In early 2023, the Joe Biden administration announced a new program allowing for private refugee sponsorship called the Welcome Corps. The administration is calling it the “boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades,” as it aims to mobilize at least 10,000 Americans to act as private sponsors to at least 5,000 refugees from around the world in the program’s first year.
This brief outlines a conversation with Craig Damian Smith, who has worked in the Canadian context of private refugee sponsorship and is the co-founder and executive director of Pairity — a data-driven platform that facilitates global refugee resettlement and community sponsorship and evaluates outcomes around refugee integration and social cohesion within receiving communities. Pairity is currently partnering with the U.S. government and other actors to establish the Welcome Corps.
The conversation focused on the new private refugee sponsorship program in the U.S., drawing comparisons with the long-established Canadian model and exploring its benefits and challenges. Five main areas were discussed, highlighting the important role the Welcome Corps and other alternative pathways to refugee resettlement can play in meeting the needs of displaced people.
- The global resettlement landscape.
- The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees.
- The Canadian model of private refugee sponsorship.
- The private refugee sponsorship model for the U.S. context.
- The overall challenges and opportunities of private refugee sponsorship.
Global Resettlement Landscape
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 103 million people forcibly displaced worldwide as of mid-2022. Of those, 32.5 million were refugees, meaning they were able to leave their home country to seek protection, and 53.2 million were internally displaced people — although the numbers have significantly increased over the past year due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other conflicts.
Although the global refugee population has continued to grow, access to durable solutions has not grown proportionally. UNHCR recognizes three durable solutions for displaced individuals: a return to their home country, which is the preferred durable solution; integration within the host country; and third-country resettlement. While the duration of displacement can vary by nationality and other factors, refugees are displaced for an average of 10 to 26 years. Some individuals have been displaced for generations, such as Afghan nationals, while others are resettled after three to five years, such as many Syrians. There are also 16 million people in protracted refugee situations, defined by UNHCR as situations involving at least 25,000 refugees from the same country who have been living in exile for more than five consecutive years.
Every year, UNHCR determines its projected resettlement needs. For 2023, UNHCR estimates that the number of refugees awaiting resettlement globally will top 2 million, compared to fewer than 1.5 million in 2022. Despite this enormous need, fewer than 1% of refugees are resettled annually. In the past decade, the largest number of resettlement arrivals (172,797, most of whom were Syrian nationals) was registered in 2016, whereas the lowest number was registered in 2020. Last year, only 42,231 refugees were resettled worldwide, showing that resettlement trends are failing to match the global need.
Figure 1 — Global Resettlement, 2012-2022
One of the core norms of the international refugee regime is responsibility-sharing — the idea that all states, despite being affected differently by refugee arrivals, should equally share the responsibility of responding to refugees. However, the reality is very different: As of 2021, 83% of the world’s refugees were hosted in low- and middle-income countries and 27% were hosted in the world’s least-developed countries. In turn, high-income countries hosted only 16% of individuals displaced across international borders.
Figure 2 — Refugees, People in Refugee-like Situations, and Venezuelans Displaced Abroad, End of 2021
The international community also recognizes “common but differentiated” responsibility, a principle whereby Global North countries finance the majority of humanitarian development aid that supports refugees to reside in less-developed host countries. Rather than considering durable solutions from a humanitarian perspective, Global North states have tended to externalize migration management and refugee-hosting to the Global South to try to offset irregular migration and security concerns.
The Global Compact on Refugees
The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) emerged in the aftermath of the 2015 European refugee crisis, when countries across the globe agreed that better and more prolific options for refugee reception and resettlement were needed. Several meetings in New York in 2016 led to the development of the GCR and its sister compact, the Global Compact for Migration. Although it is nonbinding, the GCR was adopted and signed by most UN member states in 2018. It aims for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing and recognizes that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.
One of the four key objectives of the GCR is to increase access to resettlement for refugees. To meet this objective, it is essential to expand alternative pathways to resettlement, such as labor mobility, new types of family reunification, education pathways, or community and private sponsorship. The central idea behind alternative pathways is that displacement does not necessarily mean that an individual needs to obtain a humanitarian visa in order to be resettled. As such, the GCR has supported community sponsorship and private sponsorship globally as a way to improve access to durable solutions and create more avenues for responsibility-sharing, thereby alleviating demand for irregular migration.
Nonetheless, it is important to keep “additionality” in mind: This key aspect of the GCR means that alternative pathways should not substitute states’ obligations to provide international protection to refugees and should not take away from states’ refugee resettlement ceilings. In Europe, for instance, some groups have criticized private sponsorship as a way of offsetting or delegating financial and legal responsibility to individuals, thereby absolving states of their humanitarian obligations. Some countries in Europe have seen successful electoral pushback against any type of additionality or expansion of resettlement pathways.
