How Canada led the way in private refugee sponsorship

The United States has just launched a private sponsorship program that will enable Americans to sponsor refugees arriving through the US Refugee Admissions Program, directly supporting their resettlement in the USA. This is a new approach for the US, but in Canada, private sponsorship has been a part of our refugee admission process since 1978.

In that year, Canada’s Immigration Act was amended to allow private sponsorship. Joseph Kage of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society first proposed the idea in commenting on the 1967 white paper on immigration, and a small paragraph in the 1976 Immigration Act permitted Canadian citizens in groups of at least five to privately sponsor refugees within a quota set by government. But it is clear, from Howard Adelman’s story, that the Canadian government really had no idea how dramatically this would turbocharge refugee sponsorship.

In 1979-80, as Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arrived on Canadian shores and the government proposed to welcome a few thousand, Canadians surprised most everyone by responding en masse to drive the welcome of 60,000 people over 18 months. Operation Lifeline started in Adelman’s living room on June 10, 1979 and by month’s end – even without social media – there were an astonishing 66 chapters across Canada.

Not long after that meeting, Canada increased its 1979 target of 5,000 government-sponsored Indochinese refugees to 12,000, with 4,000 to be sponsored by the private sector. On July 18, external affairs minister Flora MacDonald made the target 50,000, including up to 21,000 additional government sponsorships on a matching basis of one-to-one for every refugee sponsored by the private sector. “The private sector exceeded its target by 50%,” Adelman said. “Over the next forty years, about 200,000 refugees in total were brought to Canada under the private sponsorship program. The activism of the private sector created a legacy for the future in addition to helping the Indochinese refugees; OL played a significant role in that success.” 

Ahmed Akacha, Pexels

I learned all this back in 2016, when – like so many Canadians – I was touched to the core by the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Mediterranean beach. Our collective desire to help Syrian refugees up-ended a government that had been in power for a decade  and engaged thousands in the new government’s invitation to welcome 25,000 people over five months. 

What fascinated me, especially, was what this said about how governance was changing in the social media era. “The differences between these two massive Canadian welcomes illustrate how both the power of social  media, and the collaboration made possible through open source thinking, may well be changing what  ‘governance’ looks like in an increasingly interconnected and ‘open source’ world,” I wrote then.

“Some Dutch thinkers say that we now are in a ‘sharing  economy’ which is reshaping all aspects of how we organize ourselves. They call it Society 3.0 because it is still emerging, not yet able to be characterized in ways such as ‘agricultural” (Society 1.0) or “industrial”  (Society 2.0). Seeing that traditional organisations and governments seem to be failing, they say, many people have turned to self-organisation, connecting virtually both locally and globally, creating value through reciprocity as well as money, and solving problems collaboratively. A more interdependent economy is evolving, in which reciprocity (shared skills) matters as much as money, and access is far more important than ownership.”

“Despite these rapid changes, however, we don’t have a clear picture of what governance – in the sense of  government’s role in managing societies – will look like in Society 3.0. That is why, for me, it has been so fascinating to watch the Canadian welcome of Syrian refugees over the past five months. In the way in which Canadians have self-organised, and in how the government has played a facilitative role, I see a new model  of more open sourced governance emerging.”

Huffington Post Canada

As Alan Kurdi’s picture went viral, shared from person to person in ever expanding waves, Canadians kept saying ‘we must do something’. And, unlike people in many European countries, or at that time, the USA, they could – and did – because of private sponsorship. Here’s what I wrote back in 2016, in e-O&P.

Social media made it possible to find others who were also inspired to help, whether in our own community or on the other side of the country. Soon after the picture appeared, Canadians learned that the Kurdi family’s application for refugee status had been refused by our government, making the tragedy seem even more personal. This collective sharing of grief and the concomitant need to act welled upward into the Canadian election campaign. People began organising private sponsorship groups to support Syrian refugees. And the Liberal Party, which had promised that it would bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year-end, vaulted from third place to form a majority government.

