Canada’s refugee policy is world class, and the big secret behind its success is its private sponsorship program, according to a former Toronto mayor.
“I think at the end of the day the absolute brilliance of the Canadian refugee program is that it relies on private groups to support the refugees and integrate them into Canadian society,” John Sewell, who helped resettle tens of thousands of people in the city decades ago, told The Huffington Post Canada in an interview.
“No other country has this kind of program,” he said. “It’s absolutely brilliant.”
In the late 1970s, the federal government began to feel pressure to increase its intake of Indochinese refugees uprooted by the Vietnam War.
It was around this time, in 1978, when Canada’s private sponsorships program launched. Since then, citizen groups have fundraised millions to support refugee families both financially and emotionally for upwards to a year.
The program has helped resettle over 200,000 refugees across the country.
Over three million people were displaced by the Vietnam War by the time it ended in 1975. Some fled to refugee camps in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand, while others sought asylum in Australia, U.S. and Canada. Dubbed the Indochina refugee crisis, a high number of drownings in the South China Sea catalyzed humanitarian response
“In the time we have been together this afternoon, approximately 250 Vietnamese boat people have drowned … and time surely has come now for more action and less talk,” Ian Stanley of World Vision Canada said at a July 1979 Toronto rally, as quoted in The Globe and Mail.
As mayor from 1978 to 1980, Sewell was at that summer’s rally that brought hundreds to city hall to shore up support for refugees. He explained his top priority was for officials to come up with a plan to “immediately” integrate refugees as soon as they arrived.
He said he felt trepidatious about clashes between locals, fuelled by stereotypes about the war, and refugees from “fundamentally different” cultures.
“A lot of people supported the Vietnam War and therefore you wondered whether they were going to support people from Vietnam and that area,” he said, reflecting on his worry at the time.
But that apprehension melted away as more people banded together to sponsor refugees. In 1979, Toronto welcomed approximately 33,000 Indochinese refugees into the city.
‘Concerned’ about government sponsorships
Now at 75, Sewell says current proposals to settle government-sponsored refugees in temporary housing — equipped to accommodate anywhere between 300 to 3,000 people for up to three months — is problematic.
Last month, the Liberal government announced its intention to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. To accommodate the 15,000 government-sponsored refugees who make up that number, Public Works has been tasked to come up with a list of possible sites for temporary refugee housing.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said Canadian military bases in Ontario and Quebec have the capacity to house up to 6,000 people in “interim lodging facilities.”
But Sewell says putting refugees in “a sort of holding arrangement” is inappropriate and complicates efforts to integrate them into communities.
“I’m very concerned that the government is in fact, going to be putting them in basically refugee camps here in Canada,” he said, also criticizing other countries’ refugee programs for putting newcomers in a position where they’re too reliant on government for support and integration.
Officials should instead be encouraging more private sponsorships by giving money to sponsorship groups instead of spending it on temporary housing and extra government services, Sewell suggested
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The success of Canada’s private sponsorship program for refugees was highlighted in a 2007 report. Its conclusion was clear: privately-sponsored refugees end up supporting themselves more quickly than those who are government-sponsored.
And the world paid attention. In the U.S., Soviet Jews and Cubans were the benefactors of private refugee sponsorships before they were replaced by a hybrid government process. Australia, meanwhile, launched its own private sponsorships pilot program two years ago.
The Indochina refugee crisis 35 years ago prompted Sewell to help form Operation Lifeline. The grassroots group helped to bring 60,000 refugees who fled war-ravaged Vietnam into Canada — 32 per cent of whom settled in Toronto.
But that was a different time, a different humanitarian crisis unfolding before an international audience.
Sewell is now part of two groups looking to sponsor Syrian refugee families. With help from the Rosedale United Church, Sewell and his wife Liz Rykert brought a dozen of their neighbours together to form the Hillcrest Sponsorship Group, named after the elementary school on their Annex neighbourhood street.
Though they’re still in the dark on the identities of the five members of the refugee family, let alone when they will arrive, the group has raised over $40,000 to sponsor them for a year.
And in an example of how help can come from anywhere and from anyone, Sewell said members of his dog-walking group have also pledged to contribute $3,636.36 each to privately sponsor a family of their own.
While no one knows the details of the refugees who are arriving, Sewell does know one thing.
“If there are young boys, someone is going to take them to a hockey game,” he said with a laugh.
Though it’s been over three decades since Toronto has seen a great wave of refugeess, the former mayor says the city’s “let’s do what we can” approach hasn’t changed one bit.
Immigration Minister John McCallum announced at a press conference Wednesday that the next planeload of Syrian refugees — mostly government-sponsored — will arrive in Toronto from Beirut on Friday.
When asked by a reporter if Canada is becoming Germany — referencing that country’s intake of one million refugees — the longtime Liberal replied, “Well, certainly in a smaller way.”
And Sewell can’t hide his excitement and pride over not only being a refugee sponsor, but also seeing so many private sponsorship groups stepping forward to help other families, again.
