Exporting a creative way of welcoming refugees
Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis highlighted the uniqueness of Canada’s private sponsorship program and inspired other countries to replicate the model.
University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Bond is a leading light in a growing humanitarian movement. Last year, informed by her experience as a special advisor to the federal government on Canada's Syrian refugee program, Bond helped establish the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI) to assist other countries interested in adopting a refugee sponsorship program.
The group not only provides concrete advice but also spreads the hopeful message that ordinary people have the power to help ease the current crisis.
Since the late 1970s, Canada has allowed small groups of citizens to sponsor refugee families and provide them with practical and emotional support as they adjust to their new lives. In the past four decades, the program has welcomed more than 288,000 newcomers.
Today, the scope of the global refugee problem is immense. More than 65 million people are displaced by conflict and persecution, according to the most recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The agency estimates that nearly 1.2 million refugees under its mandate urgently need resettlement in a safe third country.
“There's a huge desire in the international community to learn about Canada's unique model, and we have a lot to share,” Bond says. “Across the world, there's a vast, untapped resource of people who want to help, but the structures to do so don't always exist.”
Bond networked with like-minded partners, including the Government of Canada, UNHCR and the Open Society Foundations, who quickly rallied to form the GRSI at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016. The Radcliffe Foundation, which is supporting the GRSI's efforts with a generous philanthropic gift, joined soon afterward. The GRSI's first conference in Ottawa in December attracted more than 70 international delegates, including government and civil society representatives from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Germany, New Zealand, the UK and the US, as well as experts from across Canada's private sponsorship system.
Since then, requests for GRSI support have poured in from around the world, a positive counterpoint to dark moves to close borders and scapegoat migrants for society's ills. “Engaging people at the local level is one of the more powerful tools we have against the high-level negative narrative on refugee issues,” says Bond, who also chairs the GRSI.
How-to training modules are now being developed that highlight best practices and lessons learned from Canada's private sponsorship experience. The GRSI is also busy advising other states on how to build resettlement capacity. For example, Bond and other members of the GRSI leadership team have met with political and community leaders in the UK, where a pilot project has just welcomed two privately sponsored refugee families.
Bond is driven by her experience of working with the UNHCR to interview Iraqi refugees in Syria in 2008 and 2009. “These were just ordinary people trying to survive unimaginable terror. That basic connection at a human level informs my work.”
It's a calling that has found a home at the University of Ottawa, where Bond is co-founder and faculty director of the Refugee Hub, which runs three flagship initiatives in addition to the GRSI:
- The Refugee Support Sponsorship Program, which has recruited 1,300 lawyers and law students to provide pro bono legal support for private sponsorship groups across Canada
- The Refugee Assistance Project, which mitigates access to justice deficits within Canada's refugee system
- The Refugee Law Research Team, which engages in public interest litigation on complex cases.
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