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Private Sponsorship Is Not Panacea for Refugee Integration

A rush of international interest in the effectiveness of Canada’s private sponsorship of refugees often overlooks troubling aspects of relying on private citizens to fill gaps in integration, say researchers on Syrian resettlement in Canada.

Written by Craig Damian Smith, Tea Hadziristic, Lina Alipour Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Wafaa al-Safadi, right, is greeted by a sponsor at a community gathering welcoming her family in Queensland, Nova Scotia, Canada on April 16, 2016. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP

Canada’s unique refugee resettlement system combines government and private sponsorship. The private sponsorship aspect is enjoying significant international attention: The UNHCR hails it as a “model for the world”; by one account, 13 countries have approached Canada, with several initiatives looking to export it to the U.S., U.K., Europe and beyond.

The model is attractive for obvious reasons. Privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) generally have better integration rates than government-assisted refugees (GARs). Private sponsorship engages citizens in resettlement and passes on costs and responsibilities, fostering inclusion and freeing up government capacity. Finally, sponsors can “name” those they wish to resettle, providing opportunities for family reunification and durable chain migration.

One key reason for integration differentials is that PSRs arrive to people devoted to their settlement. GARs, on the other hand, are largely reliant on caseworkers. In Toronto, the average caseload ranges from 60 to 75 families, meaning stark differences in support for first-year settlement.

The often-overlooked dynamic, however, is that PSRs have higher education rates, greater proficiency with languages and higher social capital. These contribute to more rapid integration, but also allow them to access private sponsorship in the first place. GARs, in contrast, are referred by UNHCR on grounds of vulnerability, and have lower capital across the board. They require more support than PSRs, but arguably receive less. These factors skew integration metrics.

Together Project is a nonprofit project of Tides Canada that matches groups of Canadians with government-assisted refugees to foster rapid, durable integration. It recently completed a three-month research project on volunteer mobilization around Syrian refugee resettlement funded by the government agency Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. We conducted surveys with 60 volunteer and settlement sector actors, followed by fieldwork across Ontario, comprising several dozen semi-structured interviews.

Though not the norm, our findings indicate that there are some pernicious consequences of relying on private citizens for settlement. We found evidence of sponsorship groups that were unprepared for the scale of their responsibilities, and despite good intentions likely abrogated norms of conduct. These findings confirm anecdotal accounts common to those who work with refugees and sponsors.

Common references to “our refugees” or “our Syrians” are revealing of the fact that private sponsorship is characterized by relationships of structural dependency. A recent New York Times article, perhaps unwittingly, draws out these fraught dynamics quite explicitly. In many cases, we heard stories of paternalistic behavior, including micromanaging finances, assuming access to confidential medical appointments, intervening on child-rearing and even limiting newcomers’ access to co-national or co-religious groups.

We encountered instances where PSRs have a limited understanding of, and agency in, their relationship with sponsors. One respondent, a local imam working closely with newly arrived Syrians, argued that PSRs experienced undue pressure to assimilate, and should be educated on their rights to autonomy and self-expression.

The potential for burnout among sponsors is high, particularly since they serve as de facto social workers, therapists and employment counselors – roles for which they are often insufficiently trained or altogether unprepared. Many sponsors are not aware that newcomers can, and in most cases should, be registered with professional settlement agencies.

Though the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program offers a comprehensive overview of responsibilities, oversight can be minimal. Sponsorship Agreement Holders are not officially responsible for monitoring sponsorship group relationships – although many take it upon themselves – and there are no universal benchmarks for success. The lack of robust oversight increases the likelihood of cultural insensitivity, judgment around household dynamics and frustration at the pace of integration among sponsors and refugees.

In rural areas where government support is absent, we found that private groups relied on wider social circles for meeting settlement needs, and developed their own training materials and best practices. Sponsors with previous knowledge of social services and norms of conduct meant better-supported, more empowered newcomers. Aggregate statistics don’t capture these microlevel dynamics of social network mobilization to support PSRs.

The focus on private sponsorship also overlooks crucial collaborations between civil society, NGOs and the wider settlement sector (the collection of government-funded and independent settlement service provision organizations) – important dynamics, given that most refugees in interested states are resettled by governments.

From 1990 to 2009, the Canadian Government operated the Host Program, which paired volunteers with newcomers from all immigrant categories. It operated under three general themes: settlement and adaptation; community, social and professional networking; and a two-way exchange of respective cultures. The previous Canadian government cancelled the Host Program in 2009.

Civil society has taken up the mantle of supporting the integration of government-assisted refugees. The Together Project model is based on the hypothesis that Canadians and established newcomers to Canada play a crucial role by fostering new arrivals’ access to social networks beyond co-ethnic, co-national and co-religious groups, which scholarship shows as a key contributor to integration.

Other initiatives have intuited the same relationship. In almost every location of our research, we found volunteers, civil society and settlement agencies cooperating to match under-supported GARs with broader social networks. Actively including citizens in integration is thus not limited to private sponsorship and its attendant financial and legal responsibilities.

In smaller cities, some respondents argued that matched Syrian GARs fared better than their PSR counterparts. As one settlement worker argued, matching meant volunteers “didn’t touch their money,” removing aspects of dependency and harnessing “the best aspects of the PSR model” while allowing more egalitarian relationships.

The bottom line is that private sponsorship is not a cure-all for integration. States considering the model should incorporate oversight, training and benchmarks for success. Governments looking at Canadian successes should also consider how civil society mobilization works beyond private sponsorship, particularly since European states already host large numbers of refugees who require support.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

CLARIFICATION: This version clarifies that the research project was funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada but was not conducted on its behalf and its findings do not represent the agency’s views.

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