“The idea of actually linking a family with real Canadians — who are responsible for them… It’s going to be extraordinary,” he said.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2015.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives newly arrived Syrian refugee Sylvie Garabedian a winter jacket as her mother Anjilik Jaghlassian looks on.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees Lucie Garabedian, her father Vanig Garabedian, mother Anjilik Jaghlassian, and sister Anna-Maria Garabedian.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets new Syrian refugees Georgina Zires, centre, 16--old Madeleine Jamkossian, and her father Kevork Jamkossian.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau examines welcome bags before greeting refugees from Syria at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a selfies with workers before he greets refugees from Syria.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne offers a teddy bear to 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian and her father Kevork Jamkossian.
UP NEXT: Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis
In 2011, internal conflict erupted in Syria that would later escalate into a full-blown civil war that rages on to this day, now complicated by the arrival of Islamic militants from neighbouring Iraq. Since the start, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called on countries to help resettle some of the most vulnerable Syrians who can never return home, a call that grew louder as the crisis has escalated. Here's a look at how Canada responded over time. (Information by The Canadian Press) Syrians hold a large poster depicting Syria's President Bashar Assad during a rally in Damascus, Syria in 2011.
- Canada closes its embassy in Damascus, a move that would come to have major repercussions for refugee resettlement out of the Middle East as that visa post was handling the majority of the files for refugees from other countries who had sought temporary safety in Syria. Those files were then transferred to nearby countries, leaving visa officers scrambling to handle them and the start of a surge in Syrian refugee applications. - By the end of 2012, the UNHCR had registered close to half a million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. - Syrian Canadians call on Canada to do more to support the refugees, including speeding up family reunification programs and opening the doors to more refugees, but the government said without an official request from the UN for resettlement, it would not act. Syrian refugee girls wash their clothes at a camp in Idlib, Syria, in October of 2015.
The number of people registered as refugees from Syria or being assisted by the UN hits one million. A Syrian refugee boy at a camp in Turkey in October 2015.
The UN makes its first formal request to member countries to assist in refugee resettlement, asking for 30,000 spaces by the end of 2014. Syrian Kurdish refugees walk in the United Nations Refugee Agency refugee camp in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, in January 2015.
The Harper Conservatives promise to admit 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, with the majority sponsored by private groups. The 200 spots available to government-assisted refugees are not new refugee spaces — the Conservatives choose to allocate the 200 they set aside each year for the Syrian program. Stephen Harper speaks in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits a refugee camp in Jordan, one of the main host countries for Syrians. He announces $150 million in humanitarian aid; over the course of the conflict Canada has been one of the lead financial donors for relief efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. By this point, some $630 million has been committed. Stephen Harper and wife Laureen Harper visit Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan in January 2014.
The UN High Commissioner makes a new request: an additional 100,000 places for Syrian refugees by 2016. Canada says it is reviewing its options. Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2015.
Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander admits that fewer than 200 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since the July 2013 promise, saying the UNHCR was slow passing on referrals. Chris Alexander speaks in the House of Commons.
By the end of the month, just over 1,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, meaning the government missed its deadline. A Syrian Kurdish refugee walks in a UNHCR refugee camp in Suruc in January 2015.
The Conservative government commits to allowing 10,000 more Syrian refugees in by 2018, most through the private sponsorship program. The focus is to be on religious minorities. Syrian refugee girls sit at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 'Child Friendly Spaces' in the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian border with Syria in 2014.
The government finally meets its July 2013 promise to resettle 1,300 people, achieving it by increasing the number of government-assisted refugees. Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up during a photo opportunity.
The Conservatives order an audit of the government-assisted refugees coming out of Syria, citing security concerns. The review identifies no problems but delays the processing of those files for several weeks. Chris Alexander speaks at a press conference in Toronto in September, 2015.
The Conservatives pledge that if re-elected, they will allow a further 10,000 Syrians in over the next four years, continuing a focus on those being persecuted because of religion. Stephen Harper takes questions from the media on the campaign trail.
- Three-year-old Alan Kurdi dies during his family's escape from Syria. The photograph of his body on a Turkish beach and word his family had considered Canada as an eventual destination sees Canada's refugee response become a dominant issue in the election campaign. - The Conservatives increase available resources for the processing of refugee applications, promise to speed up resettlement of the 10,000 originally promised places and announce they'll match donations for Syrian relief. - The Liberals say they'll bring over 25,000 government-assisted refugees as soon as possible and encourage the private sector to take in more. They later promise to bring them in by the end of the year. A handout photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi shows a photo of her three-year-old nephew Alan Kurdi.
The Liberals win a majority government and say they remain committed to refugee resettlement. Justin Trudeau waves to the crowd as they arrive to Liberal election headquarters in Montreal.
The Liberal government announces its plan to resettle 25,000 Syrians. Immigration Minister John McCallum holds a news conference with Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harijit Singh Sajjan.