Core Principles of Future U.S. Private Refugee Sponsorships? Naming and Additionality

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     I.     Introduction

The number of forcibly displaced persons is at a historic high. But receiving countries have failed to meet global resettlement needs, including the United States. By the end of fiscal year 2022, over 100,000 places remained unused of the 125,000 U.S. refugee resettlement target. Private refugee sponsorships could increase resettlement capacities, both globally and nationally.

Internationally, countries have recognized that private refugee sponsorships can open additional resettlement resources. Over 180 states committed under the Global Compact on Refugees to establish community-based sponsorship programs in addition to regular resettlements. The immigration ministers of Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Argentina, Ireland, and New Zealand endorsed community-based sponsorships, and invited other countries to adopt similar programs in a joint statement. To that end, the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative showcases Canada’s long experience and supports countries to design new programs according to their unique needs. The number of countries with community-based sponsorship programs has grown, and the United States could learn from international experiences.

Canadian experience demonstrates positive effects of private sponsorships for refugees and the receiving community. A 2020 study showed that privately sponsored refugees were more likely than government-assisted refugees to be working within the first year after entering Canada, with an employment rate at 90% for men and 71% for women. Other findings from Canada suggest that privately sponsored refugees tend to stay at their initial destinations. Accordingly, private sponsorships could mitigate secondary migration from rural areas and contribute to the geographic dispersal of resettled refugees. Furthermore, positive integration outcomes have resulted from youth-led private sponsorships under the Student Refugee Program of the World University Service Canada.

In February 2021, the Biden administration issued an executive order committing to capitalize on private refugee sponsorships. The launch of the Welcome Corps pilot followed in early 2023. The U.S. government should learn from community-based sponsorship programs in Canada and other countries. U.S. private refugee sponsorships should become additional to the annual resettlement quota and U.S. sponsors should be empowered to identify and nominate beneficiaries for privately sponsored refugee resettlements.

 

     II.     Naming and Additionality in the Definition of Private Refugee Sponsorships

Private refugee sponsorships constitute one form of “community sponsorship.” Community sponsorship covers various forms of civil society involvement in the reception of resettlement beneficiaries. Nikolas Feith Tan identified four core elements of community sponsorships: (i) shared responsibility for financial and social support among government, civil society, and individuals for a defined period; (ii) controlled arrival of refugees, either holding humanitarian visas or as recognized refugees; (iii) additionality to government-assisted resettlements; and (iv) retained ultimate responsibility for sponsored refugees by government authorities.

All of the above elements, including additionality, i.e., the admission of privately sponsored refugees in addition to the normal refugee intake, apply to private refugee sponsorships. Yet, there are specific features distinguishing private sponsorships from community sponsorships. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) discerned the ability of sponsors to nominate beneficiaries as a special feature of private refugee sponsorships. Likewise, Judith Kumin mentioned naming through sponsors as a defining feature of private refugee sponsorships.

Overall, additionality can be seen as a core element of community and private refugee sponsorships. By contrast, naming is not a core element of community sponsorships. Rather, it constitutes a distinctive feature of private refugee sponsorships.

 

     III.     Naming and Additionality in Canada

Naming through sponsors has been one of the most lauded, and simultaneously criticized, features of the Canadian program. Canadian sponsors have increasingly nominated family members, and therefore shifted away the focus from the most vulnerable refugees. On the other hand, respect for private life and family, including family unity, forms an essential part of the international human rights framework.

In 1990, a report raised concerns that due to the naming principle, Canadian private refugee sponsorships had turned into a supplementary tool for family reunification. The Canadian government maintained the naming principle, but refusals of sponsor-referred individuals rose.

In a parallel program, the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, the Canadian government deviated from the naming principle. Under this program, private groups can only sponsor refugees referred by UNHCR, without the possibility of naming, but against the bargain of shared financial responsibility with the government – and the promise that BVOR refugees would be “travel-ready” within four months.

The BVOR program was relatively popular when Canada responded to forced displacements from Syria in 2016. However, BVOR sponsors faced a sporadic and uncertain matching process, which critics compared to a marketplace. The BVOR fast-track processing of Syrian refugees failed to eliminate long wait times for sponsors. Subsequently, the Canadian government struggled to find willing BVOR sponsors. In 2021, the number of BVOR refugees reached a low of 75, compared to 9,540 privately-sponsored refugees admitted that year.

The low BVOR admissions underscore the essential role of the naming principle to keep sponsors engaged in private refugee sponsorship and sustain the Canadian program. It has contributed to the persistence of Canadian private refugee sponsorships in several ways. First, it empowers groups and private individuals to influence refugee policy. Second, it makes room for diversity by allowing the private sector to select refugees based on different priorities than those applied by government-assisted refugees. Third, prior relationships between the sponsors and beneficiaries have contributed to better integration outcomes.

