The Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program After Alan Kurdi

The following is a cross-post from Policy Options.

September 2, 2015, the death of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, made the Syrian refugee crisis a key issue in the 42nd Canadian general election.  Although this inevitably resulted in the tragedy becoming politicized, the intense media coverage drew considerable attention to the significant 2012 changes that the Conservative Government of Canada made to restrict access to Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program (the “PSRP”).  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and on September 21, 2015, the Conservatives at least temporarily reversed some of the 2012 changes.  While this was a welcome development, what would truly be a great development in Canadian refugee policy is for whomever next forms government to fully embrace and unleash the private sector to assist in refugee settlement.

The Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program

Through the PSRP Canadians can sponsor refugees and persons in refugee-like situations.  These are generally people who by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, are outside their country of origin and are unable, or, by reason of that fear, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of their country.  People eligible for private sponsorship must also not have the prospect of another durable solution within a reasonable period of time to either return to their country of origin, integrate in their current country of refuge, or have another offer of resettlement from another country.

In addition to the above persons, those who are outside their country of residence and who have been, and continue to be, seriously and personally affected by civil war or armed conflict or who have suffered massive violations of human rights, and for whom there is no possibility of finding an adequate solution within a reasonable period of time, may also be sponsored.

Through the PSRP, there are many ways for Canadians to either directly sponsor refugees or contribute to organizations that do so.

Approximately 60% of sponsors through the PSRP are Sponsorship Agreement Holders (“SAHs”) and their Constituency Groups. SAHs are incorporated organizations that have signed formal multi-year sponsorship agreement with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (“CIC”).  Most SAHs are religious organizations, ethnocultural groups, or humanitarian organizations.  As well, any organization located in a community where a refugee is expected to settle can become a Community Sponsor.  All Canadians can assist in the private sponsorship of refugees by donating to SAHs or Community Sponsors, and a list of SAHs can be found on the CIC website here.

For those who want to be more directly involved, the PSRP allows five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents to form a Group of Five (“G5”).   G5s act as guarantors to the Government of Canada that they will provide necessary support to the sponsored refugee.  Prior to approving a G5, CIC will assess collectively the G5’s financial ability as well as their settlement plan for the refugee family that they are sponsoring.

Sponsoring groups must provide their sponsored refugees with care, lodging, settlement assistance, and support for the duration of the sponsorship period, which is typically twelve months starting from the refugee’s arrival in Canada, although it can be thirty-six months in certain circumstances.  Specific examples of support include:

  • Meeting the refugee upon arrival in the community;
  • Providing the cost of food, rent, and household utilities and other day-to-day living expenses;
  • Providing clothing, furniture, and other household goods;
  • Locating interpreters;
  • Selecting a family physician and dentist;
  • Assisting with applying for medical coverage;
  • Enrolling children in school and adults in language training;
  • Introducing newcomers to people with similar personal interests;
  • Providing orientation with regard to banking services, transportation, etc.;
  • Helping in the search for employment; and
  • Paying for transportation to Canada, in certain circumstances where CIC decides not to loan the money itself due to the risk of non-repayment.

Sponsors only give support on the basis of need, as sponsored refugees are expected to contribute to their own settlement costs from funds that they bring to Canada or earn during their sponsorship period.  However, should a sponsored refugee ultimately require social assistance, then each member of the G5 will be jointly and severally or solidarity bound with the other group members to repay the respective government that provided the social assistance.

History of the PSRP and the 2012 Changes

The PSRP was concocted during the late 1970s after the Government of Canada referred over 50,000 Indochinese refugee families to organizations and groups in Canada that provided settlement support.  Due to the overwhelming success of the program, it became enshrined as a fundamental part of Canada’s refugee and humanitarian resettlement program.   The PSRP has welcomed over 200,000 refugees and persons in refugee-like situations to Canada who might otherwise not have received protection.

Internal CIC data and reports suggest that refugees who arrived in Canada under the PSRP economically perform better than Government-Assisted Refugees (“GARs”).  For example, in September 2012, CIC’s Research and Evaluation Branch produced a report analyzing the percentage of refugees receiving social assistance two years after landing in Canada.  As can be seen in the table below, CIC found that GARs were generally twice as likely to be receiving social assistance as refugees who arrived through the PSRP.

Land Year

Tax Year Incidence of Social Assistance (GARS) % Incidence of Social Assistance (PSRP) %
1993 1995 57



1996 50 28
1995 1997 45



1998 43 30
1997 1999 43



2000 39 20
1999 2001 39



2002 43 19
2001 2003 44



2004 47 21
2003 2005 49



2006 50 19
2005 2007 47



2008 47 17
2007 2009 49


As well, during the same period, the average annual income of refugees who arrived through the PSRP was consistently higher than those of GARs.

Land Year

Tax Year Average Employment Earnings – GARS ($) Average Employment Earnings – PSRP ($)


1995 14,998 17,911
1994 1996 16,026 17,934
1995 1997 16,046 17,920
1996 1998 16,166



1999 16,711 20,451
1998 2000 17,814



2001 16,296 18,927
2000 2002 13,480 18,605


2003 12,958 17,663
2002 2004 12,775



2005 13,448 18,605
2004 2006 13,524


2005 2007 13,956 20,226
2006 2008 15,372


2007 2009 13,946


The above statistics should not lead to the conclusion that people in one refugee program are better or more hard working than another.  Rather, it suggests that the fact that the PSRP requires that sponsors provide integration and assistance to refugees greatly enhances and facilitates the refugees’ economic establishment in Canada.  And of course, while the annual earnings of refugee in Canada two years after landing are not high, it should be noted thatrefugees who have come to Canada over the past 30 years have paid more income tax in Canada than immigrant investors admitted under the now defunct Immigrant Investor Program.