Private Sponsorship of Refugees in Canada
Since 2015, the Canadian model of private refugee sponsorship — which has existed since the 1970s — has been upheld as a global example of additionality. Canada’s private refugee sponsorship model is one of several avenues for refugee resettlement, existing alongside the government-assisted resettlement (GAR) of refugees. From 1979 to 2020, more than 327,000 refugees were relocated to Canada via private sponsorship.
Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program boasts a number of positive attributes. First, its process is much quicker than the GAR program’s. Whereas GAR refugees are identified in host countries by UNHCR and eventually selected by the Canadian government, PSR refugees are chosen by Canadian-based groups (which can be community or faith organizations, or simply a group of five residents), bonded by the government, and able to relocate fairly quickly to Canada. The relative speediness of this process is critical at a time when refugees are displaced for an average of 10 to 26 years.
Second, refugees arriving via PSR see major benefits in the form of immediate access to social networks, which GAR refugees might take years to build. However, some critics argue that PSR functions as a replacement for family reunification, potentially leaving out refugees who are the most vulnerable or have the highest need.
Finally, both PSR and GAR refugees do well on integration outcomes in Canada; within 10 years, they even fare better than native-born Canadians in areas like entrepreneurship. This partly speaks to the resources available to refugees in Canada, which include up to a year of financial assistance and other forms of support (compared to only 90 days in the United States).
While the Canadian model provides many best practices and highly positive outcomes, it is important to keep in mind that PSR and other community sponsorship models have to be purpose-built for different country contexts and that there is not a one-size-fits-all model.
Building a Model for the U.S. Context
The U.S. refugee resettlement program has existed in its current form since its establishment via the Refugee Act of 1980, with the executive branch setting a refugee ceiling each year. For decades, the program enjoyed broad bipartisan support and the U.S. resettled the largest number of refugees in the world. However, refugee resettlement reached historic lows under the Donald Trump presidency, and in 2018 Canada surpassed the U.S. in terms of the total number of refugees resettled that year.
In order to increase refugee arrivals in the U.S., the Biden administration has introduced several new initiatives for a variety of nationalities. In 2021, during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the administration allowed approximately 85,000 Afghan nationals to enter the United States under humanitarian parole, though Congress has yet to provide them with access to permanent residency or a long-term solution. Several months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the administration developed Uniting for Ukraine, a program that allows individuals in the U.S. to financially sponsor Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to reside temporarily in the U.S. for two years while the conflict is ongoing. More than 280,000 Ukrainians had arrived in the U.S. via the program as of April 2023.
Further, in early 2023, the administration announced a parole program for Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan citizens. The program accepts up to 30,000 individuals from those four nationalities each month, although it was implemented in tandem with restrictions on asylum for individuals from those same nationalities arriving at U.S. ports of entry. Finally, the administration has piloted co-sponsorship initiatives, which allowed groups and individuals to support existing refugee resettlement organizations. These include a network of nine federal resettlement agencies and more than 200 local affiliated organizations that are responsible for assisting refugees in their initial months of residence.
Building on these co-sponsorship initiatives, in January 2023 the U.S. announced the creation of the Welcome Corps, a new private sponsorship program that allows American citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor refugees arriving through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and support their resettlement and integration in the country. The program is administered by a consortium of nonprofit organizations with experience resettling refugees, led by the Community Sponsorship Hub.
In the first phase of the program, which has already been rolled out, private sponsor groups sign up and are then matched with refugees who are already in the resettlement pipeline. The second phase of the program, which will launch in mid-2023, most closely resembles the current PSR model in Canada, with individuals able to nominate loved ones and family members and sponsor them to enter the U.S. resettlement pipeline. The program thereby meets the additionality goals of the GCR.
Despite the similarities with the Canadian model, the U.S. and Canada have different existing frameworks for the immediate settlement phase as well as for financial and social welfare support. In Canada, about US$24,000 is required to sponsor a refugee family of five, whereas in the U.S. only a minimum of $2,375 per refugee is required. These funds go toward securing housing and providing initial basic needs. The formal sponsorship period also differs, with a duration of one year in Canada and only 90 days in the U.S., although this does not necessarily mean that the relationship with sponsors will end after three months.
Conclusion: The Challenges and Opportunities of Private Refugee Sponsorship
The Welcome Corps announcement yielded questions about the vetting process for private sponsors, including how to ensure that sponsors are culturally competent toward arriving refugees and whether protections against proselytization are in place. The Canadian model provides some reassurance in this regard. Criminal background checks of sponsors are conducted, and organizations assisting with the process help fill out a welcome plan that walks individuals through what it takes to be a sponsor. Organizations can also provide trauma-informed care and work to combat volunteer burnout, incorporating research on how to ensure that sponsors foster empowerment and not dependency.
