Canada’s over-reliance on the private sponsorship of refugees program has effectively privatized the well-being of this class of immigrants, leaving sponsors too overburdened to critically question the government’s immigration policies, a recent study has found.
Since its inception in 1978, private sponsorships have brought in 48 per cent of all refugees (over 368,000). In 2015, there was revived interest in it during the Syrian refugee crisis.
According to the study, published in the Critical Sociology journal, since then it has become the “chief way that international refugees access resettlement to Canada.” And according to the Migration Policy Institute, “since 2013, more refugees have arrived in Canada via private sponsorship than through government support.”
This latest study finds that “conditions of neoliberal austerity” such as lack of affordable housing, poor living wages and “stagnant social assistance levels” have caused “neoliberal fatigue” among private sponsors.
The program “forced sponsors to treat these politically structured, public issues as logistical, private troubles they had to solve on their own,” Emine Fidan Elcioglu, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto, writes.
“As a result, sponsors emerged from the experience with fatigue rather than with a critical lens on Canadian society.”
The conclusions are drawn from 25 interviews conducted between February and May 2020 — 23 of them with sponsors who had participated in private sponsorship or blended-visa office-referred sponsorship both in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and in Kingston, Ontario.
The other two interviews were with current and past directors of the Christian Refugee Alliance, a sponsorship agreement holder (SAH) that managed sponsorships undertaken by half of the sponsors who participated in the study.
According to the study, the program “devolves (the government’s) core responsibilities” of coordinating resettlement services onto private citizens in various ways, not least of all financially and logistically.
For example, privately resettled refugees are not eligible for public social assistance until after their 12-month sponsorship period ends. According to the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program (RSTP), “sponsorship groups must provide financial support at least equal to the current Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) rates in the community where the refugee will settle.”
In Toronto, that can run to “approximately Can $16,500 (US$13,700) to resettle an individual refugee and Can $28,300 (US $23,500) for a family of four,” the study states.
For comparison’s sake, for a single person with no children, Ontario Works, the province’s social assistance vehicle, provides a monthly maximum of $343 for basic needs and $390 for shelter. “However,” the study states, “sponsors usually provide more to meet the actual costs of living” for refugees.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, in “recent years, the government has increased surveillance of sponsorship groups to ensure that requirements are being met.”
Furthermore, while raising money was not that difficult for some sponsors, “finding housing, potential language classes, interpreters and multilingual doctors were among the most urgent and complicated tasks,” two Wilfrid Laurier University researchers reported in 2020.
In this latest study, over half of the participants mentioned difficulty in finding secure, affordable, and permanent housing.
“Rents were shockingly high relative to the social assistance for newcomers, leading one upper-middle-class sponsor to declare that current welfare benefits ‘wouldn’t support a cat living in Toronto,’” it states.
“Despite these realizations, however, no respondent articulated a desire for policy changes addressing affordable housing shortages and stagnant social assistance levels.”
And while the “majority of respondents…lamented the state” of the labour market, including the lack of recognition of foreign credentials, “few considered broader interventions to alleviate these challenges.”
The chronically under-resourced settlement sector, which includes “overworked staff,” according to the Wilfrid Laurier researchers, has also led to “inadequate monitoring of the day-to-day work of sponsorship groups, with talk of unethical use of sponsorship money and instances of sponsorship breakdown.”
As a result of all these burdens, Elcioglu’s study finds, most (65 per cent) of respondents say they need a break from sponsoring or wouldn’t do it again in the future.
“Paradoxically,” however, “the logistical challenges of settlement had reinforced the program’s legitimacy for sponsors — the help they provided was clearly very much needed.”
Beholden to sponsors
The pandemic has also shown how much “power sponsors wield over refugees’ access to Canada,” the study finds, as “even the ability of a refugee to land…hinges on the will and capacity of private Canadians.” If a sponsor reneges “at the last minute,” for example, the refugee is simply out of luck.
The program also allows sponsors to determine where in Canada refugees will settle and to “handpick candidates for sponsorship” — unlike government sponsored refugees, who are identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Though the final decision to accept them as refugees still rests with visa officers, Elcioglu explains, this “privilege allows sponsors to have a significant say in the composition of Canada’s refugee admissions.”
And while it’s the government that sets the intake targets, the final tally is determined by how many sponsors actually step up, meaning sometimes the government falls “short of targets.”
All of this, says the author, is evidence of how the “refugees’ well-being continues to be privatized” while allowing the Canadian government to pat itself on the back and tout the program as the gold standard and even export it internationally.
“The program thus permits the government to ‘withdraw from direct responsibility for admission totals’ without appearing to dodge ‘domestic pressure to act more humanely,'” the study finds.
The author’s “most damning critique” of the program is that “private sponsorship deters rather than spurs sponsors’ political transformation,” which in turn leads them to seek private answers to systemic, social issues.
The silver lining is arguably the fact that “as sponsors came to realize the difficulty, sometimes the impossibility of helping reunify newcomers with their loved ones, they began questioning the stringency of Canada’s immigration admissions policies.”
Ultimately, however, sponsors are left so overburdened and tired that they rarely come out of the program with a deeper understanding of “newcomers’ struggles — from the competitiveness of the rental market to the incongruity of welfare benefits and the cost of living — as public troubles necessitating broader intervention, including modest policy reform.”
Fernando Arce is a Toronto-based independent journalist originally from Ecuador. He is a co-founder and editor of The Grind, a free local news and arts print publication, as well as an NCM-CAJ member and mentor. He writes in English and Spanish, and has reported from various locations across Canada, Ecuador and Venezuela. While his work in journalism is dedicated to democratizing information and making it accessible across the board, he spends most of his free time hiking with his three huskies: Aquiles, Picasso and Iris. He has a BA in Political Science from York University and an MA in Journalism from Western University.