Notwithstanding the relative successes of the PSRP, in 2012, the Conservative Government of Canada introduced several changes to the program after it determined that the PSRP was being strained by large inventories, slow processing, and low approval rates caused in part, ironically, from the slow processing times as refugees abandoned their applications and/or circumstances changed resulting in them becoming ineligible for resettlement in Canada as they had either returned home or obtained asylum elsewhere.

To address these issues, rather than increasing resources to refugee resettlement to reduce these processing times, CIC announced that it was capping the number of refugees that SAHs could both individually and collectively apply to sponsor.

As well, the Conservatives amended the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations so that G5s and CSs would be limited to sponsoring individuals who had been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR or by a foreign state.  The restriction was arguably justifiable at the time, as focusing resettlement on those already identified as refugees would theoretically allow Canada to rescue as many people in as short a time as possible by reducing the need for CIC to assess whether someone was in fact actually a refugee or a similarly situated person.  As the Syrian refugee crisis has shown, however, UNHCR registration can be a very long and arduous process, and due to geopolitical politics is generally not even possible for Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey.

If the Conservative Government of Canada’s goal was to reduce the ability of the Canadian public to help the world’s most vulnerable, then they were successful.  As the table below demonstrates, the number of PSRP applications plummeted after the new caps and restrictions were imposed.


Applications Received in the PSRP














Even as the number of application plummeted, processing times in the PSRP actually increased following the 2012 changes.


Processing Time (in months) for 80% of Cases
2008 34


2010 36
2011 44






As the Canadian media noted following the death of young Alan Kurdi, it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that the 2012 changes combined with the lack of funding that the Government of Canada has allocated towards refugee resettlement has severely diminished, if not broken, the PSRP.

Finally, it has to be noted that at the same time that the Conservatives restricted access to the PSRP, they increased the number of GARs that Canada resettled.  Each resettlement was accompanied by press releases and photo opportunities for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and this almost successfully concealed from the public the damage that was being done elsewhere.

 Unleash the Private Sector

 According to the UNHCR, there are currently around 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, consisting of 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million internally displaced people, and 1.66 million asylum seekers.  On average, almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, and as of September 2015 there are 4,088,099 Syrian refugees registered in countries neighboring Syria.   Other significant source countries for both refugees and internally displaced people include Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.

The leaders of Canada’s three main political parties while campaigning have all committed to resettling some of these refugees.  The Conservative Party of Canada in 2013 announced that its goal would be to resettle 11,300 refugees by the end of 2018.  In August, 2015, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees over four years if re-elected.  The New Democratic Party meanwhile committed to bringing in 46,000 Syrian refugees to Canada over four years if elected.  The Liberals, for their part, have pledged to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by January 1, 2016, if elected.

At the same time that Canada’s political parties have, to quote the National Post’s Terry Glavin, engaged in “numbers-bidding” and “posture-striking” over how many refugees the Government of Canada should publicly resettle, the Canadian public has showed an unprecedented interest in the PSRP.  Huge numbers of private citizens, local charities, and even Canadian businesses have announced that they would sponsor, or are looking to sponsor, refugees.  As a practitioner of immigration law, I have never fielded so many calls from Canadian citizens asking how they can help.

As Canadian interest in the PSRP skyrocketed, and the public discovered how slow and restrictive the PSRP has become, Canadians put unprecedented pressure on the Government of Canada to change.  In response, on September 21, 2015, CIC responded by exempting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from the requirement that they prove that they have refugee status from the UNHCR.  The Conservatives also announced that they were increasing resources for refugee resettlement, and assigning additional visa officers to assist.

The above changes are certainly welcome, as Canadians who dedicate their time and guarantee their own money to help the world’s most vulnerable should know that their efforts will produce results.  Unfortunately, it is not difficult to envision that after the election there will be a return to the status quo, and possibly even the slow claw back of these additional resources.

It would be a very welcome development in Canadian refugee policy for the leader of whichever party next forms government to fully embrace the PSRP.  To somewhat paraphrase Conrad Black, Canada needs a political leader to demonstrate a vision that matches the size of the current refugee crisis and who can harness the enthusiasm of the private sector to help.  Given the unprecedented interest in refugee resettlement, such a visionary leader could likely encourage even more Canadians to donate to SAHs, form G5s, and possibly even fund the additional officers needed to expedite resettlement.

According to an IPSOS Reid Poll conducted on September 15, 2015, 47% of Canadians support the idea of fast-tracking private sponsorship of refugees with no cap or limit as to how many refugees can be sponsored by Canadians privately.  The remaining 53% should take comfort with the fact that it is not their money.  Indeed, given that the number of PSRP applications that CIC was receiving before 2012 was already high, that current interest in the PRSP is unprecedented, and that refugees who arrive in Canada through the PSRP are less likely than GARs to require social assistance, it is likely that a PSRP that is utilized to its full potential could allow Canada to resettle morerefugees at less public cost than what is currently occuring.

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Canadians are anxious and willing to help alleviate the suffering of refugees abroad. Unlike our political representatives, they will do so without issuing press releases and taking part in photo ops.  These Canadians are ready to do what the Government of Canada either cannot or will not.  They just need our elected officials to let them.

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