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In recent days, the journey of several hundred children, women and men made headlines in the United States. The group reportedly fled Honduras and other parts of Central America and sought to walk into Mexico in a so-called ‘caravan’ for safety. US President Donald Trump claimed the group represented an immigration-control issue, and he has ordered the US National Guard to staff the border, but the journey of these individuals should instead highlight the need to expand safe and orderly refugee admissions into the United States.

On all fronts, the ability of refugees to obtain protection in the US has become increasingly difficult. The Trump administration cut the country’s contribution to global resettlement efforts by more than half, and only about 10,548 people have been resettled so far this financial year. As a result, several dozen resettlement agencies have faced closure or serious cuts to their operations around the country. Meanwhile, those who reach the US and lodge claims for protection may face prolonged detention and potential separation from family members.

These actions are a far cry from the United States’ strong history of refugee resettlement, and contrast with international efforts now under way to realign the management of forced migration for the 21st Century. Under the latest draft of a new agreement - the Global Compact on Refugees - governments are encouraged to work together with civil society, faith-based organisations and the private sector to expand safe and orderly humanitarian pathways for refugee admission.

One of these pathways is private sponsorship, a form of entry that has been offered by the Canadian government for the past forty years. In 2018 up to 18,000 refugees will be resettled in Canada by community and private sector organisations and groups of Canadian citizens. At a recent Kaldor centre event in Sydney, Professor Audrey Macklin of the University of Toronto stated that because Canada had written both public and private refugee resettlement into law in the late 1970s, it was ready to act when the dramatic exodus of Syrians happened in 2015. Canadians already had an established, legislated way to help; rather than write a cheque, they could sponsor a refugee.

As the draft of the Compact specifies, these kind of pathways must be “additional to regular resettlement”, used to complement and not replace other avenues to protection. Under a relatively new Australian model of private sponsorship (the Community Support Program), however, the number of individuals sponsored by community organisations or individuals is deducted from the Australian government’s annual humanitarian resettlement quota.

In comparison, entry under Canada’s private sponsorship program is additional to the government’s annual refugee quota. While Canada’s private sponsorship model may have its critics, its existence alongside the government’s refugee admissions program means that the 18,000 refugees projected to arrive in 2018 would complement the goal of 7,500 government-assisted refugees and several thousand other humanitarian entrants the government has set for this coming year.

The US does not have a private sponsorship program. The capacity of communities and businesses to support this kind of scheme was publicly canvassed during 2016 and early 2017 as a way to offset Donald Trump’s restrictive approach to the US refugee admissions program. The Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, Alex Aleinikoff, wrote that private sponsorship could ensure that community generosity ‘would more than compensate’ for Trump’s dramatic cuts to the annual refugee intake.

More than a year later, as the Trump administration is busy deploying troops to deter refugees, the Mexican government has offered transit or humanitarian visas to some members of the ‘caravan’ from Central America. And further north, the Canadian government has been promoting private sponsorship around the world. Canada helped launch the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI) in late 2016, and representatives from the Canadian government have been consulting with counterparts in other countries to ‘share Canada’s experience’ with the world.

The draft Global Compact references several other ways to expand safe pathways for refugees. These include protected-entry procedures, in which asylum seekers are issued visas to travel safely to a territory where they can lodge a claim for protection on arrival. In the past two years, more than 1,000 Syrian asylum seekers have arrived safely in Italy in this way, via an initiative called the Humanitarian Corridors. While Italian authorities conduct security checks and issue visas, faith-based organisations fund the initiative, conducting interviews and supporting asylum seekers after their arrival in Italy.

The High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has noted that a refugee will have a very small chance of securing a place in a third-country resettlement program, because just a few thousand places are offered by States each year. And thus while the draft Compact promotes complementary pathways, it also encourages States to ‘increase the scope, size and quality’ of resettlement programs. Expanding access for safe, orderly refugee admission is clearly a pressing task for the international community. Even with troops on the border, the need for protection will not disappear, but the US risks falling further behind other States in addressing it.

This Researcher Postcard is part of an occasional series of writings from Kaldor Centre Senior Research Associate Dr Claire Higgins during her Fulbright Postdoctoral research in the United States. Her book Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s Refugee Policy, was released in September 2017.

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.