Can Private Citizens Fill the Gap Left by Indifferent States?

Lately I have been asked about my thoughts on private sponsorship like the kind that they have been doing recently in Canada. In most resettlement countries, resettlement is a government-led process in which either state agencies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) partnering with the government provide resettlement services, which range from material and cash assistance, job placement, enrolling kids in school, how to navigate the healthcare system, to cultural integration. Every country puts a different emphasis on the government versus private involvement, and some are more rigid while others lean toward the laissez-faire. The U.S. has a resettlement program that, while varying from state to state, generally uses a public-private partnership with prescriptive rules and a good deal of the funding coming from the federal government, with matching funding and labor coming from a combination of paid NGO staff, anchor families (family members of the refugees), and volunteers.

The Canadian program is similar to the U.S., except that rather than allowing sponsorship to come from either NGOs or anchor families, it allows for private citizens to essentially replace the NGO or anchor family as sponsors. A group of five or more Canadian citizens can agree together to sponsor a family, and they do what NGO staff or volunteers might otherwise do. I was initially skeptical of this program, based on news reports of the experiences of these Canadians and the families they sponsored. The New York Times has done a series of stories with several focusing on one Syrian family, the Hajj’s, and their Canadian sponsors. Early stories addressed the pressures on the resettled refugees to help family back in Lebanon,  and a more recent article on what is happening during “Month 13” (the month that the refugee families are suppose to go off of sponsorship and be independent).

My concerns, on which I’ve focused several recent talks, are based in what I see as an erosion of state responsibility, with private citizens expected to pick up the slack. Refugee migrations emerge from the failure of states, and that failure is compounded when other states refuse to offer protection to refugees, or refuse to offer humanitarian aid and instead offer minimal protections by allowing refugees to enter their borders but offering little more in terms of humanitarian aid and/or integration assistance. Private sponsorship seemed to me just another step toward complete abdication of state responsibility.

But as I have learned more about the program, I realize that what Canada is doing is not really a movement towards further neoliberal erosion of state involvement in refugee resettlement. It is actually a much deeper and somewhat de-professionalized public/private partnership, in which the state is still involved through providing cash assistance and professional case management (which is particularly important for language interpretation and connecting refugees to resources that private citizens might not have access to, like ethnic niche employment). But rather than working primarily with NGO staff who must maintain a certain professional distance, it connects refugees to private citizens in ways that encourage the development of personal relationships. Those relationships provide refugees with something just as valuable than housing and food assistance; it provides them with a conduit through which they can access a whole different array of resources about what it means to be Canadian. Sociologists call this bridging social capital, and in my research I’ve found that to be a major gap in the resources available to refugees in the U.S. once they end their resettlement eligibility.

In Canada, private volunteer sponsors must provide all the same types of assistance that professional NGO staff provide. But when you add to these requirements the development of personal relationships, it seems to create an extra element of emotional support and mutual obligation. Not only do Canadian sponsors feel an obligation to provide additional assistance, but refugees seem to feel an obligation to their sponsors to succeed in Canada. This might lead to refugees failing to meet other obligations, like sending money to kin overseas. But it might also give them additional emotional support needed to get through the challenging transitions involved in reconstructing their lives in another country. And they develop deep relationships with Canadians, who can provide a lot more diverse information than would be available within their co-ethnic networks of other refugees who likely do not know much more about how to survive in Canada than they do.

I am still concerned about the worst case scenarios, in which private citizens take on obligations that they end up not fulfilling, leaving refugees in a lurch. I’ve seen cases here in the U.S. in which refugees have gone without resources (sometimes even without food) because a volunteer never did what they said they were going to do and resettlement NGOs did not provide appropriately supervise volunteers and thus were unaware that the ball was dropped. But with proper supervision of the program*, private sponsorship could provide refugees in the U.S. with connections that many do not get through sponsorship of an NGO, and conversely could be an educational and transformative experience for American sponsors.


* There is a faith-based organization that connects well-trained volunteers with resettlement NGOs to provide assistance and bridging social capital to refugees. It’s called Exodus World Service, and I think their model for mobilizing volunteers for resettlement is an ideal one and perhaps one of the closest programs the U.S. has to the Canadian private sponsorship model.


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