Watch the full event and read about the panelists on our Pathways for Protection: Sponsorship Initiatives for Refugees event page.
More than 20 million people in the world are refugees, forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict or persecution – many of whom are vulnerable populations such as women and girls. While national governments work tirelessly to resettle refugees, only a small fraction of resettlement needs are met each year. On September 8, 2021, the World Refugee & Migration Council hosted a virtual panel discussion on pathways to protect and resettle Afghans and millions of other refugees around the world whose needs are not met by existing refugee resettlement systems.
During the event, panelists discussed the current situation facing millions of Afghans, how private and community sponsorship of refugee resettlement initiatives work and assist host nations to meet refugee demands, as well as their ability to meet the unique needs of vulnerable refugee populations including women and girls.
The discussion was moderated by Canadian Independent Senator and member of the WRMC Ratna Omidvar, and included the following panelists: Jennifer Bond, Managing Director, University of Ottawa Refugee Hub and Chair, Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative; Jayne Fleming, Director of International Refugee Protection Programs, Reed Smith LLP, and International Director, Lamp Lifeboat Ladder; John Slocum, Interim Executive Director, Refugee Council USA; and Najeeba Wazefadost, Afghan Refugee, and Co-founder Asia Pacific Network of Refugees and Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders.
The situation facing Afghans
Najaeeba Wazefadost opened the discussion by outlining the current situation in Afghanistan and the needs of Afghan refugees – particularly women – and how to quickly get assistance including food and legal support to those at risk of harm from the Taliban. Ms. Wazefadost remarked that while Afghan men and women feared the resurgence of the Taliban, very few people were pessimistic enough to believe that the Taliban would regain control of the country as quickly as what transpired.
Many Afghans that lived in parts of the country most under threat from the Taliban’s resurgence have already been internally displaced, while those with the means available have tried to leave the country to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Tajikistan, or elsewhere. However, for those able to flee the country, the closure of borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic compounds the plights of Afghan refugees as they may never see or hear from their families again. In addition, countries around the world are only pledging to take in a low numbers of Afghan refugees, further exacerbating the problems facing Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban.
Apart from the Taliban’s resurgence threatening the safety of most Afghans, those at most risk are women and girls along with other human rights defenders unable to leave the country. For women and girls, it is the worst security situation they have faced – they have lost hope for progress, peace, and stability. They now find themselves now prisoners of their own gender, no longer finding for the progress of their rights but instead concentrating on survival.
Private Sponsorship Resettlement Initiatives
The resettlement of refugees is a timely process that takes place in a context where time is limited. Jennifer Bond discussed the process of resettlement and how private sponsorship both assists governments manage large influxes of refugee flows, and help refugees become settled in their host communities.
The initial phase of resettlement is the evacuation of refugees from at risk areas – such as recent events in Afghanistan. During this time, traditional reception systems as well as their actors including resettlement agencies are placed under great stress along with health care systems and social service providers. Private sponsorship resettlement programs act as a flexible policy tool that can empower people and communities to increase reception capacity for refugees in the short-term and bridge between the need for refugee resettlement and the ability for governments to take refugees in through traditional reception systems.
In addition to being a flexible policy tool for governments trying to manage refugee inflows, private sponsorship programs foster a sense of community between those being resettled and those assisting in resettlement efforts, changing societies to become more welcoming to refugees in the longer term. For instance, in Canada, 9 million Canadians between 2015 and 2016 were directly or indirectly involved in supporting the resettlement of Syrian refugees to over 400 communities through private sponsorship initiatives. The introduction and promotion of private sponsorship programs by national governments can help foster welcoming communities for refugees.
John Slocum discussed the prospects of private resettlement programs in the United States and what challenges and opportunities are likely to exist both politically and institutionally to further resettlement through private sponsorship. While the United States’ resettlement system faced significant setbacks under the Trump Administration, it has been the world’s largest country of resettlement until recently. However, the U.S. is not the largest per capita country of resettlement. Given the huge amount of responsibility and relatively unfunded mandate that rests on the shoulders of countries that are immediate neighbors of countries where refugees are fleeing, there is significant work for the U.S. to do to be a leader and standard bearer in terms of refugee resettlement and fostering community support for refugee resettlement.
The Biden Administration has issued an Executive Order aiming to strengthen and rebuild the United States’ resettlement program by enhancing community sponsorship and initiating a new private sponsorship initiative that is scheduled to be in use by early 2022. Private sponsorship initiatives in the United States are growing – such as the newly launched Community Sponsorship Hub that engages philanthropists, corporations and individuals in private sponsorship – largely spurred on by the events in Afghanistan. The United States is taking great effort to increase the number of refugees it takes in while being that while the Afghan situation is currently at the forefront of people’s minds, there are refugees awaiting resettlement in the United States from all around the world. However, while the United States government is seeking to resettle increasing numbers of refugees, it does not have the capacity to serve them and is reliant on additional funding and private initiatives to support incoming refugees – yet this call is being answered and all sectors of society are working together the resettle refugees in the United States.
Private-Public Programs, a Case Study: Lamp Lifeboat Ladder
Jayne Fleming introduced and discussed the initiative Lamp Lifeboat Ladder. The initiative, a public-private initiative, is active in Europe and the Middle East and provides holistic support to at-risk refugees with immediate support such as housing, medical assistance, and food while they are still in transit from their country of origin to a country of destination.
Through an agreement with the Canadian government, Lamp Lifeboat Ladder provides pathways for refugee families to relocate to Canada. Specifically, it works with the Government of Canada to relocate women who are survivors or torture and survivors of sexual violence from Greece to Canada. Members of Lamp Lifeboat Ladder meet with the survivors of torture and sexual violence in a transit country as they are migrating to a host country, and then develops and submits resettlement applications funded by private donors to the Government of Canada, and when the individual arrives in Canada, the initiative provides full support to them for two years, again funded through private donation. While the initiative is small, the model can be duplicated and complements other existing private resettlement programs.