‘A bright new future’: how Australians are helping Canada’s private sponsors give refugees a fresh start

Eight refugees held for years in Australian detention have arrived in Canada under community sponsorship scheme

Eight refugees – held by Australia’s offshore immigration regime for more than eight years – have landed in Vancouver and Toronto, sponsored by community groups in Canada and Australia to begin new lives on the other side of the world.

The eight flew out of the Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby on Thursday, joining another former Manus detainee who arrived in Canada a week ago.

Abdo had been medevaced from PNG to Australia before being accepted for resettlement in Canada.

“I have mixed feelings about starting this new life in Canada,” Abdo says. “It was hard leaving my friends in Australia. I wish I could have stayed.

“Thank you for all [the] people that made it possible for me to become a permanent resident of Canada, I am looking forward to a bright new future. To all my Aussie friends, come [for a] visit.”

Abdo, a former Manus Island detainee, was the first refugee to be resettled to Canada by Operation Not Forgotten
Former Manus Island detainee Abdo was the first refugee to be resettled to Canada by Operation #NotForgotten Photograph: Supplied

The nine have been accepted for resettlement under Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees scheme, which allows community groups to privately sponsor refugees to resettle in Canada, in addition to the government’s own humanitarian resettlement quotas. The scheme, which has been running for more than 40 years, has allowed more than 300,000 refugees to restart their lives in Canada.

Six of the eight refugees who landed in Canada on Saturday (Australian time) were resettled through Operation #NotForgotten, a community sponsorship partnership between the Refugee Council of Australia, the Vancouver-based migrant and refugee settlement service Mosaic, and volunteer network Ads Up Canada.

The other two have been sponsored by community volunteers supported by Ads Up Canada.

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The eight left PNG just three weeks ahead of Australia formally ending its eight-year offshore immigration regime in PNG. More than 100 people remain held there by Australia.

Abdo – the Guardian is choosing only to publish his first name – was incarcerated on Manus Island, medevaced to Australia suffering acute medical issues, and then granted a temporary visa to live in the Australian community while awaiting resettlement. He landed in Vancouver on 6 December.

Those resettled are the first of an expected steady stream of Canadian resettlements from within Australia’s offshore immigration system. Another four refugees currently held by Australia will arrive in Canada over the next month. Travel arrangements for a further three newly approved applicants is currently being arranged.

Australians and Canadians working together

The Refugee Council chief executive, Paul Power, says the resettlement of refugees from within Australia’s onshore and offshore immigration detention systems is the result of “ordinary people in Australia and Canada working together to find a solution for refugees who needed the opportunity to get on with the rest of their lives after years of mistreatment by the Australian government”.

“These eight people sought sanctuary in Australia after escaping oppression in their homelands, as was confirmed when their refugee status was assessed,” he says.

“Instead of being helped by Australia, they were put into detention under appalling conditions and have spent years not knowing what the future held for them and their families.”

Australians have donated more than $3.8m to Operation #NotForgotten through the Refugee Council. Mosaic and Ads Up Canada have lodged sponsorship applications with the Canadian government and organised volunteer groups to support refugees after arrival.

Abdo arrived in Vancouver on 6 December
‘It was hard leaving my friends in Australia. I wish I could have stayed’: Abdo arrived in Vancouver on 6 December. Photograph: Mosaic

Since November 2019, applications for 156 refugees – in PNG, Australia and Nauru – and 125 separated family members have been lodged through Operation #NotForgotten.

“Australians concerned about the mistreatment of the refugees sent to PNG and Nauru are very grateful to the people and government of Canada for providing a welcome and a new home for people who need the opportunity to live in freedom and start again,” Power said.

Iris Challoner, the manager of Mosaic’s private sponsorship program, says the private sponsorship program is transformative, both for refugees beginning lives in new countries and the communities they are welcomed into.

“Our team is privileged and honoured to have gotten to know so many Australians that are a force for better and take a stand for human rights. Ordinary Australians have made this unique collaboration possible; they saw suffering and found solutions where they could. This is what makes Operation #NotForgotten unique: it is a true collaboration of civic society across continents.”

‘A team of people who become family’

The Australian government has, for several years, speculated about implementing a scheme based on Canada’s model, which has been resettling refugees since 1979.

In Canada, private sponsors, which are often community, humanitarian or faith groups, commit to providing income support for refugees for the first year after arrival. Currently, it costs the equivalent of A$21,500 to sponsor a single refugee, or A$36,500 for a family of five.

Other countries have adopted the model. In October, the US, after decades of only government-sponsored resettlement, announced a Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans, specifically to assist with the resettlement of more than 50,000 Afghans currently being housed in military bases across the US, some of those who made it onto flights out of Kabul as the country fell to the Taliban. Ireland, the UK and New Zealand have committed to or established similar schemes.

Australia’s Community Support Program was launched in 2017 as a pilot program, set at 1,000 places to be drawn from within Australia’s humanitarian migration program. Crucially, it was not additional to the government’s resettlement programs – every place sponsored by a community group would subtract one from the government number.

Australia’s pilot – as the government’s own reviews have conceded – is riven with systemic flaws.

The Australian program is:

  • small, limited to just 1,000 places a year;

  • expensive, more than three times the cost of comparable schemes overseas, costing about $100,000 to sponsor a family of five, with an application fee alone of $19,000;

  • restrictive – available only to refugees between 18 and 50 who have functional English and a job offer in Australia or skills that make them “job ready”, and

  • critically, not additional: any refugee sponsored by the community subtracts by one from the government’s resettlement commitment.

The Department of Home Affairs’ own review of its existing Community Support Program this year found it was structurally flawed, and ineffective in resettling significant numbers of refugees.

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The review, by the commonwealth coordinator-general for migrant services, Alison Larkins, said while the CSP was “well-intentioned” it was: prohibitively expensive; not additional to the existing government humanitarian program (which has been reduced to 13,750 and was less than half-filled last year); and consistently under-subscribed because it failed to “harness broader community goodwill and support”.

The findings, presented to the government in May, said “community organisations generally report being unwilling to engage in (and bear high financial costs for) sponsorship without it generating places in addition to the current humanitarian intake”.

In a speech last year, Larkins said international evidence demonstrated “governments alone can’t make the difference”.

“In Canada, you can directly see the importance of community in creating economic participation for refugees through their community sponsorship model,” she said.

“Seventy per cent of privately sponsored refugees in Canada declared employment earnings within their first year of arrival compared to 40% of government assisted refugees.”

Australia’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, has previously said he was a “strong supporter of the community support program”.

A spokesperson for the home affairs department said the government was “currently considering the findings of the review and anticipates being able to offer a further update soon”.

“The government looks forward to ensuring Australia’s Community Support Program becomes a genuine, successful partnership between community, business and the government, to provide beneficial outcomes to our refugee and humanitarian arrivals in Australia.”

Challoner says the nature of Canada’s private sponsorship program “sets people up for success”.

“Sponsors commit to 12 months of sponsorship support. As a result, privately sponsored refugees arrive with a built-in social support system. They have a safe and clean place to live, and a team of people who become family, supporting all aspects of their settlement experience.

“Done right, private refugee sponsorship can change attitudes across the world about refugees, re-unify families that are separated … It enables ordinary citizens to truly make a difference … to be the change they want to see.”


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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