press and opinions

Unintended Consequences of Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program

  • / Sep 9, 2013 / by Tom Denton /
  • Paper prepared for the 2013 International Metropolis Conference

    September 9-13, 2013; Tampere, Finland

    Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees [PSR] Program is a compelling example of “the law of unintended consequences”.  This fundamental concept found within the social science of economics holds that actions always have affects that are unanticipated or unintended. This is particularly true of actions by governments. And for as long as this has been true, for just as long this reality has tended to be ignored. So it is with Canada’s PSR Program.

    Early days

    The program began in the late 1970’s in response to the appalling plight of refugees from Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It was a plight brought home to Canadians through images on their television screens and it provoked a remarkable response. I was privileged to be a part of that response then and have had a 34 year involvement since with this commendable program.

    Canada’s government needed to respond to the crisis. As a responsible and mature member of the community of nations this would not be Canada’s first such gesture, nor would it be its last. The extraordinary size of this particular response, however, was unique. During the 273 days of the short-lived minority government of Joe Clark, his Secretary of State for External Affairs was Flora Macdonald. She has personally told me the story of how it happened.

    Minister Macdonald’s staff advisors came to her with a recommendation that Canada respond to the “Boat People” crisis by offering rescue and resettlement to 5,000 of them.  Ms. Macdonald had to take this recommendation for approval to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Clark. But in doing so she converted the recommendation to her own one of 50,000 – and the Cabinet approved it. For her department it was probably the first appearance of the law of unintended consequences in the PSR program.

    Thus began an astounding landing of what turned out to be over 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia in a few short years, earning from the United Nations the award of its Nansen Medal, awarded to “The People of Canada”.  But the unintended consequences of this for the PSR program and for Canada went very much farther.  These refugees and their progeny have helped to build Canada.


    The program began as a simple invitation to Canadians to respond. I persuaded my small-town Rotary Club to do so, and remember well going into Winnipeg, to a government office, and simply signing cursory papers on behalf of the club. In very short order our Vietnamese refugee family arrived, was welcomed by a delegation of our members and wives, and was resettled in a comfortable rented bungalow in a good neighborhood. All worked out well.

    It was not long however before more formal structures evolved as the program bureaucratized. What were termed “Sponsorship Agreement Holders” [SAHs], most often reflecting the organizational structures of the mainline Christian denominations, entered into agreements (devised by the government) with the Canadian government that not only empowered them to sponsor refugees under the program but also detailed their responsibilities while so doing.

    Over time the roster of SAHs has diversified in terms of faith and purposes, and while waxing and waning through the intervening years, today numbers more than eighty. The SAHs now have, with government encouragement and funding, formed their own organization to act as a concerted voice and offer organized support to the program.

    What is sometimes missed by SAHs, as they argue with government for one point or another, is that their existence can be seen as ephemeral, entirely dependent on the life of a Canadian government immigration program that can be changed or cancelled at the drop of a hat.  But in the meantime this substantial SAH refugee resettlement lobby, representing in one way or another all the large faith groups in the country (as well as ethnic collectives), is a force to be reckoned with – and another unintended consequence of the original framing of the PSR program.

    Two other sponsoring mechanisms were written into the PSR process:  Community Sponsorships, where an established and qualifying group could sponsor twice yearly; and Groups of Five, where five qualifying individuals could undertake a refugee sponsorship.  While the former has been used only infrequently, the latter has become a major factor of the PSR program and typically and until recently has accounted for about thirty percent of cases filed.


    Through the intervening years since the Boat People crisis tens of thousands of refugees have been resettled in Canada under the PSR program.  Those initial arrivals had been selected by Canada’s visa officers abroad, but it was not long before this approach changed dramatically. Those refugees who came now wanted their relatives and friends saved too. Thus began the transmogrification of the program. Through my association and work with Winnipeg’s International Centre (the principal refugee resettlement agency in the city at that time) for over twenty years I watched it happen, and I participated in making it happen.

