It was only a few weeks after the family of six Syrian refugees arrived in December 2015 when the members of the private sponsorship group in Toronto that brought them to Canada faced what Jennifer Nagel, a professor in the University of Toronto’s philosophy department, describes as a “pivotal democratic moment.”
Over the previous three months, Nagel, together with a “pretty random” collection of colleagues, neighbours, friends and local entrepreneurs, had navigated the complex bureaucratic process of sponsoring the family – a widowed mother and five children, aged nine to 21. Like tens of thousands of Canadians, they had been moved to act in response to wrenching accounts of fleeing refugees and the worst migrant crisis since the Second World War. The group had fundraised, set up sub-committees and cobbled together a memorandum of understanding for its 20-odd participants outlining what to expect as part of the sponsorship process.
After the family arrived, the group learned that the mother also had three adult daughters, married and with their own children, who hadn’t made the journey. The mother asked if they’d sponsor these family members. One evening in January 2016, the sponsorship group convened to figure out what to do. Some wanted to take on the rest of the family and expand their fundraising efforts. But a few disagreed, arguing they’d be spreading themselves too thin. After an at-times intense debate, the majority voted to sponsor two of the daughters and their families, bringing the total to 15 people, most of them children. (The third daughter was accepted as part of a government sponsorship.)
Nagel, an epistemologist, describes the subsequent journey as “transformative,” but one that felt a bit like “a blind date.” How did the experience change her? “It’s complicated,” she concedes, noting that it busted some stereotypes and that she learned a lot about the city’s hidden resources. “I’m not sure if I’ve done the right thing or not, but I want to be fighting on the side of human dignity and human freedom,” Nagel muses. “I feel the refugees are getting something they’re very entitled to.”
Canada is a pioneer in the world for its private refugee sponsorship program, which first came to widespread attention in 1979, during the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis. In the heady months before and immediately after the 2015 election, when doors were opened to more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, tens of thousands of Canadians joined sponsorship groups. This outpouring attracted global media attention and prompted the new government to pledge to export the private sponsorship model to other countries.
According to Audrey Macklin, a U of T law professor, some research suggests that privately sponsored refugees fare better in their new home than those who come through the government program. The reasons are clear: privately sponsored refugees arrive to a network of advocates who provide material support and also advice, contacts and instant social relationships. But, as Macklin noted in her 2017 Woodsworth Goldstein lecture, relatively little is known about the sponsors themselves. When she was named a 2017 Trudeau Fellow, Macklin’s research question was: How does the process of helping refugees become citizens transform the citizenship of sponsors?
“I want to know more about who sponsors are, why they sponsor, what is distinctive about private sponsorship and how the program affects sponsors,” says Macklin, who herself belonged to a group. “The policy reason for this inquiry is simple: if we think private refugee sponsorship is a good idea, then it matters not only that it confers benefits on refugees. It has to be perceived as good by and for the sponsors who do it, or they will not do it, do it again or promote it to others.”
For many of the sponsors, the experience offered a messy confection of feelings: rewarding, but also frustrating and challenging in unexpected ways. Groups of people who may have had only casual ties to one another took upon themselves enormous, time-consuming responsibilities. Often they did so in the absence of any formal structure beyond the legally binding contract they’d signed pledging to financially support their families for a year after they arrived.
David Carter-Whitney (BA 1986 Victoria), a civil servant who co-chaired one Toronto group, says he’s become friends with the family the group sponsored, soaked up a lot about Muslim culture and learned how to leverage the members’ significant social capital and networks to benefit the sponsored family. Through his United Church congregation, the group has opted to sponsor another refugee family. “Everything about it was a really wonderful experience,” he says.
But when Macklin and a research team evaluated the results of a survey that 530 sponsors filled out, other accounts emerged. While the vast majority felt the experience was deeply meaningful and that they’d do it again, many also recognized the power imbalances that are baked into the structure of the private sponsorship program.
The survey revealed that sponsors were typically middle-aged, middle-class and well educated, with more women involved than men. Once the refugees arrived in Canada, many of the sponsors found themselves thrust into what often felt like highly personal roles with the newcomers.
Macklin points out that sponsors’ education, economic independence, English (or French) fluency, experience, cultural knowledge and social capital equip them to support newcomers in a multitude of ways. But these same advantages they possess in relation to recently arrived refugees – coupled with newcomers’ financial dependence – mean that the relationship between sponsor and sponsored is, in a structural sense, unequal.
