In this post, Patti Lenard discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethics of citizen selection of refugees.

The situation for refugees world-wide is persistently horrendous.  Globally, there is pressing, urgent, need to adopt create ways to support them. In a recent article, I argue that governments should adopt private or community sponsorship of refugee schemes, which permit citizens to select specific refugees for admission, if they are willing to bear the costs of resettlement.  They are one crucial way forward in bleak times.

Millions of individuals who have fled their countries, seeking safety from state-sponsored and supported persecution, and never-ending civil wars, languish in nearby countries of refuge.  These refugees struggle to find “permanent” solutions, that is, a political space in which they set up roots and start their lives anew.  Instead, they remain in precarious political and legal environments, often barred from working, hoping for adequate handouts from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees or other non-governmental organizations.

Global efforts to collaborate to provide more and better options for refugees are hampered by many factors.  First, global north states’ are proving unwilling to resettle more (or sometimes any) refugees.  Second, global south states’ are rightly frustrated at being forced to bear the costs of offering refuge. Third, the number of refugees in need of safety continues to grow.  There is no easy solution.  And whatever “solution” is devised will inevitably be multi-pronged, carried out by many actors, across a range of countries.

Community or private sponsorship programs permit and encourage citizens to participate in refugee resettlement, by giving them the opportunity to raise money and offer direct, intimate, support to specific refugees, for their period of early integration. This program is in its most advanced state in Canada, which has permitted the private sponsorship formally since the late 1970s, and informally earlier than that.  In collaboration with the UNHCR and the Open Society, the Government of Canada has been encouraging other countries to adopt private or community sponsorship models of refugee selection and resettlement.

Why adopt private sponsorship programs?

There are multiple advantages to this kind of program.  One advantage is that it encourages citizens to get involved directly in refugee resettlement.  Just as the “contact hypothesis” suggests, citizens who form relations with refugees develop an understanding of the struggles they face in integration and generally support admitting more refugees.  They are also less likely to believe (erroneously) that refugees overuse social services or raise crime rates.

A second advantage is that private or community sponsorship spreads the costs of resettlement across multiple actors, both public and private.  These costs are financial, since resettlement of refugees costs money at least in the short-term, as well as also emotional, since sponsors form intimate relations with refugees as part of the integration process.  These relations give newly arrived refugees roots in their new home, in ways that government-funded settlement workers cannot do.

A third advantage is that sponsorship can, if arranged properly, give citizens a vehicle by which to add to the overall number of refugees admitted to a state for resettlement.  So, citizens worried about injustice towards refugees have an avenue by which they can make clear a clear and concrete contribution to remedying it.

Are there any dangers to sponsorship programs?

There are disadvantages too.  One stems from the fact that resettlement, as a “solution” for refugees, is rare; that is, it is a highly scarce resource.  There are 20 million refugees.  Out of desperation, the UNHCR designates roughly 1 million of them as in special need of resettlement; these are refugees who remain highly vulnerable to violence in their countries of refuge, and whose prospect of local integration into their country of refuge, or to return home, is vanishingly small.  Of these, however, only just over 100 000 are actually resettled in any one year. One might think (as I do) that any resettlement spot made available via private sponsorship must be given to these highly vulnerable refugees.

One might object to private sponsorship programs, however, saying that citizens may have discriminatory reasons for preferring some refugees for admission over others, and they should not be given opportunities to act on such reasons.  Think of the many countries who announced an intention to prioritize the admission of Christian refugees for example (thereby excluding the many, many, Muslim refugees in desperate need).  Any private or community sponsorship regime, I believe, must reduce opportunity for discriminatory selection, for example, by listing available refugees for sponsorship with minimal distinguishing characteristics.

A second problem, this time with constraining citizens’ choice to highly vulnerable refugees, is that it may be the case that private sponsors are willing to take on the costs of sponsorship if and only if they are permitted to sponsor friends and family members.  Yet, these individuals may not be identified by the UNHCR as especially vulnerable. Requiring citizens to select among those who are high priority may therefore decrease motivation to sponsor, and so make the situation worse than if citizens could choose whomever they want.  In my view, the right strategy is to encourage selection from those who are most vulnerable, but also to create an “exception” clause permitting people to sponsor friends and family, even if they are not specially prioritized for scarce resettlement spots. In part, this is because options for family reunification in resettlement countries remain small, so providing private or community sponsorship options for families to reunite is important.

If these criteria are met, then a citizen-selection scheme is defensible, and furthermore, should be adopted by states in search of ways to contribute creatively to remedying the injustices that refugees face globally.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.