Citizen self-organisation – in the face of perceived inaction by the Conservative government – thus had begun to shape government action in a powerful way even before the election campaign ended. This was not immediately obvious to many pundits and politicians. This is because the self-organisation had taken place  on social media, creating new connective tissue in communities and around the country that linked people at  the bottom of our governance system. While the new government also intended to sponsor refugees itself,  much of its initial response involved facilitating the arrival of refugees supported by private sponsorship  groups. Effectively, government was partnering with citizens in a collective form of self-organisation.

As it became clear that refugee welcome was being driven as much by citizens as by government, media helped to create a self-reinforcing “virtuous circle”. Their competitive focus meant that each media outlet  continually looked for ‘new angles’ on stories told by other outlets, and kept digging for ‘new’ stories to tell.  Local media focused on how their communities were organising to host refugees, and regional media shared  and often elaborated on these stories. The range of stories seemed endless.

Villa Sainte-Marcelline School. (Radio-Canada)

People were knitting warm toques and mittens for refugees, designing an ‘app’ or making welcome videos to help Syrians navigate their new cities or find accommodation for them,organising drives to collect household effects for the new arrivals, working via Skype with refugee students who were still in camps to help them refine their English, or collecting Arabic-language books for libraries. Young students were selling hot chocolate to raise funds, or drawing welcome cards – using Arabic – for newly-arrived Syrian children.  Churches, synagogues, and mosques – sometimes in partnerships – sponsored and supported refugees. Businesses across Canada donated money and offered apartments. Participation was high by people who had come to Canada in earlier times as refugees, including former Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who identified strongly with the refugees’ struggles.

As these stories were shared through social media far beyond the media outlets’ usual audience or readership, this ‘virtuous circle’ encouraged still more activity and involvement. It brought together people who might not otherwise have ever met face-to-face. It created a bottom-up cushion of support on which the government’s facilitative actions to welcome Syrian refugees could rest. Social media created the possibility for a much wider conversation, involving many more people and communities, than ever would have  occurred in the past, when people relied primarily on newspapers, telephones, and letters for  communication. Social media created the capability for citizens to become equal partners with government in welcoming refugees, and citizens continue to use this capability to suggest improvements in how to do this, suggesting that partnership has led to a sense of empowerment at a local level. A trend is growing towards creating the same kind of citizen-led support for ‘government-sponsored’ refugees as now exists for  ‘privately-sponsored’ refugees, and towards creating a ‘whole-community’ response to integrating refugees.

Launched by the US Department of State and the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Welcome Corps aims to mobilize at least 10,000 Americans to step forward as private sponsors to at least 5,000 refugees from around the world in its first year. 

US citizens and lawful permanent residents can form Private Sponsor Groups, to welcome refugees approved for resettlement through the US Refugee Admissions Program. PSGs must be comprised of least five people over 18 who live in or near the same community and can collectively show  that they have the capacity to welcome refugees. Sponsors must raise at least $2,275 in cash and in-kind contributions per newcomer being welcomed.

Beginning in mid-2023, the Welcome Corps will expand to allow private sponsors, through their PSGs, to identify refugees in need of protection whom they wish to sponsor, as well as refer refugee applicants for consideration to the USRAP, subject to program criteria established by the government.

PSGs also commit to providing welcoming services to arriving refugees for their first 90 days in the community by securing and preparing initial housing, greeting newcomers at the airport, enrolling children in school, and helping adults to find employment. The earliest privately sponsored refugees will begin arriving through the Welcome corps in April 2023.


How social media, open source,  and self-organisation are changing governance. The impact of migration from Syria. Rosemary Cairns, e-Organisations and People, AMED. ‘This article first appeared in e-O&P Vol 23 No 1, Spring 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission of AMED’. 

Operation Lifeline. Howard Adelman. In Finding Refuge in Canada, Narratives of Dislocation. Eds George Melnyk & Christina Parker.

Biden admin. Unveils “Welcome Corps”, new program to allow private sponsorship of refugees. Green & Spiegel, Jan 21, 2023

Biden administration invites ordinary citizens to help resettle refugees. NPR, Jan. 24, 2023.

A national experiment in refugee resettlement. New Yorker, Feb. 17, 2023

Cover image: Markus Winkler, Pexels