By Susan Fratzke and Hanne Beirens
While a debate rages in Europe over the appropriate way to manage borders and grant access to asylum, there is one policy priority that has continued to generate agreement and support across (most) Member States and the institutions of the European Union: the need to provide safe, legal channels for migration, particularly for refugees. Private sponsorship of refugees may have a valuable role to play in meeting this need. Private sponsorship, a concept that originated in Canada, allows community groups or individuals to lend their assistance to refugee resettlement efforts by, for example, agreeing to support refugees financially for a period after arrival or by taking primary responsibility for arranging language courses or job search support. Canada’s experience suggests that sponsorship initiatives may have the potential to increase the resources that resettlement countries and local communities have to welcome refugees, thus allowing them to expand their resettlement programs. Moreover, involving communities more directly in the process of welcoming newcomers may help to build public support for refugee protection.
But to live up to their potential, sponsorship programs must be well designed, carefully implemented, and sufficiently supported. For example, sponsors are better able to fulfill their obligations when sponsorship policies are clear (and well communicated), and when sponsors are vetted and supported via training programs, helpdesks, and informal support networks. Programs that underinvest in sponsor support leave themselves open to the risk that sponsorship agreements may break down, potentially eroding public enthusiasm. Ensuring that programs receive the support they need to be sustainable may be a valuable role for the European Union to take on, as recommended in a new study published last week by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Home Affairs (DG HOME) and prepared by ICF International and Migration Policy Institute Europe.
The study suggests three actions the European Union can take to support the success of emerging sponsorship programs.
First, as a natural convenor and information hub for Member States, the European Union is well positioned to connect countries with the information they need to design sustainable programs. Indeed, the European Commission already has experience in supporting these sorts of capacity-building activities for traditional resettlement within the remit of the EU-FRANK project, an EU-funded initiative that provides information and operational support to EU Member States’ resettlement programs. And the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) Pilot Project Network, which convenes interested Member States to exchange their experiences and knowledge on the subject of sponsorship, could form the basis of a more expansive peer-support initiative in the future. EU-led information-sharing and peer-support activities could also serve to better inform both Member State governments and civil-society stakeholders of the added value sponsorship activities may have in their national contexts, thus generating more support for these programs.
Second, and just as important, the European Union has the potential to fill critical resource and funding gaps that may slow or hinder the setup of sponsorship programs in some Member States. The current Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF) provides several different funding options for projects that support resettlement or integration activities in Member States—funds that could legally be used to finance sponsorship programs, according to the findings of the study. Yet because sponsorship activities have not, to date, been specifically listed in AMIF funding calls, Member States are not always aware that they are able to access AMIF funds to support sponsorship specifically. Moreover, EU support for national resettlement programs under AMIF is usually dispensed under work programs administered by Member State governments, and direct funding opportunities that target civil-society actors, the backbone of any sponsorship initiative, are rare. As the European Union negotiates its next multiannual budget, including the Asylum and Migration Fund (AMF) that will replace the AMIF, there is an opportunity to rectify these gaps by providing direct funding for sponsorship activities and making funds more accessible to civil-society actors.
Finally, greater involvement by the European Union in promoting and supporting sponsorship also comes with several risks. Refugee sponsorship must have the interest and investment of civil society and individual citizens in order to thrive; without willing sponsors, there can be no sponsorship program. Oversight or regulation that becomes too heavy handed, however, risks undermining the enthusiasm and creativity with which sponsors and communities welcome refugees. Similarly, if financial or peer-support measures can only be accessed by government officials, there is a risk that the public sector’s involvement will become overdeveloped, smothering commitment from civil society and individual citizens. And while intra-European information-sharing is useful, Member State actors are also very much in need of the time and space to devote to developing programs within their own contexts and in consultation with national stakeholders. Too much focus on support activities organized at the EU level may take away from the need to devote precious time and resources to national-level program development and capacity building.
With these limitations in mind, the study cautions that the European Union will have to balance the desire of promoting the wider use of sponsorship and best practices, with allowing sufficient breathing space for actors in Member States to devise programs that respond to domestic policy interests and can harness the interest of local civil society and private citizens.