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The State Department's refugee resettlement program isn't such a new idea


Earlier this week, the State Department announced a new sponsorship program called Welcome Corps. It will allow private citizens to get together to help refugees find work, housing and school and just generally adjust to their new lives here. In essence, they'll be doing things that non-profits have been doing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades. And in the U.S., that may be true, but the idea isn't completely new. It's modeled on something Canada has been doing since the 1970s, where private sponsors have helped resettle more than 300,000 refugees.

So we decided to call someone who knows the program well to tell us more about it. Shauna Labman is an authority on refugee law and refugee resettlement at the University of Winnipeg, which is in central Canada. And she's with us now. Professor Labman, thanks so much for joining us.

SHAUNA LABMAN: Yes, I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just start by telling us how this started in Canada? I mean, here in the U.S., this is obviously a response to the fact that the nonprofit infrastructure here has been stretched very thin.

LABMAN: It started in Canada rather informally. So before we had anything in our law, we had mostly religious organizations, groups that pushed the government to let them help bring people over who needed protection. So this was sort of happening on one-on-one agreements between the organizations and the government prior to anything happening in law. When Canada rewrote its laws on immigration in the 1970s, that was triggered by signing the 1951 Refugee Convention. And at that point, these groups pushed Canada to add these private sponsorship provisions to the law to really sort of formalize and ground the program.

MARTIN: So, look. I understand from a piece you wrote in 2021 that private sponsors were expected to resettle in one year at least twice as many refugees as the government. How did that happen, and was that something that people anticipated?

LABMAN: In terms of the numbers, historically, for the most part, government resettlement was greater than private sponsorship. And what we've seen in the last few years is a real shifting, with all numbers going up, but private sponsorship now taking responsibility for the majority of resettlement in Canada.

MARTIN: Because this is something that hasn't really been a factor in the United States, you can see, like, the initial concern would be, gee, is this exploitative? Are people going to be, you know, bringing people over for reasons of exploitation or are they going to be properly supported? So the Biden administration has made efforts to kind of address kind of the upfront concerns that a lot of people might have. But are there things that have emerged over the course of time that you want to raise, that these are some things that people should be thinking about as this program gets developed?

LABMAN: When Canada committed to resettling a number of Syrian refugees, a large component of Canadians who'd never sponsored before felt compelled to respond to the Syrian crisis, and so for the first time, sponsored refugees. And they didn't have the same experience. They didn't have the same background. They didn't have the same historical knowledge of how this works. And so it became harder to do. It's harder to do when you do it a first time than if you're doing your 10th sponsorship.

And some of the realizations that happened in that moment as we were also significantly increasing the numbers of refugees that were being sponsored to Canada is that there needs to be more oversight of the program to make sure everything's happening properly when you're transferring this to individual Canadians to carry out. But at the same time, what we've also seen is what I'd say is an over professionalization or over legalization of the program. And so the consequence of that is some sponsorship groups are saying we're just a group of volunteers. We're not paid employees. We don't have the capacity to do this level of paperwork and financial budgeting to make this a reality.

So recently, we've had a couple of long-standing sponsors saying they're getting out of the game because it's become too complicated to respond to all the oversight. So really, what you're having is a balancing of finding that right level of making sure the program operates well, but not overburdening sponsors with the paperwork and technicalities of an application, because that's something that's really increased since the program began in the '70s.

MARTIN: So I've seen what you're saying. You're saying that you think this should be complementary. It shouldn't replace it. It should add an opportunity for resettlement. It shouldn't replace the government's responsibility under an international law. But overall, how would you say - and I know it's always hard to assess, you know, public opinion, but do you think that Canadians on the whole think that this is a good thing and feel that it's added to their country?

LABMAN: I think so, yes. I mean, I've personally sponsored a refugee family. When Canadians all over Canada were suddenly feeling compelled to sponsor for the first time with Syrian refugees, many of my friends came to me and said, can we work together to sponsor a family? And we ended up sponsoring a family from Colombia, not from Syria, because we were concerned about that global reach of the response. But generally, even in my classes, students know of refugees because their families or their church groups have sponsored refugees in the past. Students in my classes come from these programs because when you're sponsored, you are meeting Canadians right away. And they tell you about the school system. And they inspire you to go to university. You have this connection and location.

We also have some really huge success stories of sponsored refugees who've built businesses. There's a wonderful chocolate company in eastern Canada called Peace by Chocolate that was created by a Syrian refugee family. That is a huge success. And so we have all these pictures of why sponsorship is good. And it - overall, the important thing about it is it doesn't just compel Canadians to sponsor refugees, but it has Canadians know refugees and understand that whether they come by way of sponsorship, by government resettlement or by way of asylum, that these people aren't a threat. They're people in need of protection. There are people whose lives have been displaced and just need a new place to start and rebuild, and that they can contribute in immense ways to the communities in which they join.

MARTIN: Have there ever been any disasters that have gotten a lot of attention, of national concern, or even kind of regional concern that have caused people to have some skepticism about the program or not?

LABMAN: I'd say the thing about resettlement is it's humanitarian protection of those in need, but it operates like an immigration program. So those refugees who are resettled by a government program, by a sponsorship program, are vetted. They go through all the security vetting. And there's an immigration checking that you know who people are before they get into your country. And so you don't have those sorts of issues.

MARTIN: Shauna Labman is executive director of the Global College at the University of Winnipeg. She is a legal scholar who is an authority on refugee law and refugee resettlement. Shauna Labman, thanks so much for joining us.

LABMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.