Before 1980, refugees that resettled into the United States were sponsored by private individuals or religious communities. The Refugee Act of 1980 established the current system of publicly-funded refugee resettlement through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), which provides standardized services to refugees through designated nonprofits. Since these organizations currently rely on a blend of public and private support, engaging communities is critical to ensuring that refugees are supported during their initial transition into the United States. 

Several countries have found an alternative refugee resettlement method:  private sponsorship, that operates alongside publicly-funded resettlement services. Internationally, private sponsorship programs developed largely due to both corporations and private citizens’ expansive commitments to address the growing refugee crisis in Syria. While there is some variation among programs, they all leverage private support for refugees to bolster government-funded programs. Private sponsorship programs in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina demonstrate the various ways that governments and policymakers can partner with communities to support refugees. 

Canada’s 40-year legacy of private sponsorship

Canada’s private sponsorship program, the oldest and largest globally, has resettled more than 225,000 refugees since its establishment in 1978. 

Canada has three refugee resettlement streams. Two are private sponsorship programs: the privately sponsored refugee (PSR) and blended visa office-referred (BVOR) channels, supplementing Canada’s government-assisted refugee program. In 2018, to address a growing global resettlement need, Canada doubled its privately sponsored refugee quota to 18,000 visas.

Under the PSR program, sponsors provide all costs and services associated with resettlement, including: housing, six months’ financial support, one year of social and emotional support, and health care. Under the BVOR program, private sponsors are responsible for all of the same costs, except for refugee health care. In this program, refugees receive temporary federal health care benefits until they become eligible for their regional health care programs. All refugees resettled into Canada are granted permanent residency upon admission, which comes with work authorization and a path to citizenship. 

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program has two private sponsorship elements: the Special Humanitarian Program and the Community Support Program. The Special Humanitarian Program allows a single individual to sponsor a family member in need of humanitarian protection. The Community Support Program enables individuals, community groups, and businesses to sponsor 1,000 eligible refugees annually for resettlement in Australia. 

In both of these programs, the sponsor must pay all resettlement costs. Sponsors cover the cost of visa applications, airfare, medical screening, and resettlement costs for the refugee’s first year. In return, refugees receive permanent admission on a pathway to citizenship and immediate access to social services and government-sponsored medical assistance. 

However, in Australia, these programs are designed to replace federal funding, not supplement it. This approach has generated considerable criticism because resultant cost-savings are not reallocated to additional or future resettlement efforts. The Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, a collective of refugee-supporting organizations in Australia, has repeatedly called for private sponsorship programs to supplement federally-supported programs rather than replace them. 

Other countries with private sponsorship programs 

Several other countries began or piloted similar small-scale programs to supplement annual refugee admissions over the past decade. While the most extensive private sponsorship programs are in Canada and Australia, there are smaller private sponsorship programs in Argentina, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, and Ireland. 

Argentina’s Programa Siria targets the Syrian refugee crisis 

In 2014, Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri launched Programa Siria, which allows community teams to sponsor Syrian refugees, provided that they cover all associated costs. 

Programa Siria allows any group of three Argentinian citizens, non-governmental organizations,  or relatives to sponsor Syrian refugees. Sponsors must provide living expenses for any resettled refugee for one year. Upon submitting the visa proposal, sponsors agree to be legally responsible for providing accommodation and the cost of living for all admitted refugees.

The Argentine government contracted with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a voluntary agency providing global refugee and resettlement support, to assist in the resettlement of over 400 refugees through Programa Siria since its inception in 2014. 

New Zealand renews its piloted private sponsorship program

New Zealand’s Refugee Quota Programme currently resettles 1,000 refugees annually. In 2017, New Zealand piloted a private sponsorship program, the Community Organization Refugee Sponsorship Category, to complement the Refugee Quota Programme. In 2018, 24 refugees were resettled through the CORS category. The government has extended the pilot to let community organizations sponsor 150 people over three years, starting in 2021. 

Germany’s piloted private sponsorship program

Germany has three refugee resettlement programs. Two—the Humanitarian Admission Program (BAMF) and the Temporary Residence Permit program—are publically funded, while the third is a piloted private sponsorship program. In 2018, the Federal Ministry of the Interior announced the pilot—Neustart im Team, or NesT—to admit 500 refugees. Designed to complement Germany’s government-funded program, NesT would allow groups of at least five people to support a single admitted refugee for two years. Refugees admitted through this program would receive access to public benefits, resettlement-refugee status, and a residency permit to be renewed every three years. 

Beginning in late 2019, the NesT program committed to resettling refugees through 25 mentor groups, and to resettling the remaining 500 refugees in 2020. Like many others, this program has been interrupted due to COVID-19 complications.

Spain’s piloted sponsorship agreement

In 2019, Spain piloted a community-based sponsorship model in three Basque cities. The Basque region was chosen because of high community mobilization around refugee issues in 2015; the Basque regional government expressed interest in collaborating directly with the national government to increase refugees’ support. 