Canada’s program allows additionality. This means that Canada admits privately sponsored refugees in addition to the target set for government-assisted refugees. The Canadian government sets annual targets for privately sponsored refugee admissions, just as it does for government-assisted resettlements. The targets are not binding and reflect processing capacities.

The number of privately sponsored refugees became higher than government-assisted refugees. For example, in 2019, they were nearly twice as high. This raises doubts as to whether Canada effectively implements additionality, because the government hands over the main part of its protection responsibilities for refugees to private sponsors.

 

     IV.     Naming and Additionality in Other Countries

Aside from Canada, other countries including Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Argentina have adopted different approaches regarding the principles of naming and additionality in their community sponsorship programs.

Four of the analyzed countries established programs where they admit privately-sponsored refugees mostly on the basis of UNHCR referrals: Australia under the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot and Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom under the Community Sponsorship Scheme. This means that they target vulnerable individuals, because UNHCR’s pre-selection is based on vulnerability assessments.

While New Zealand allows sponsors to nominate beneficiaries, it also relies on UNHCR referrals, and it only admits individuals recognized as refugees by UNHCR. Argentina’s Syria Program also allows naming by sponsors or sponsor institutions. If there is no prior relationship between sponsors and beneficiaries, refugees are referred for sponsorship in Argentina by UNHCR.

In sum, four of the six analyzed countries – Australia, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom – do not allow naming by sponsors in some of their community-based sponsorship programs.

Countries used community sponsorships as a response to forced displacements from a specific region. Examples include Argentina’s Syria Program and U.K.’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. While urgent responses to unforeseen mass displacements are crucial, they imply unequal treatments between and among groups of forcibly displaced individuals, and can potentially result in discrimination. These concerns are not limited to emergency schemes. For example, in Australia, certain organizations were reportedly given an unofficial list of priority countries for one refugee program.

When adopting such policies, states must justify interferences with international anti-discrimination law. Human rights bodies and courts set a high threshold for this justification, i.e., that the reasons for distinctions based on nationality should be “very weighty.” Mere foreign policy interests are likely not enough to justify these inequalities.

At least recently, countries engaging in community and private refugee sponsorships have expressed a commitment to additionality. Germany, New Zealand, and Argentina with its Syria program have followed Canada’s approach by introducing community sponsorships in addition to the normal resettlement flow. The United Kingdom switched to additionality in 2020. Ireland declared its intention to shift to additionality as well. Unlike the United Kingdom, however, the Irish program still operates within Ireland’s resettlement quota. Australia has not followed the principle of additionality yet.

 

     V.     Recommendations for the United States

The naming principle is controversial among the analyzed countries. Still, the Canadian experience underscores the relevance of the naming principle to establish a sustainable private refugee sponsorship program.

Moreover, the naming principle is particularly important for higher education institutions engaging in private sponsorships of refugee students. Universities across the United States have increasingly shown a commitment to support refugees. The Every Campus a Refuge program is the largest initiative in the United States where campus communities receive refugees. Furthermore, the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration has taken the lead in advocating for university sponsorships of refugee students. For these institutions, it is essential to nominate beneficiaries who will be admitted as future refugee students in their study programs. This comes with the need for timely processing, and special consideration of the academic institutions’ autonomy to follow their admission procedures and academic calendars.

Naming through sponsors presupposes that the United States overcomes its current refugee backlog. If sponsor-referred beneficiaries arrive months or even years later, the sponsor’s situation and capacities might change significantly in the interim.

The International Refugee Assistance Project has noted that improvement of processing includes continued expansion of the use of video technology for interviews, innovative staffing models, such as matching officers with applicant interviews based on experience and case complexity, and eliminating unnecessary or duplicative steps. To that end, tests of 30-day streamlined visa processing for Afghans in Doha could be expanded and serve as a role model.

The Welcome Corps pilot started with a matching-component only. To reduce the refugee backlog, sponsors are matched with refugees that are already in the U.S. refugee program’s pipeline. For 2023, the U.S. government aims to admit at least 5,000 privately-sponsored refugees through Welcome Corps, “primarily . . . from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.” However, the program was announced to be open to refugees from around the world. In light of U.S. obligations under international anti-discrimination law, these admissions should not be limited to a specific region or countries.