    During the first decade of the program there was a degree of tension and debate between those who felt that those sponsored to Canada ought to be refugees selected by the government (like the original Boat People), and those who wanted to bring in at-risk relatives of refugees already here.

    This distinction acquired the epithets “unnamed” for the former (government selected), and “named” for the latter (refugees nominated by their relatives in Canada).  There was an inference that the “unnamed” were more in keeping with the intent of the program than were the “named”, and hence somehow more worthy in the refugee pecking order, with a kind of moral superiority attaching to those who sponsored them.

    One advocate for the “named” approach at a national meeting of people involved in the program, memorably noted that all refugees had names and posed the question to an advocate for the “unnamed” approach, “What makes your refugee better than my refugee?”

    In the intervening years to the present, while the distinction still continues, the “moral superiority” of one selection method over another has all but disappeared.

     Selection – and the great unintended consequence

    Today the selection distinction is more likely to be described in one of three ways:

     1) “visa office referred” for “unnamed” cases offered for sponsorship by Canada and chosen by a Canadian sponsor;

     2) “full-sponsorship” for refugees, whether “named” or “unnamed”, without supporting relatives in Canada and who must therefore be the sole financial responsibility of the sponsoring group; and

     3) “family-linked” cases where the real financial support of the refugee throughout the resettlement process is coming from relatives and friends in Canada already.

    Examining the demand and the landings under these three categories reveals the greatest unintended consequence of the PSR program. The overwhelming number of cases initiated in recent years is family-linked – probably 99 percent. Because overseas refusals by Canada’s selection officers will only affect “named” cases, while the “unnamed” ones are always pre-approved by Canada, the landing percentage (family-linked) has been somewhat less, but still in the ninety percent range.

    [The recent government-initiated “Blended Visa Office Referred” program will tend to lower the ratio by offering a financial incentive to sponsors to take “unnamed” cases selected by the government.]

    The shift in the PSR program to family-linked sponsorships, the “great unintended consequence”, in hindsight can be seen as inevitable.  It was inevitable for four fundamental reasons:

    First, Canada is a hard country to get into as an immigrant. The rules are tight and restricting, and the total annual number of immigrants admitted has been essentially frozen at about 250,000 for years.  Thus programs for nannies and live-in caregivers, for temporary foreign workers, and indeed for privately sponsored refugees, tend to become, however limited in their numbers, the safety valves for pent up family reunification demand that cannot be satisfied in any other way.

    In a very real sense, and although the candidates must still be bona fide refugees, the PSR program is an immigration program in the guise of a refugee rescue and resettlement program. It is therefore admirable both as a national contribution to the planet’s refugee crises, and as a mechanism for family reunification when Canada’s current immigration laws permit no other for people of this ilk.  The latter is of course an unintended consequence.

    Second is the pull factor. Canada has the largest percentage of foreign-born citizens of any country, rivaled only by Australia. It has passed twenty percent. Within this number are many who came to Canada as refugees themselves and now become the vanguard and instrument for the rescuing of the rest of their family, whom they are often already supporting by remittances via personal carriers or agencies like Western Union and Amal Express.  Resettling these dependent relatives in Canada means finally an end to a serious financial drain as they become self-supporting in their new country.

    So the more refugees Canada admits (whether government-sponsored or privately sponsored), the greater is the demand for family reunification by the PSR program’s unique mechanism.  It is exponential and is called “the echo effect.” There is no alternative way to immigrate for most who enter in this manner. It is either the PSR program - or family separation forever. It is also an unintended consequence of Canada’s generosity in the first place.

    The third reason for the growth in family-linked sponsoring, and the decline in “unnamed” sponsoring, is money, or rather the lack of it.  Mainline churches in Canada, the main source of ‘unnamed” sponsorships in the past, are in general decline - both as regards membership and financial resources. Fewer congregations can afford to undertake the increasing expense of refugee resettlement support.

    The churches have therefore tended to shift their approach to one where they use their legal capacity and credibility to sponsor, knowing that the cost will be underwritten by the family-link.