In 2019, 29 UNHCR-referred Syrian refugees were admitted into Spain, and the national government, in turn, referred them to the Basque regional government. The Basque regional government sponsors each family for two years, providing a home and €10,000, while community members provide service-based assistance during the family’s transition.  

Ireland and the U.K. pilot a community sponsorship program

In July 2016, the U.K. launched a pilot Community Sponsorship Scheme, primarily inspired by Canada’s private sponsorship programs. The U.K.’s program would allow local community groups to provide resettlement services for refugees directly. To qualify, approved sponsors must arrange housing for refugees for two years and raise a minimum of £9,000 to cover resettlement costs. 

From July 2016 to July 2019, nearly 400 refugees were resettled through this program. While all refugee resettlement is currently paused due to the COVID-19 emergency, approximately 120 community groups are preparing to resettle refugees once resettlement can commence.

What can U.S. policymakers learn from international private sponsorship and community sponsorship programs? 

Here are five lessons we can learn from international refugee sponsorship programs:  

  1. Sponsorship programs increase community awareness and civic engagement.

Refugee sponsorship programs generate additional resources to support refugees, and also grow volunteer-based organizations and facilitate community connectedness. Sponsorship programs mobilize volunteers to help refugees, and most cite the resulting community engagement around refugee resettlement issues as a key benefit. 

For example, Canada’s private sponsorship programs show that they engage a wide range of community organizations, while the U.K.’s piloted programs engage new volunteers. While New Zealand’s pilot private sponsorship program is in its infancy, both community organizations and sponsored refugees found that the program mobilized volunteers who had never previously assisted refugees, generated new interest, and engaged the community.

This level of community engagement also has cascading, positive secondary effects. Community engagement educates the public on refugee resettlement and the challenges facing immigrant communities. Volunteers are often the most significant financial donors to an organization and the largest social media sharers to advocate for refugee resettlement. Not only do community sponsorship teams support refugees, but they also strengthen the organizations they work through by expanding their volunteer base. 

  1. Private sponsorship is safe.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) guides refugee status determination, admissibility standards, and refers the majority of refugees for admission. Still, each country has the freedom to set their policies. Therefore, each refugee must pass country-specific admissibility standards. UNHCR outlines international refugee law in the 1951 Convention, which establishes a refugee’s definition — but countries can admit individuals. For example, Australia’s Special Humanitarian program welcomes individuals that have experienced substantial discrimination but may not otherwise fall into a “refugee” category. 

While a few private sponsorship programs, such as those in New Zealand and Argentina, began with the idea of family reunification, they evolved to allow both relatives and nonrelatives to sponsor refugee applicants. Sponsors connected to refugees overseas may wish to petition to sponsor a specific refugee, instead of sponsoring UNHCR-referred refugees. Regardless, all countries have additional admissibility and national security standards for admission, so country-level programs apply their selection process before entry to address fraud and public safety concerns.

  1. Refugees acculturate faster when given citizenship through private sponsorship programs.

All private sponsorship programs admit refugees with the equivalent of legal permanent residency, qualifying them for social assistance benefits and setting them on a permanent citizenship pathway. These services and pathways towards permanent residency and citizenship help refugees rebuild their lives in their new homes.

  1. Cost frameworks vary based on individual country needs.

Each country with an established or developing refugee sponsorship program must work out a cost framework based on its own needs. Private sponsorship costs vary significantly from program to program. The estimated costs for sponsors range from $13,845 in Canada’s BVOR Program to almost $100,000 in Australia’s Community Support Program, both for a family of four. Most countries and programs require sponsors to provide for the entire cost of resettlement. 

However, there are a few exceptions. In Canada’s BVOR program, both the government and the sponsor share costs. In Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program, sponsors are eligible for assistance through the Department of Social Services’ Humanitarian Settlement Program. Some programs, like New Zealand’s piloted program, waive visa application fees, while others, like Australia’s Community Support Program, have high administrative costs only for admission. Australia’s Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (CRSI) asserts that administrative barriers prevent support through community engagement. The program’s high administrative costs make it a significant financial risk for Australian families trying to bring their relatives to safety. CRSI recommends that Australia remove limiting factors that prevent community-based organizations from becoming sponsors by reducing administrative and visa fees.

  1. Picking and choosing refugees shouldn’t be the goal of a sponsorship program.

Admissions based on qualifications, rather than vulnerability, undermine the humanitarian intent of refugee resettlement. Specific qualification requirements for admitting refugees, such as employment-related skills or language, limits slots for vulnerable refugees. Even refugees with high educational qualifications are likely to struggle to find comparable employment after immigrating. For example, with New Zealand’s education and work experience requirement for any refugee applicant, refugees and their sponsors are expected to have their qualifications recognized by the New Zealand government and potential employers. Despite education and work experience entry requirements, refugees did not enter the labor market as quickly as anticipated. 

One exception to the recommendation against using admissions criteria other than vulnerability is family reunification. All current international private sponsorship programs allow individual family members to sponsor refugees, even providing additional support for family reunification cases in Australia’s Global Special Humanitarian Visa Program. Outside of family reunification, private sponsorship programs should be used not to admit select applicants, but to address humanitarian needs.