For this purpose, the identification and referral of vulnerable families and individuals willing to participate in the program, and the matching algorithm to link them with suitable sponsors in the United States, will be central. The Shapiro Foundation has created best practices in identifying vulnerable families on the ground. It worked with a local partner, 1kproject, and launched a pilot to find beneficiaries for the U.S. Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program. The U4U program enables Ukrainians and their family members to apply for parole from third countries and be supported by private sponsors in the United States. Moreover, the U.S. resettlement agency HIAS has been working with database researchers and established an algorithm to match beneficiaries with sponsors across the United States. This algorithm considers interests of sponsors and beneficiaries. Eventually, the process empowers beneficiaries to make the final decision in an informed manner. Such a matching process could be used for future U.S. private refugee sponsorships.

As discussed above, several countries have adopted or are considering the principle of additionality. Also, the Global Compact on Refugees highlights this principle. By adopting a private refugee sponsorship program based on additionality, the United States would follow recognized international practice.

This does not necessarily mean that the current Welcome Corps pilot should have started in addition to the annual refugee target. Many slots under the U.S. refugee quota remained unused in the last fiscal year, and private refugee sponsorships can fill open places in 2023. A senior official highlighted after the launch of Welcome Corps that “[t]his program . . . is one of the aspects of getting to the President’s target.” Yet, both actual refugee admissions and admission ceilings have varied over the years. For example, in fiscal year 2017, the United States resettled 84,994 refugees, which was just under the limit of the 85,000 cap.

In sum, this article recommends a U.S. private refugee sponsorship program that opens resettlement resources in addition to resettlements under the annual admissions cap. Ideally, by disburdening resettlement agencies, private sponsors across the United States will contribute to overall more effective reception and placement services for all resettlement refugees.

As a precondition, the U.S. government should process refugees more quickly and reduce the backlog. This will enable private sponsors to nominate beneficiaries and welcome them without undue delays. At the same time, this article recommends an innovative matching mechanism based on close cooperation between organizations on the ground and in the United States. Through such a process, the U.S. government should respect the beneficiaries’ wishes and uphold the principle of equal treatment and other core protection principles under international law.

 

     VI.     Conclusion: Improving Community Sponsorships

Three essential conclusions remain about how receiving countries could effectuate community sponsorships. These conclusions apply irrespective of whether a country follows the principles of additionality and/or naming. First, receiving countries should focus on reducing backlogs and streamlining processes. Second, multi-stakeholder identification processes and innovative matching algorithms are crucial to find the most vulnerable individuals and connect them with sponsors. Third, states should enable and promote positive integration outcomes.

Backlog issues are not just a U.S. concern. They also exist in Canada and the United Kingdom. The Canadian government indicates that ideally, sponsorship beneficiaries would arrive in Canada within four months. This four-month-period does not reflect the reality of the current backlog. In fact, refugees have been facing wait times of over two years. News articles report that 38,681 government-assisted and 71,980 privately sponsored refugees in Canada were yet to be processed as of April 26, 2022.

In the United Kingdom, the Homes for Ukraine scheme’s implementation showed significant processing delays, with waiting periods beyond seven weeks. Additionally, safety concerns arose due to matching through unofficial websites and social media platforms like Facebook.

The major potential of community sponsorships lies in improved integration outcomes. One example are refugee loans, a successful practice in Canada and the United Kingdom. Windmill Microlending in Canada and RefuAid in the United Kingdom offer loans that cover the cost of accreditation, exam fees, course material, and other expenses refugees may incur to hone their skills.

Finally, instead of using community sponsorships to shift the main portion of their international protection responsibilities to private sponsors, resettlement countries should use and promote them as a tool to mitigate controversial debates on migration issues. Evidence from the United Kingdom suggests that community sponsorships can expand communities’ understanding and capacity for welcoming newcomers. They can reduce fears about others more generally, change working practices to make them more inclusive for diverse populations, and bring new perspectives into relatively homogeneous communities.

 

Suggested Citation: Janine Prantl, Core Principles of Future U.S. Private Refugee Sponsorships? Naming and Additionality, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (October 2, 2023), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/core-principles-of-future-us-private-refugee-sponsorships-naming-and-additionality.

 

Dr. Janine Prantl, LL.M. (Columbia Law School) is a Senior Research and Teaching Fellow at the Department of European Law of the University of Fribourg and former immigration postdoctoral associate in the Cornell Law School Immigration Law and Policy Research Program. Special thanks to Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr for his support and thoughtful comments. This article incorporates suggestions from Matthew la Corte, Eliza Bateman, Ania Kwadrans, Aubrey Grant, Laura Wagner, Maggi Johnson, Erica de Klerk, research colleagues from Cornell’s Academic Professionals Workshop, and others. Any errors are my own.