The world is undergoing a refugee crisis. With more than 14 million newly displaced people in 2014 alone, the total number of refugees worldwide now exceeds 60 million — more than at any time since World War II. The horrifying images emerging from Syria over the last few weeks have brought the crisis to the forefront of the international psyche. These refugees need places to go, but governments and taxpayers around the world are wary of taking them in due to the costs.
Libertarians understand that government assistance isn’t the only option. Foundations, churches, mutual-aid societies and generous individuals already pay a crucial role resettling refugees, providing vital financial, education, and emotional support. Yet their efforts are curtailed by government federal restrictions on the number of refugees allowed to enter the country.
The State Department recently announced it will welcome 5,000-8,000 Syrian refugees to the United States in 2016. That’s better than the 2,000 or so Syrians approved for resettlement in 2015, but it pales in comparison to the four million who have been displaced since 2011. The U.S. cap for refugee admissions in 2015 is set at just 70,000—a huge drop from the 120,000+ admitted per year in the early 1990s. We can do better.
Fortunately, it’s possible to increase the number of refugees who can legally enter the United States without putting a strain on government budgets. Policymakers can rely on the rich American tradition of philanthropy and allow the private sector to take on most or all of the added financial burden. Private refugee sponsorship has been implemented successfully here and abroad before. We should build on the lessons of these successful programs to help thousands more refugees at a minimal cost to taxpayers.
Here are five ideas for increasing private-sector refugee sponsorship:
- Let Syrian-American and other immigrant communities sponsor their displaced countrymen without the high cost of state sponsorship.
From 1987 to 1995, the Private Sector Initiative relied on the private sector to fund the processing, travel, medical care, and resettlement costs for refugees. The program processed more than 8,000 refugees, mostly Cubans through the Cuban American National Foundation. In 1990, the Coordinator for Refugee Affairs approved a pilot program for two nonprofit organizations to privately finance the admission and resettlement of 8,000 Soviet Jews. Similar programs could work today.
- Establish official programs that allow private groups to sponsor refugees and help them to become self-reliant without using government funds.
Since 1978, the Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program has resettled more than 200,000 refugees. Charitable organizations and groups of citizens pool funds to supply assistance to refugees. Research suggests these refugees become self-supporting far more quickly than those sponsored by the government. Americans should follow Canada’s example.
- Establish public-private partnerships that reduce taxpayer costs.
The Blended Visa Office-Referred Sponsorship Program is another worthwhile Canadian initiative. The government and private groups each provide six months of initial refugee support. This blended program does dip into public coffers, but halves the cost for the first and most important year of refugee assistance. The Canadian program has accepted 1,000 refugees each year since launching in 2013, at much lower cost than fully funded government refugee programs.
- Incentivize private fundraising for refugee resettlement through a government-matching program.
If the government provides $1 for every $3 raised privately, for example, more refugees could escape persecution in their home countries.
- Leverage the power of federalism and let states implement their own refugee programs.
Earlier this year, the Michigan state legislature passed Resolution 09, which urged Congress to place 25,000 displaced Iraqis in the state. State-based immigration reform is receiving attention lately, due to the inability of Congress to pass nationwide reform. The federal government should grant permission to Michigan and other states to launch their own programs to encourage the private support of refugees.
Private refugee sponsorship is an effective and fiscally responsible way to support displaced people. As I wrote yesterday, Icelanders have already showcased the compassion necessary for robust private refugee sponsorship. As attention to refugee policy heightens with the increase in Syrian refugees and the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean, the time has never been better to pursue innovative solutions to this crisis.