Private sponsorship, not clickbait polls, shows the way to better refugee policy

Policymakers and academics will often tell you not to put too much faith in public opinion polls. However, when a poll gets as much traction as one released by the CBC on voter attitudes leading up to an election, one must take notice.

This poll of 4,500 Canadians shows that 57 percent believe Canada should not be accepting more refugees. But even to call this a public opinion poll is a stretch. This was not a representative sample—the respondents self-selected into the poll and there is no reason to suspect that they are a representative sample of Canadian attitudes. There is no reason to think that 4,500 self-selected individuals would represent the attitudes of Canadians.

In contrast, the Government of Canada reports that 67 percent of Canadians support current levels of immigration and that 88 percent of immigrants and refugees have a strong sense of belonging in Canada. It’s unlikely that immigrants would feel this way if over half of Canadians were actively opposed to more refugees in Canada, or if, as the CBC poll also suggests, 24 percent of Canadians were worried that too many immigrants are visible minorities.

Relying on unscientific internet polls is a bad strategy for determining how Canadians believe parties should approach refugee resettlement going into an election year. A plan should be presented to all political parties for consideration that will make refugee resettlement better for Canada and for refugees. That plan is strengthening the private sponsorship program.

Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program began in 1979 as a response to the massive displacement of people in the aftermath of war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Private sponsors are people and associations who voluntarily sponsor a refugee, assuming responsibility for them for at least one year after they arrive in Canada. In the two years following its introduction, Canadians sponsored 35,000 people from Southeast Asia through this program. Canadians’ response to the Syrian crisis shows that this program is still strong, as support groups have been overwhelmed with offers to volunteer, and sponsors continue to plead with the Canadian government to allow them to sponsor more refugees.

This, of course, does not line up with the supposed attitudes of Canadians as presented by the CBC’s online poll.

Recently, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) evaluated the early outcomes of Syrian refugees admitted between November 4, 2015, and March 1, 2016. Their study showed that privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) had better outcomes than refugees who are resettled by the government (GARs, or government-assisted refugees).

Among PSRs, 83.0 percent reported having help in learning how to shop for food, compared with 69.9 percent of GARs. When buying clothes, furniture and other essentials, 72.4 percent of PSRs reported receiving help, compared with 54.5 percent of GARs. Among PSRs, 63.9 percent were shown how to find a doctor on their own, compared with only 38.8 percent of GARs. And only 32.7 percent of PSRs said they encountered difficulties in learning English and/or French and faced language barriers when they first arrived, compared with 55.1 percent of GARs.

The CBC’s poll suggests that Canadians want more emphasis on economic immigration over refugee intake. Let’s accept that this is true. IRCC’s study found that over half of adult PSRs (52.8 percent) reported that they were currently employed in Canada, compared with just 9.7 percent of Syrian GARs. For 53.8 percent of PSRs, learning one of the official languages was the main barrier to finding a job, compared with 82.1 percent of GARs. The challenges of settling and adjusting to life in Canada were cited by 18.1 percent of PSRs but by 32.1 percent of Syrian GARs as the reason why they hadn’t found a job yet.

In short, IRCC’s study shows what common sense suggests: that people with a support system in place are able to come to Canada and hit the ground running. This system works so well that countries like Argentina, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have experimented with it.

If we take CBC’s word for it and believe that refugee resettlement is a challenge for the Canadian government, there are concrete steps that we can take toward improving it.

First, Canada needs to shift immigration levels to accommodate more PSRs. The levels set by the government simply do not match the eagerness of Canadians to act as private sponsors. Instead of responding to private sponsors demonstrating they have the resources and willingness to take on the responsibility for supporting new refugees, the government has capped private sponsorship application intake since 2012 due to its own lack of resources. It is time to reallocate the resources the government allocated to GAR processing and commit them to PSRs.

Second, Canada needs to allow sponsorship of applicants fleeing war zones without official refugee status. In 2015, the government allowed some categories of private sponsorship groups to sponsor people fleeing Syria and Iraq who had not obtained official recognition by the UN Refugee Agency or by a foreign state. In late 2016, the government capped the number of people eligible for this type of application in 2017 at 1,000 (reached in just a few weeks) and has no eliminated this option completely. This puts a serious barrier on community enthusiasm to sponsor refugees.

The upcoming federal election will likely devolve into the typical political match to determine who can play on the emotions of Canadians more when it comes to immigration, using immigrant intake as a political messaging tool rather than putting forward ideas of substance. CBC’s representation of a self-selected online poll as a meaningful representation of Canadian public opinion provides ammunition to parties hostile to immigration and refugees as a way to stoke fear rather than engage in substantive discussion.

There is still an opportunity to instead debate how refugee intake in Canada can be improved in a substantive way, rather than the way that maximizes CBC clicks. It’s time to take a serious look at strengthening the private sponsorship program in Canada.