Senator Ratna Omidvar, who co-founded Lifeline Syria and regularly cautioned participants to tamp down expectations about establishing friendships with their families, heard some “pretty nasty” stories about the interactions: groups that pressured their sponsored families to work almost as soon as they arrived to minimize cost or, conversely, refugee families that had “out of whack” expectations about what the sponsors could provide materially.
“People had issues,” says Macklin. “It isn’t all happy romantic stories. But to a person, the experience was really meaningful.”
One of the families that Nagel’s group sponsored reported a very positive experience. Alaa Al Saleh settled in Canada in August 2018 with his wife, Hanaa Al Bitar, and two young sons. Although he has found learning English a challenge and has so far worked intermittently, he says the support he and his family have received from the group – which has included a furnished apartment; money for food; and help signing up for English classes, opening a bank account and obtaining a driver’s license – made a huge difference. “The group helped me and my wife start a life in this country, a good life,” he says. Al Saleh adds that he has found Canadians largely forgiving when it comes to the language barrier, and he’s hopeful for his family’s prospects. “If you don’t have the language, everybody accepts that: ‘OK, you can’t speak but you’re trying.’”
Macklin’s research aims to determine whether Canada’s private sponsorship program, which took shape during the mid-1970s Immigration Act reforms, has made Canadians more civic-minded and welcoming – or even if such policies represent an antidote to nativist politics. A credible recent public opinion poll shows that Canadians haven’t significantly changed their views on immigration despite a surge of partisan controversy over asylum-seekers in the U.S. making unauthorized crossings into Quebec and Manitoba. (The Liberal government soon began talks to close a legal loophole that allowed asylum-seekers to stay in Canada once they’d made it across the border.)
But besides the social dividends, Macklin has found herself pondering whether and how the private sponsorship program could be improved – a question that others have posed as well. Macklin identifies a few issues: finding ways to include volunteers who don’t have the funds to sponsor refugees; ensuring that increases in private sponsorship don’t give governments an excuse to cut funding for or reduce their commitment to public resettlement; and recognizing the inevitable pressure to enable the reunification of extended families.
Omidvar would make other tweaks, including more formal training for individuals and groups sponsoring refugees and required background checks for participants. She also recommends changes to the tax laws that would allow people to treat contributions to a private sponsorship effort as charitable donations. Governance of sponsorship groups should remain organic, she says, “but some capacity building should be put in place.”
Macklin, for her part, returns to what she sees as the bedrock question of how the personal relationships within the private sponsorship program affect individuals who have survived war, famine and flight before encountering Canadians armed with good intentions, social capital and cash, but scant experience of what is and isn’t required of them. “My sense is that precisely because refugees have been so disempowered by the experience of flight, they may be more, rather than less, sensitive to the power relations in sponsorship,” she points out. “Having arrived permanently, they want to reclaim a life in which they had an identity that was not about being a refugee, but about being a farmer, or being middle class, or being a respected elder in the community, or brother, or mother or student. The sponsors’ awareness of power imbalances inherent in sponsorship, and how everyone negotiates that while building relationships, matters a lot to the quality of the sponsorship experience.”
Can we create better “matches” between sponsors and refugees?
Embedded in the structure of Canada’s sponsorship program is a thorny question: How do refugees and their sponsors get along? But for Craig Damian Smith, the associate director of the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the more important question is: How does the quality of the relationship affect how well a refugee family establishes itself? Put differently, Smith wants to know if we can do a better job of pairing refugees and sponsors.
To that end, Smith and several collaborators – including behavioural economists at the Rotman School of Management, as well as at the University of Mannheim in Germany and Columbia University in New York – have created Pairity. The platform matches sponsors with refugees based on online surveys of individuals on both sides of the equation (members of a sponsorship group and members of the refugee household fill out one survey. Then one refugee household is sponsored). To generate matches, Pairity uses variables such as the distance between the homes of sponsors and refugees, labour market experience and interests.
Smith is testing Pairity through a pilot with the NGO Justice and Peace in the Netherlands, which randomly sorts newcomers into control groups and those matched based on survey results. Pairity’s effectiveness will be tested by assessing the success of refugees in areas such as labour market participation, language skills and community integration.