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Canada now resettles more refugees than any other country, mostly through private sponsorship

December 30, 2020

Every day Andrea McCoy receives up to five emails from refugees desperate to come to Canada. As the messages flood in, she writes back, “I can’t help you at this time.”

She works for the Anglican diocese on Vancouver Island, which has privately sponsored more than 800 refugees since 2016. But its parishes cannot resettle everyone who writes.

Stephen Watt fields 20 such requests a day. He runs a website, Northern Lights Canada, that matches refugees with sponsors. He tries to help because refugees have “no money, no resources…no hope,” Watt said.

Meanwhile, Action Réfugiés Montréal receives so many queries that its staff can’t keep track, according to its executive director, Paul Clarke.

Private sponsorship gives citizens the power to offer refugees a new life in Canada. It is an alluring and unique alternative to resettlement by the United Nations, which in 2019 resettled less than one per cent of the world’s 20 million refugees.

The result: a deluge of requests and difficult decisions for Canadians.

Nonetheless, thousands sponsor every year. Their generosity is a bright spot in a time of tightening border restrictions. Under President Donald Trump, the United States abandoned its traditional role as the world’s leader in refugee resettlement. Meanwhile, Canada resettled more refugees than any other country in 2018 and 2019, the majority through private sponsorship.

Even so, the odds of being privately sponsored are slim. Because sponsors can name a specific person or family, refugees need relatives, friends or a complete stranger in Canada to help them. And sponsors must be willing to raise the funds — $16,500 per person, more for a family — and file a mountain of paperwork.

I don’t even know how to say to someone, ‘I can’t help you’

Some Canadians are undaunted, sponsoring again and again. Others feel overwhelmed and withdraw. And refugees keep writing, using social media to draw attention to their plight.

Vania Davidovic of Oakville, Ont., has helped 56 refugees since 2015, either as a sponsor herself or by finding other Canadians to take on that role. Most were Syrians she met through Facebook. All were in dire situations. Davidovic simply brought as many to Canada as she could.

But eventually it became too much, even for her. Davidovic recently stopped befriending refugees on Facebook because it was too hard saying no.

“I don’t even know how to say to someone, ‘I can’t help you’,” she said.Davidovic was part of the surge in private sponsorship as Canada scrambled to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. At that time, there were more volunteers than refugees to welcome. That’s no longer the case.

Yet the government expects Canadians will still help refugees, even though other crises do not receive the same attention — and volunteers — as Syria did. In October, it set a target of 22,500 privately sponsored refugees per year for the next three years.

The history of private sponsorship — more than 325,000 refugees since 1978 — shows Canadians are firm believers in the program. While some sponsors drop off, others stick it out, sometimes for decades, forming “a civil society movement like no other,” said Jennifer Hyndman, a professor at York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies in Toronto.

And there’s no shortage of refugees anxious to come. The image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeting Syrians at the Toronto airport in 2015 gave many hope. Basel, a Syrian refugee whose name is being withheld for his safety, watched the footage and cried. “I wished Justin Trudeau could see my situation,” he said in a recent video call from Lebanon.

Basel needed a sponsor in Canada. He turned to social media and contacted people he found online, often through Facebook pages dedicated to refugee issues.

Although private sponsorship is open to all refugees who meet government criteria, it currently skews towards refugees with ties to Canada.

The Anglican diocese on Vancouver Island and Action Réfugiés Montréal focus on refugees with relatives nearby. Both are sponsorship agreement holders, organizations vetted by the government that have a specific number of spots per year. Each has its own selection process, which makes otherwise fraught decisions about which refugees to help easier.

These criteria mean that neither can help the strangers whose emails arrive daily. McCoy says it was sometimes possible to sponsor someone like this when there were many new volunteers a few years ago. Now it doesn’t happen anymore.

Instead, the diocese works with former refugees who live on the island. They help identify others — often but not always friends and relatives — in danger overseas. Sponsorship begets more sponsorship.

Hyndman agrees. Her survey of more than 500 sponsors showed that after Syrian refugees arrived, three out of every five sponsors was asked to bring others. These requests motivate Canadians to help again, she says.

Sometimes refugees resettled by the UN become champions of the program. Abdullah Sarwari is a former Afghan refugee. The Canadian government brought him, along with his mother and two younger siblings, to Vancouver in 2019. When he found out about private sponsorship, he decided to help others.

In September, he launched a Facebook group to attract donors and sponsors for his friend Sikandar Ali, a fellow Afghan living precariously in Indonesia, as Sarwari had been. Immediately, more than a dozen refugees sent messages asking if they too could be sponsored.

Sarwari replies that he can’t help them, yet. He doesn’t even have enough money for Ali. “I want them to have some kind of hope, but at the same time, not too much,” he said.

It’s not impossible for a cold approach to work. Basel eventually found Watt, who has handled paperwork for more than 100 privately sponsored refugees since 2016. With his help, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services in Toronto is sponsoring Basel under its agreement with the government.

He is now waiting for his application to be processed, which may take years. But Basel is overjoyed that he finally found Canadians to help him.

“I forget everything painful or hard during my life in Lebanon, during my life in Syria,” he said.