    The fourth reason for the growth of family-linked and “named” sponsoring is the legislatively allowed Group of Five [G5] sponsoring (and its infant sibling, Community sponsoring).  G5 cases only come about because someone in Canada wants to rescue and bring in a particular “named” refugee. In almost every case this will be a relative, and a successful conclusion accomplishes family reunification.

     Demand and restrictions

    The demand for new sponsorships is huge and mostly unsatisfied. I see it first hand. I am personally turning down requests every working day at a rate I estimate at 5,000 refugees a year; and these requests are all coming from Canadians, whether citizens or permanent residents, wanting to rescue their family members still in pathetic and dangerous refugee circumstances overseas.

    This number does not include all those refugees without family connections in Canada who contact me daily via the Internet and plead for personal rescue in a “full-sponsorship” way.  I estimate this number at 1,000 a year. If one person can receive this volume of requests, what must the total demand potential be?

    The PSR program is currently unique to Canada and therefore Canadian sponsors represent the planet’s only private window of opportunity to refugees seeking rescue and resettlement. One can only imagine the potential demand, remembering that there are currently about 15 million refugees world-wide.

    Although there are obviously limits to anyone’s capacity, the hard choice to turn down all these people, is not initially or fundamentally mine.  Current Canadian policy limits the number of refugees who can be admitted annually under the PSR program to 6,000.  It is a number not yet reached in the years of the more recent iteration of the program, but it is the target.

    Backlogs of submitted sponsorships by the end of 2011 had reached about 34,000 and in consequence were taking many years to process and land in Canada.  The problem wasn’t so much staffing as it was the annual limit – within the context of Canada’s overall limit on annual immigration numbers, and its effect on every category.

    Within the PSR program’s context it was seen as necessary to limit the numbers of new cases being filed in order to allow a catch-up in the process to a more reasonable processing time (18 months being the goal). Those limitations are now in place and are not expected to lessen in severity until 2016.  This has imposed restrictions on those who would sponsor, in various ways that are a subject for another paper. Suffice it to say that I, along with others who sponsor, must operate in a restrictive environment for new cases for the time being, leading to the necessity for me to turn down applicants as aforesaid.


    It is a paradox that while governments of immigrant-seeking states are motivated to satisfy their perceived labour market needs, or in the case of refugees to meet intended international obligations, a principal driver of human migration has always been its relational aspect, its “family” connectivity. It is estimated that more than eighty percent of immigrants to Canada, no matter within which “silo” of rules they have been required to qualify, chose Canada because of this relational connection. It is the overarching reality, the elephant in the room, the human factor seldom or only grudgingly acknowledged by government – but amply illustrating the law of unintended consequences.

    Fortunately, and because of the relational aspect of human migration, within the superficiality of any labour market immigration strategy lurks two more unintended consequences.

    The first is better resettlement success. Those who arrive with a family connection already in place, with a ready community network to tap into, are more easily resettled, and have stronger opportunities for future success. This is of course intuitive; it’s common sense.  But I can attest to the reality from being a direct observer of the resettlement of more than 20,000 refugees – both government-sponsored with no relatives to assist in their resettlement; and privately sponsored with family links -- over a span of 34 years. The challenges of resettlement are definitely less for those who are family-linked, who join a family and a network already functioning in their new country.

    The second is a strong nation-building component. We often pay lip service to the old saw that the strength of the nation lies in the strength of its families; or that families are the building blocks of the nation – but our immigration policies seem to miss this fundamental. In Canada there is of course a Family Class component to the nation’s immigration strategy, but it is there almost grudgingly, circumscribed by quotas and limited by restrictive definitions.  Yet, through the net land many family members anyway - because of the relational aspect underlying immigration in all its categories.

    A collateral paradox is that Canada’s PSR program, while unique and fundamentally intended as a humanitarian gesture abroad and a community-involvement and tolerance-building aspect of the multicultural state at home, is today in reality and for the most part a family-reunification program in result.

    This unintended consequence produces easier integration for its family-linked participants and suggests both a resettlement model for other states and a nation-building technique that is complementary to the more common labour market strategies.