As of 2020, over 80 million people are on the run from war and persecution. Of this group, over 26 million are refugees looking for a safe haven outside of their home country. Most of these are from countries torn by civil war or governed by authoritarians, to whom human lives seem not to matter. The burden of caring for these million falls squarely upon the shoulders of developing nations; 86% of all refugees are hosted by developing countries, with the UN’s 46 least-developed countries taking in more than a quarter of all refugees. Millions are living in inhumane conditions in refugee camps across the globe, in nations that lack resources to take proper care of these refugees. Even if there are means to stay alive in these camps, there is often no access to public services or a path to citizenship. Refugees are neither politically represented nor provided with education, and this status is often inherited by their children and grandchildren.
How did we get into this situation? States are only bound to consider a refugee’s claim to asylum once they have entered its territory. Since most unsafe countries are surrounded by poor nations, it is often impossible for refugees to reach safe and prosperous countries that do have the resources to properly protect both their human and civil rights. The current global system is thus failing not only refugees but also the poorest nations that bear the greatest cost of sheltering them.
The core of the issue lies in two conflicting notions of what states are responsible for. On the one hand, (almost) everyone agrees that refugees are unlike economic migrants and have a right to start a new life in a safe country when conditions in their home country have become intolerable. On the other hand, no country has a legal obligation to take care of a specific refugee. A refugee may have the right to a safe place to live, but he is unable to compel this right from any specific government, except by turning up at the border. A Syrian refugee stuck in a crowded refugee camp in Iraq cannot force the Estonian government to provide them with the resources to build a new life (shelter, healthcare, education, labour market access, a new citizenship). All current arrangements for the resettlement of UN registered refugees are based on the goodwill of nations - or the lack thereof. Only when a nation ‘feels like it’ will refugees actually be resettled somewhere else. So, when no nation feels the need to resettle refugees, no refugees will be resettled.
It seems that this situation is a given. As long as there are wars and oppression, people will continue to flee their homeland and seek safety elsewhere. Some more optimistic people may argue that there is a solution to the issue at hand: we should simply create a supranational mechanism that forces rich nations to take over responsibility from developing nations and resettle refugees. The richer the country, the more refugees it should resettle - it's a simple and fair solution. However, the creation of such an international quota mechanism is fraught with difficulty. Since there is no (real) authority above states, no mechanism could actually be enforced, thus creating free rider and non-compliance problems. Furthermore, the political will to create these mechanisms is absent. Countries simply do not want to cede their authority over border control. The issues with establishing a coercive mechanism can be well illustrated by the European Union. Even in the midst of a major refugee crisis, this well-integrated supranational organisation was unable to create a system that evenly distributed refugees across its members. If even the EU cannot create a quota system, it is impossible to establish such a system on the global level.
With a safe world without oppression and war being the stuff of fantasies, and the above-mentioned supranational quota mechanism politically unfeasible, we should strive for a ‘third-best’ alternative: private sponsorship. In Canada, civil society has been resettling refugees since the 1970’s with great success. Instead of the government being responsible for selecting and settling refugees, ordinary Canadians take over this responsibility and resettle refugees themselves, with the government only serving as a gatekeeper and provider of residency status. Private citizens arrange housing, healthcare, jobs, language training and so forth for a refugee, either through sponsorship groups of five or more citizens or NGOs. Since its inception, private actors have resettled hundreds of thousands permanently in Canada - around the same number the governments resettled through public means in the same period. Moreover, private sponsorship has been a great success: sponsored refugees are happier and more prosperous than their counterparts that were resettled by the government.
How does private sponsorship look in practice? Take the story of Iman and Zaher and their two children from Syria. After multiple flights, they arrived in Ottawa, carrying nothing but their documents - and some winter clothes and teddy bears provided by the Canadian government. They did not speak English, nor did they know where exactly they were heading. However, at the airport they were greeted by their sponsors, who welcomed them with open arms and provided a furnished apartment in central Ottawa. 6 months later, their children were going to school and learning both French and English. Iman was about to start going to college, while Zaher was hoping to start working for a landscaping company, while learning English at the same time. To this family, their sponsors are more than just that: they are an extended family that helped them get settled in an unknown country.
Private sponsorship of refugees however means much more than just a policy change, since it also constitutes a transfer of responsibility. As I stated above, in the current situation meeting the rights of refugees is solely the responsibility of states but states are reluctant to take up their responsibility. In essence, the establishment of a private refugee sponsorship system means that governments stop blocking the efforts of citizens who want to fulfil the responsibility they shirk. Plenty of citizens feel motivated to care for refugees themselves, without assistance from governments. Consider, for example, the Dutch citizens who attempted to bring almost 200 refugees from a Greek refugee camp to the Netherlands on a privately chartered plane, only to be blocked by the Dutch and Greek governments.
Instead of governments continuing to jealously guard their sovereignty on questions of refugee settlement, they should follow the Canadian example and start to share their responsibility for refugees with their citizens. As the Canadian example illustrates, states would not lose the control over their borders that they are so concerned about, since they would still have the final decision of who can migrate. But states would gain an enhanced capability to succeed in settling larger numbers of refugees without having to raise unpopular taxes to pay for their good deeds.
