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Jennifer Bond, Giulio Di Blasi, and Ania Kwadrans

COVID-19 has severely impacted all aspects of the global refugee protection system. Border closures, dramatically reduced air travel, constrained access to humanitarian aid, and direct risks from the virus itself are among the many factors exacerbating threats faced by refugees and asylum seekers. How and when refugee protection systems will re-open – and what forms they may take – will be intimately linked to the pandemic’s uncertain mid- and long-term impacts on our economies, politics and societies. 

We write as colleagues at the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub who work on the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI), a partnership between our University and the Government of Canada, UNHCR, the Open Society Foundations, and the Giustra Foundation. The GRSI encourages and supports the establishment and growth of community sponsorship programs around the world. Over the past six weeks, we have convened a series of conversations with government policy officials, NGO leaders, philanthropists and sponsorship groups from more than 20 countries. Through these conversations, we have sought both to understand COVID-19’s immediate impact on the sponsorship community, and to gather collective wisdom about the future.  This post reflects our learnings and reflections. 

Community sponsorship 

Community sponsorship empowers groups of citizens to take the lead in welcoming and integrating refugees who have arrived in their communities via facilitated third-country protection pathways. Sponsors agree to meet a range of newcomer needs that typically include housing, language and cultural support, as well as friendship and introductions to the local neighbourhood. 

Canada operates the longest-running and most well-known community sponsorship program in the world, but unique variants have emerged in 14 other countries since 2016. Some of these programs connect sponsors to refugees referred by UNHCR through traditional resettlement processes, while others are linked to ‘complementary pathways’ that rely on alternative forms of referrals. In all its variants, sponsorship builds intimate forms of community connection which have positive impacts for refugees and the welcoming community alike. Sponsorship also builds important social capital – among sponsors, between sponsors and newcomers, and within communities – and creates ‘trusted messengers’ who can share positive stories about newcomers within their own peer groups. More than 2 million Canadians have sponsored refugees since 2015, and in the days before COVID, tens of thousands of new sponsors around the world were preparing to welcome refugees as new neighbours. 

COVID-related challenges 

The GRSI supports governments and civil society champions designing and implementing sponsorship programs, and is part of a vibrant ecosystem of local, regional, national and global actors working to introduce and scale community sponsorship around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced this group of stakeholders to confront a series of new challenges, including: 

The suspension of resettlement travel at a time when refugee needs are growing: COVID-19 is exacerbating significant hardships for refugees and considerable challenges for refugee protection. The longer travel restrictions and physical distancing requirements are in place, the longer interviews, health screenings and other vetting and preparatory procedures that underlie third-country solutions will be constrained. Prolonged, system-wide shut-downs will, in turn, increase more structural backlogs for all refugees, including those destined to be sponsored. 

Urgent practical challenges for both refugees and sponsors: Refugees whose travel has been suddenly suspended, as well as those who have recently arrived in new countries, are facing all kinds of novel and unexpected challenges. It is critical that these new circumstances are recognised and mitigated. The sudden health and economic crisis has also forced sponsors waiting for newcomers to confront an array of difficulties (and sometimes financial liabilities), while those sponsors who are supporting recent arrivals must seek new ways to provide settlement assistance (such as meeting on Facetime rather than in person) and respond to unique pandemic-related vulnerabilities (ensuring they share accurate, well translated  information about the virus).

Threats to the sustainability of key protection architecture: For countries with fragile resettlement infrastructure, the changed environment caused by COVID-19 may erode the financial capacity or political will to prioritise refugee resettlement or explore community sponsorship programs. Community organisations, especially those whose funding model is dependent on refugee arrivals, may also face significant near- and mid-term risks. More broadly, COVID-19 may generate public anxiety about border management and general distrust of migration, fuelling xenophobia. These kinds of shifts risk further eroding the ability of certain countries to resume refugee arrivals and/or to recruit sponsors, even as the pandemic subsides. 

The future of community sponsorship 

Despite the immediate challenges, we believe that community sponsorship has an important role to play in rebuilding our global refugee protection system. At its core, sponsorship relies on community compassion, problem-solving and creativity – features that give this tool the inherent potential to build on the solidarity that has emerged in recent weeks, while simultaneously countering negative and xenophobic attitudes and bolstering localised support for immigrants. 

Community sponsorship is also a flexible tool capable of supporting refugees referred by UNHCR on the basis of vulnerability criteria, as well as refugee students, workers and family members arriving through other pathways. This versatility – coupled with its proven ability to offer wrap-around support and successful integration in a cost-efficient way – renders sponsorship a useful model for governments exploring innovative immigration programs and mutually-beneficial protection pathways in the wake of the pandemic. 

Finally, it is significant that sponsorship can facilitate refugee arrivals in a way that may accord with new public-health requirements. This is because sponsors can ensure newcomers are provided with homes where they can physically distance, while still benefiting from personalised and warm community support. More traditional models of resettlement are not as well suited to the logistical challenges created by the pandemic and may further problematize program resumption. 

Recent conversations with the global community committed to refugee sponsorship have illuminated the need for immediate work in three core areas: 

Preserve and respond:  We must find ways both to preserve existing protection infrastructure and to support sponsors and newcomers with urgent needs. This includes supporting sponsors and refugees impacted by suspended travel, facilitating pre-departure communication between approved sponsors and matched newcomers, helping sponsors and newly arrived newcomers to build supportive relationships while physically distancing, and creating peer support opportunities for sharing best practices during this unusual period. The nascent ecosystem that supports sponsorship programs also needs protection: government officials writing policy or implementing programs need the mandate to continue this work, sponsorship-oriented NGOs need their funding to be preserved (and, in some cases, enhanced to allow for the preparation of new online resources), and sponsors at all stages of their journey need support and encouragement to continue their engagement. 

Prepare and expand:  We must also anticipate the eventual resumption of international travel and prepare to meet the resumption of activity with sufficient sponsor capacity. This includes helping current sponsors advance on their journey, mobilising and recruiting future sponsors, supporting the design and development of new programs, strengthening the evidence base, and fortifying and diversifying existing policy designs. Governments and community leaders must find ways to advance in this fragile new environment, and all work geared towards expanding sponsorship programs or preparing for new sponsorships must of course be undertaken with sensitivity toward communities that may be suffering from health, economic or other concerns. 

Innovate:  Finally, we must also use this time to innovate and begin adapting many aspects of the refugee protection system to a world transformed by the pandemic. Innovations and efficiencies in all parts of the sponsorship journey can be explored, including targeted technological initiatives, better leveraging of collective resources, and mobilizing the creative and effective use of private and public impact investments. 

Community sponsorship is a powerful policy tool that is good for refugees and the communities that welcome them, as well as society as a whole. We need to act now to preserve, support and strengthen the sponsorship capacity that has developed around the world in recent years. Governments and civil society organisations have already begun to offer support to sponsors and newcomers coping with the pandemic’s far-reaching effects. We must redouble those efforts and also begin planning for the future. If we do so, community sponsorship can play a crucial role in safeguarding and re-opening global refugee protection systems in a world transformed by COVID-19. 

Professor Jennifer Bond is founder and Managing Director of The Refugee Hub, University of Ottowa
Giulio Di Blasi is Europe Director Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative at Refugee Hub, University of Ottawa
Ania Kwadrans is Senior Policy Advisor at The Refugee Hub, University of Ottowa


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