Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

A Preliminary Investigation into Private Refugee Sponsors

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

A Preliminary Investigation into Private Refugee Sponsors

Article excerpt


The Syrian civil war, and the human displacement it precipitated, has reinvigorated domestic and international interest in Canada's unique model of private refugee sponsorship. (1) A fall 2015 federal election replaced a government that cultivated antipathy toward asylum seekers and refugees with one that campaigned on a pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in a matter of months. In December 2015, media images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees at a Toronto airport went viral around the world as thousands of Canadians formed groups and undertook preparations to privately sponsor refugees from Syria.

Academic research about private refugee sponsorship lags behind the recent flurry of activity and attention, and this special issue of Canadian Ethnic Studies adds momentum to the closure of that gap, with a focus on the Syrian experience (except see AAISA 2017; Drolet et al. 2017; Munson and Ataullahjan 2016; Oda et al. 2017). Refugee resettlement is one of three 'durable solutions' for refugees espoused by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, along with voluntary return to the country of origin and local integration in the country of first asylum. As a distinctly Canadian mode of resettlement, private sponsorship has sparked a range of policy-relevant research questions about its benefits in terms of refugee outcomes in comparison to a public model of resettlement. However, the impact of private refugee sponsorship on sponsors and the communities in which they live remains virtually unaddressed. (2)

Why study sponsors? From an academic perspective, private sponsorship offers a unique opportunity to explore perceptions and experiences of an encounter between citizen (member) and refugee (other) that is both highly personal and constituted and mediated by the state. Refugee sponsors interact with refugees at the granular, quotidian level of daily life, but the possibility, structure, and terms of that relationship are set by government regulation. While many scholars conduct important research with partners in established civil society organizations, we probe the motivations and experiences of individual refugee sponsors, thereby offering a way to examine everyday enactments of 'civil society' from a distinct angle. For purposes of advancing both research and policy, it is vital to understand better who sponsors, why they sponsor, how they do it, and whether they would sponsor again and/or encourage others to do so.

Owing to the dearth of empirical data on private sponsors and the absence of public (or publicly available) datasets about them, our research team created a comprehensive survey of private citizens who sponsored Syrian refugees. We focused specifically on those whose sponsored party (usually a family, but sometimes a single person) arrived after November 2015. We offer here selected initial findings from the results of that survey, which closed early after the first quarter of 2018. This survey and the resulting dataset constitute the first phase in a two-phase research project and the survey forms the basis for qualitative interviews with sponsors that we will conduct during 2018-19.

The paper is organized as follows: first, we outline Canada's unique model of private sponsorship (Labman 2016). Second, we sketch the conceptual framework of the project, its aims and objectives. Third, we describe survey design and methodology. Next, we present data from the survey that address the demographic characteristics of survey respondents, their motivation for sponsorship, and the mechanisms by which individuals assembled into groups. Some of the findings presented here speak directly to elements of our conceptual and theoretical framework; others are antecedent or ancillary to the framework, in that they provide information that will aid in contextualizing other data and/or guide us toward future paths of inquiry for the next phase of research. …

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