing area.” While it is too soon to say whether local authorities will actually make use of these grounds, explicitly allowing local authorities to block resettlement based on vague concepts such as “community tensions” raises questions about what exactly this phrase is referring to and whether a local authority should be able to prevent the resettlement of refugees on such grounds.

Despite these differences, the newly established community sponsorship scheme in the United Kingdom is clearly a positive innovation, and will hopefully serve as an example to other countries considering adopting some form of the Canadian private sponsorship model.

Erika Schneidereit is a JD candidate at the University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law and an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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