Another concern is whether private refugee sponsorship represents the outsourcing of traditional refugee resettlement to individuals and a shrinking of government responsibility. Here, it is important to remember the concept of additionality. Settlement services are not replaced by private individuals; rather, private sponsorship is another route to help displaced individuals relocate to countries like the United States. Private sponsors can also provide refugees with access to social networks and social capital that help accelerate the integration process. This helps prevent refugees from feeling isolated or disconnected in their new homes. Finally, the ability for private sponsors to name specific refugees for resettlement is important as it allows for family reunification, which is not an option offered through the government-sponsored resettlement process.
Programs like the Welcome Corps — and additional pathways to refugee resettlement more generally — are especially important at a time when migration and refugee arrivals are so politically contentious in Global North countries. A great deal of external migration funding goes toward preventing asylum seekers from leaving their home countries and ensuring that those in transit are unable to reach wealthy countries like the United States.
In this sense, the Welcome Corps delivers a twofold benefit: First, it provides further opportunities for resettlement and family reunification. And second, it allows U.S. citizens and residents to become directly involved in the resettlement process. These personal experiences can feed back into communities, broadening understandings of what being a refugee entails and potentially helping to change the political conversation around refugee reception.
 United States Department of State, “Launch of Welcome Corps- Private Sponsorship of Refugees - Press Statement,” United States Department of State, January 19, 2023, https://www.state.gov/launch-of-the-welcome-corps-private-sponsorship-of-refugees/.
 Elizabeth Ferris, “When Refugee Displacement Drags on, Is Self-Reliance the Answer?,” Brookings (blog), June 19, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/06/19/when-refugee-displacement-drags-on-is-self-reliance-the-answer/.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2023,” June 21, 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/unhcr-projected-global-resettlement-needs-2023.
 National Immigration Forum, “Fact Sheet: U.S. Refugee Resettlement,” National Immigration Forum, November 5, 2020, https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-refugee-resettlement/.
 This figure also includes Venezuelans displaced abroad, many of whom are not considered refugees.
 Betts, Alexander. 2008. “North-South Cooperation in the Refugee Regime: The Role of Linkages.” Global Governance 14, no. 2: 157–78; Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, “Refugee Security and the Organizational Logic of Legal Mandates,” Georgetown Journal of International Law 37 (2005).
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “The Global Compact on Refugees,” accessed June 1, 2023, https://globalcompactrefugees.org/about-digital-platform/global-compact-refugees.
 Government of Canada, “By the Numbers – 40 Years of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program,” July 21, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/news/2019/04/by-the-numbers--40-years-of-canadas-private-sponsorship-of-refugees-program.html.
 Government of Ontario, “Archived - Refugees: The First Year in Ontario,” June 16, 2022, https://www.ontario.ca/page/refugees-first-year-ontario.
 Norman, Kelsey. 2019. The End of the Largest Resettlement Program in the World? Baker Institute Report no. 10.31.19. Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Houston, Texas. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/end-largest-resettlement-program-world.
 “U.S. refugee resettlement drops, falling below Canada in 2018,” Pew Research Center, June 19, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/06/19/canada-now-leads-the-world-in-refugee-resettlement-surpassing-the-u-s/ft_19-06-19_refugeeresettlement_us-refugee-resettlement-drops-2/.
 Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “These Ukrainians Arrived Under a Biden Program. They Ended Up Homeless,” New York Times, April 2, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/02/nyregion/ukraine-refugees-homeless.html.
 Norman, Kelsey P. 2023. How Biden’s New Border Policy Hurts Asylum Seekers. Policy brief no. 01.09.23. Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, Houston, Texas. https://doi.org/10.25613/S2M6-E140.
 United States Department of State, “Launch of Welcome Corps- Private Sponsorship of Refugees - Press Statement.”
 Refugees and Citizenship Canada Immigration, “Guide 2201 - Community Sponsors to Privately Sponsor Refugees,” March 1, 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/application/application-forms-guides/guide-sponsor-refugee-community.html.
 Nicholas Micinski and Kelsey P. Norman, “The European Union's migration management aid: Developing democracies or supporting authoritarianism?” International Migration (October 2022): 1–15.
The authors thank Alizay Azeem for her research assistance.
This report is part of the “Conversations on Migration” series from the Baker Institute Migration Initiative. The series intends to provide insight into current migration developments with the goal of informing advocacy and policy efforts and facilitating the expansion of collaborative networks of experts across disciplines.