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Explainer: Private Sponsorship of Refugees

There is renewed attention on a resettlement policy that saves governments money, generates political will and delivers more favorable outcomes for refugees themselves.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A mural on a building close to the Maryhill Integration Network in Glasgow. In a new scheme being developed by the government, councils and charities will be encouraged to work together to welcome more refugees into the country. Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Among the biggest brakes on resettling more refugees in wealthier countries is governments’ fear of the political and financial costs. This is why an approach that claims to reduce both is receiving considerable attention in Europe, the U.S. and beyond.

The idea is that individuals, families or organizations volunteer to take responsibility for specific refugees. It can mean a church group or a family sponsoring a refugee they have not met, or members of a diaspora group sponsoring a relative to join them in their adopted country.

It also gives concerned citizens a more concrete way to respond to humanitarian crises beyond donating money or liking social media posts.

Supporters of private sponsorship schemes say they can relieve some of the cost of integrating new arrivals for the state and create a vocal constituency and political will in favor of further resettlement. Both aspects appeal to many politicians who are not ideologically opposed to immigration at all costs.


While the idea has currency at the moment, it is not new. A provision of Canada’s 1976 Immigration Act opened the door to private sponsorship of refugees (PSR) and a large number of refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam came through it during the exodus from Southeast Asia in 1979 and 1980. Images of desperate “boat people” stirred Canadian consciences and over the course of two years 34,000 of the 60,000 refugees resettled in Canada came via the private route, sponsored by more than 7,000 groups.

In Canada, sponsorship entails paying for food and rent, clothes and day-to-day expenses; help with gaining access to basic services from banking to healthcare, finding interpreters, connecting with the local community and finding a job. Sponsorship typically lasts for up to one year or until the refugee becomes self-sufficient.

To date, PSR has contributed to the resettling of nearly a quarter of a million refugees in Canada. While governments in much of the rich world struggle with domestic opposition to more generous provision for refugees, public support in Canada has remained relatively strong.

Since 1979, the government has pledged to resettle one refugee for every privately sponsored individual. As a result, numbers of refugee places have broadly tracked public support for resettlement.

Canada’s immigration minister John McCallum recently quipped that he was “the only immigration minister in the world who can’t produce refugees fast enough for communities who want them.”

Renewed Interest

The largest single driver of renewed interest in private sponsorship is the war in Syria and the resulting refugee exodus.

Most European countries are not nations of immigrants in the same way as Canada and Australia, which both offer private sponsorship, or the U.S., which admits more refugees than any other country but under a system with similarities but no wholly private route.

Europe’s exposure to refugees has been the product of proximity rather than choice. Only 6,380 refugees were resettled to E.U. member states via managed routes in 2014, according to Eurostat. The vast majority of the roughly 1.1 million refugees and migrants who entered the E.U. in 2015 arrived by sea and later sought asylum. A study for the European Parliament in 2013 found no examples of private sponsorship of refugees.

This is changing already. Something akin to the Canadian model has been adopted in Germany and Ireland, while the U.K. recently passed new provisions to make way for “community sponsorship.” Experiments are also underway in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Outside Europe, New Zealand and Argentina have programs, while Australia instituted a pilot version in 2013, capped at 500 places per year.

There has also been a flurry of efforts late in the Obama administration to push through a resumption of private sponsorship in the U.S. A version allowed between 1987 and 1995, which mainly benefited Cuban refugees, was later shut down. But proposals currently being considered by the State Department have been held up by complaints that officials want stifling levels of control over sponsors.

Whether these proposals make it beyond the discussion stage is likely to hinge on the outcome of the U.S. election, where radically different positions have been taken by the presidential candidates on the resettlement of refugees.

Various Models

Globally, the rules governing private sponsorship are far from uniform. Fifteen of Germany’s 16 states operate a version that is accessible only to Syrians. Ireland allows the sponsorship only of Syrian refugees, while Argentina has a program for nationalities affected by the Syria crisis.

The length of sponsorship also varies, as does the requirement for the sponsor to have a family link to the refugee. The costs borne by sponsors differ markedly. In Australia, fees to the government alone total $23,000 per refugee whereas in Canada it’s estimated that the entire cost of sponsoring family of four comes to a little over $20,000.

There are two main groups who can be sponsored. Typically, Canada considers only cases referred to them by the U.N. refugee agency or refugees identified by the sponsor – which can include relatives and friends, or cases where a group has obtained the referral from an overseas contact. All sponsored individuals have to qualify under refugee or asylum conventions and pass stringent health and security checks.

An Alternative to Deadly Sea Crossings

Advocates argue that private sponsorship could be a viable alternative to dangerous irregular routes for refugee families. In a report encouraging the expansion of private routes, the Migration Policy Institute said: “If private sponsorship comes to be seen as a viable alternative to irregular movement, it could not only increase opportunities in countries already hosting resettled refugees but also spur other countries to take part in the resettlement process.”

With its inherent endorsement of the private sector, which appeals to many on the political right, and its tendency to build public support for human rights, which appeals to the left, private sponsorship programs can be a bipartisan policy favorite.


Security concerns are regularly highlighted but refugees coming via the private route have to pass the same background checks and interviews as those received into government programs.

However, some charities in the refugee space remain wary. They fret over letting governments off the hook. While Canada has committed to the principle of complementarity by matching public and private places, Australia has not. Groups that want to see resettlement places expanded do not want privately sponsored places to count toward public quotas.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) advises governments to use private sponsorship as an addition to offering resettlement places, not a substitute.

The Research

When researchers looked at outcomes for private versus publicly sponsored refugees they found the former tended to become self-supporting sooner than government-assisted refugees. Having ready-made guides in local communities helps newcomers access housing and employment, as well as learn the language and customs of the host country – something that policy wonks call “social capital.”

It also has the potential to expand narrow definitions of family reunification, a common complaint from refugees themselves. Refugees in the E.U. have the right to be joined only by their spouses and children under 18 years old. Private sponsorship could open the way to more extended family reunifying.

However, some experts warn that allowing systems to be dominated by family reunification could diminish the ripple effect of resettlement through wider society, where people have first-hand experience of refugees.

Some of the uncertainty about the impact of private sponsorship is down to the fact that the only long-term research into the results of private sponsorship comes from Canada. Further studies are needed to determine how it is working elsewhere.

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