How would a sponsorship program work on a global scale? I envision an international regulatory standard that combines all the best practices and policies that are needed to establish a successful private sponsorship program (perhaps modeled on international adoption). This regulatory standard could be made by any international organization, like the UN or OECD. Governments could simply ‘copy’ this international standard with minor adaptations and let civil society get straight to work on sponsoring refugees. Two aspects should at least be included in this regulatory standard. Firstly, it should be made clear who is allowed to sponsor a refugee. For example, in Canada only groups of five or more citizens and more institutionalized organizations, such as religious communities, can sponsor refugees. The main aim of this is to ensure that no refugees rely on just a single do-gooder and to prevent an unequal and dependent relation. Secondly, there should be some kind of vetting process of sponsors, to ensure that sponsors have ample (financial) resources to sustain a sponsorship. A situation in which sponsors run out of funds to sponsor a vulnerable refugee is of course undesirable. The vetting process need not cost the government anything: it could simply ask a registration fee from prospective sponsors.
Now let us turn to some math to estimate the impact of a global sponsorship system. In 2019, some 19,000 refugees were privately resettled in Canada, which has a population of around 37.7 million. This comes to roughly 1 refugee per 2,000 Canadians. Considering that the developed world has a population of over 1.2 billion, applying the same ratio suggests a capacity to sponsor around 600,000 refugees annually. This is of course a very rough calculation and it's unclear whether commitment in other rich nations is comparable to that of the Canadians. When compared to the number of UN registered refugees, this might not seem like much. However, it would be four times the current level of resettlements by all international organizations and states put together. Allowing the private sponsorship of refugee resettlement would not suffice to meet refugees’ legal right – only concerted international action by governments can do that. But even a 3rd best solution can nevertheless make a huge difference to the lives of many refugees.
A critical reader may still be sceptical of this plan. I cannot blame you, since this plan is a radical departure from the way we are used to thinking about refugee resettlement. For example, one may object to this plan because states will be unwilling to lose part of their sovereignty, just as in the quota mechanism mentioned above. To this objection I respond that allowing private sponsorship does not feel like losing sovereignty for a government, unlike a quota mechanism. When the Canadian government embarked on its sponsorship program in the 1970’s, it was mainly done because the Canadian government wanted to uphold its reputation as a state that respected human rights, but at a lower price. Many governments in developed nations publicly defend the rights of refugees (barring the odd far-right politician) but do not wish to commit to coercive arrangements. Signing up to an international program that does not force a government to contribute, neither financially nor by taking in refugees, is attractive for a government. Private sponsorship allows a government to show their goodwill, without the transfer of sovereignty ‘upward’ to some international organization that decides how many refugees a country must take in. The benefit of private sponsorship is that it transfers responsibility ‘downward’, without the need of investments or hard commitments. Private sponsorship is a good way for a government to show its commitment to the plight of refugees, without actually committing any resources.
The critical reader may however still not be satisfied. Handing over the resettling of refugees to private actors raises numerous concerns regarding, among others, ‘picky’ sponsors that discriminate massively when they select ‘their’ refugee. Not refugee status, but the race or religion of a refugee may be the decisive factor in arranging a sponsorship - which obviously raises questions of justice and fairness. I can assure the reader that although I share this worry, there is no evidence to support this claim. In Canada, the overriding reason why private actors sponsor a refugee is out of humanitarian and ethical concern, with a personal connection to a certain region or group playing a minor role. Sponsoring thus mostly occurs out of humanitarian concern, with the religious or ethnic background of the refugees affected playing a smaller role. To put it bluntly - racism is a risk, but racists will not be the ones sponsoring refugees in the first place. Furthermore, if such biases would surface in a specific nation, governments could easily respond by making those that are not offered a chance by private sponsors the main subject of the government’s own resettling efforts. In effect, government resettlement policies that compliment private efforts could ‘even out’ any discriminatory bias.
The current predicament of refugees is unacceptable. Refugees have rights, but no state will take responsibility for meeting those rights. Instead, they are dependent on the goodwill of states for resettlement. With this goodwill often lacking, refugees are trapped in refugee camps, often in countries that are unable to support them. Where states fail to protect rights, citizens and other private actors should be able to act independent of states and resettle refugees themselves. Although far from perfect, more private sponsorship should be considered across the developed world as a response to a growing refugee crisis and the failures of governments that fail to commit their resources. Although states should, morally speaking, establish a system to resettle refugees across the rich world, the infeasibility of such a system requires us to look for alternatives. If states are unwilling to do what is necessary, the least they can do is allow their citizens to do just that: make sure that refugees are freed from the horrors of refugee camps and given a chance to flourish abroad.
Brecht Weerheijm teaches public administration at Leiden University. He graduated from Leiden’s MA in Philosophical Perspectives on Politics and the Economy and MSc in International and European Governance.