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Let the U.S. Resettle Refugees Privately

The Trump administration takes office just as proposals to relaunch private sponsorship of refugees in the U.S. are gaining support. Matthew La Corte from the Niskanen Center argues that it would be wrong to abandon this approach.

Written by Matthew La Corte Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Refugees in Rome.Leo Claudio De Petris / Pacific Press

The U.S. leads the world in resettling refugees and is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Syria. The compassion demonstrated by the U.S. throughout multiple refugee crises in recent generations has been remarkable and has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The election of Donald Trump puts U.S. leadership on this issue in serious doubt. The president-elect put forward an agenda based on restricting immigration during his campaign, and backed a complete halt on resettling Syrian refugees.

There are currently more refugees and forcibly displaced individuals across the globe than at any time in recorded history. Under a new administration, the U.S. may now play a vastly reduced role in alleviating this crisis.

If that is the case, popular reforms to encourage the private sponsorship of refugees could be among the missed opportunities. In the wake of World War II, the private route was the default resettlement option for refugees in the U.S. This only stopped being the norm when the government took over a larger role.

President Ronald Reagan revived the private route – taking a cue from Canada’s success in pioneering private sponsorship – when he launched the Private Sector Initiative in the 1980s. Nearly 16,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. using private money under Reagan. While the Canadian scheme was a sustained success, its U.S. counterpart fell away.

That changed last year. When the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage and the plight of refugees became a bigger issue for many in the developed world, private citizens across the globe sought out ways to help. Private sponsorship is now gaining in popularity, and Canada is actively assisting other nations interested in following suit.

Private refugee sponsorship provides governments with another tool to combat the refugee crisis and provide safe haven to thousands more refugees. The premise for such programs is straightforward: enable private-sector actors such as individuals, churches, community groups and businesses to fund and carry out refugee resettlement beyond government caps. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has urged nations to adopt private sponsorship of refugees as an “innovative way to increase opportunities for refugees.”

How does it work? Generally, groups would register with the government and submit their plans for resettling refugees in addition to proving they have the funds to carry out resettlement. Refugees and sponsors would be matched on certain criteria. The International Refugee Assistance Project and Human Rights First recently released a paper exploring what such a system would look like in the U.S.

Private refugee sponsorship is the best way to harness the desire of private citizens to help refugees. These programs provide the opportunity to increase admission totals by infusing new resources into refugee operations.

Linking refugee admissions to private sector contributions offers a quantifiable signal of the people’s desire to help. When thousands of individual Americans, Canadians or Italians visibly step forward in an effort to provide a safe haven for refugees, the conversation can shift away from the alarmist rhetoric of fear toward a celebration of compassion and generosity.

Politicians and other public figures will find it harder to express open hostility to refugee resettlement after droves of supporters have put their own money on the line to help families fleeing violence and persecution.

The U.S. announced interest in launching private sponsorship earlier this year. Top State Department officials voiced their support for private sector programs that can enhance resettlement capacity in the country. It was announced that the State Department was working in conjunction with Refugee Council USA – the umbrella organization that represents the nine charities that resettle refugees across the country – in crafting details for a private refugee sponsorship pilot program to launch in 2017.

The Refugee Council and the State Department have both recognized that there is strong demand from the American people to become more involved in resettlement efforts. In its latest report to Congress, the State Department disclosed that it has seen a “remarkable number of offers of assistance, including donations of household and personal goods, housing and willingness to ‘sponsor’ or befriend refugees.”

These conversations have, at least temporarily, paused in light of a new administration. This should not overshadow the fact that many refugee advocates were confident that private sponsorship had the potential to succeed in the U.S.

Philanthropy is embedded in U.S. history and culture, as is the practice of providing refuge for those seeking safety, opportunity and peace. Private refugee sponsorship would simply be a new manifestation of this proud philanthropic spirit.

This December, the Canadian government will hold a special conference that will look to assist nations that want to launch private sponsorship programs. This new global trend provides the ability to increase resettlement capacity for countries seeking to offer a lifeline to those individuals.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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