Legal pathways for refugees to Europe: developments and challenges
Community based sponsorship programmes in Europe: what next?Petra Hueck, Director of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) Europe
Since 2013, complementary pathways of admission for refugees – in particular community sponsorship programmes – have emerged in Europe as a direct response to the worsening conflict in Syria. This phenomenon reflects the increasing desire of European civil society actors to directly engage in admitting and welcoming refugees into their local communities.
Community sponsorship programmes have become the new reality in Europe, and three key types of programmes have emerged:
- Programmes in which relatives take on various financial and social responsibilities in order to bring their (extended) family members to Europe. Programmes of this type were implemented from 2013 in Germany, Ireland and France. The largest of these was the German Regional Admission Programme, which admitted around 25,000 persons. Refugees received a two-year renewable residence permit, and families signed a legal declaration to provide for the majority of costs for a period of five years.
- The Humanitarian Corridor programmes in Italy, France, and Belgium, in which faith-based organisations establish agreements with their respective governments to receive refugees initially admitted on humanitarian visas, and fund programme costs via their own private resources. These programmes have to date provided over 2,500 protection places, additional to resettlement commitments, the large majority of which are in Italy.
- Community based sponsorship programmes, in which local citizens and associations facilitate the reception and integration of refugees identified and referred by UNHCR. These programmes were initiated in the United Kingdom, and similar initiatives have recently emerged in Germany, Ireland and Spain. To date, around 350 refugees have arrived in the UK, and 30 in Spain.
Looking at the future of sponsorship programmes in Europe, it seems likely that combinations of the above approaches will co-exist, possibly as different strands under national ‘umbrella’ admission programmes for refugees. Currently, programmes are still maturing and new approaches are being piloted, and questions remain as to how to ensure their sustainability in the longer term. How should sponsorship programmes be designed in order to maximise their success? How can communities contribute to their continuation? And how can such programmes, which are essentially grassroots and volunteer-led, ensure quality support for refugees?
Sponsorship as a means for refugees to reunite with relatives and community members has perhaps not received the attention it merits as an important approach for all programmes to consider in the medium term. The highly successful Canadian sponsorship model teaches us two valuable lessons: refugees who have already settled want to be reunited with their relatives and community members, and mobilising this desire in support of sponsorship can ensure the continued growth of programmes in the longer term. While schemes that are embedded in mainstream resettlement programmes are often the preferred option for governments, Humanitarian Corridor programmes have proven to be quicker in offering protection to a more diverse group of persons and nationalities than those prioritised for resettlement. In Europe, these programmes have enabled protection to be realised outside of the pursuit of EU migration management objectives, which heavily dictate resettlement priority groups and countries. With a dramatically worsening protection crisis in Libya, where 5,600 migrants and refugees being held in detention, Humanitarian Corridor programmes will be key to providing swift access to protection, while also harnessing the capacity and willingness of communities across Europe to offer reception and integration support.
The European Commission’s 2018 feasibility study explored how the EU could support the continued development of sponsorship in Europe. It also seems to support a differentiated approach in programming, while the Union Resettlement Framework – if adopted – will extend EU financial support beyond resettlement to also include family link, humanitarian visa-based and resettlement-based community sponsorship programmes.
Regardless which type of formula countries pursue, when agreeing sponsorship programmes it is crucial that they:
- Develop clear programme objectives and numerical targets.
- Clarify the refugee profiles eligible for sponsorship (vulnerable refugees, family-linked cases etc).
- Define the respective roles and responsibilities of state and civil society actors, the duration of support and safeguarding mechanisms.
- Clearly and accurately communicate legal rights and entitlements to sponsored refugees from the outset.
- Ensure that community sponsorship programmes complement, rather than replace, mainstream, state-funded service provision.
- Ensure that civil society has a prominent role in governing and developing programmes and in ensuring high-quality sponsorship.
Sponsorship programmes should be based on open and flexible frameworks, which enable a wide range of actors to become involved based on transparent criteria and mechanisms. Community-based sponsorship programmes have largely been established in exactly this spirit: anyone in the UK, Germany and Ireland can form a sponsoring group and participate in the national schemes. Broad co-ownership of enables sponsoring groups and NGOs to shape, influence and improve programme practice, and allows all actors to collaborate to solve problems.
An example of the benefits that a diverse range of actors can bring to sponsorship programmes can be found in Canada, where the Student Refugee Program of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) has successfully sponsored 1,800 refugees to study at 83 universities since it began in 1978.
The decisive factor in which community-based sponsorship will prosper across Europe is the extent to which they can offer credible alternatives to entirely state-led and state-financed reception and integration programmes, which already engage a wide range of actors (such as local authorities) and implement mixed approaches to reception and integration. The challenges in each national context are different – in Italy, for example, little state support is available for recognised refugees, while in Spain the reception system is under heavy pressure and alternative solutions are urgently required. While sponsorship programmes can initiate creative solutions and broaden capacity, they cannot and should not replace the obligations of the State.
Local volunteer groups are the powerhouse of community sponsorship. Programmes must seek to support and stimulate – and not to frustrate! – their engagement in receiving and settling refugees. Ensuring minimum quality standards for volunteer groups while at the same time allowing for programme flexibility and innovation will remain a fine balance, that will need to be further tested and evaluated in different national contexts. Programmes will, for example, be more successful if they can pick up speed in a relatively short timeframe: while the comprehensive procedures for vetting sponsoring groups in the UK has helped to ensure programme quality, for example, some stakeholders have identified that complex procedures run the risk of deterring motivated people from establishing sponsoring groups. Similar discussions have arisen in Canada, where the government has initiated new administrative requirements for sponsors in recent years – and has faced considerable pushback from sponsoring organisations and NGOs. These organisations, which have decades of experience of sponsoring refugees, have argued that such requirements threaten Canada’s programme and move it in the direction of a “remodelled resettlement programme, which is government-led, but privately funded.”.
Although differences exist across countries, at the local level, sponsoring groups broadly do the same work. Community groups, in most case consisting of a minimum of five volunteers, identify and furnish housing and provide settlement and integration support for the first year after arrival.
Supporting the reception and integration of vulnerable refugees is a difficult task that is easily underestimated. A recent evaluation of the UK Community Sponsorship programme provides some useful insights into the challenges, demonstrating the strong need to manage expectations of both volunteers and refugees about the level of integration that can realistically be achieved within an initial 12-month period. Refugees’ progress in learning English was slower than anticipated, while neither refugees nor volunteers were aware of the challenges of finding employment common to nearly all refugees. The lack of progress towards self-sufficiency was therefore frustrating for all parties.
The resettlement expertise of NGOs across Europe, developed over many years, should be drawn on in the current context. Synergies between resettlement and sponsorship programmes should be explored, and expertise pooled across multidisciplinary national programmes that include different approaches to facilitating admission and protection. While sponsorship is essentially a grassroots activity, it is important to develop local frameworks above the grassroots level to ensure coordination, training and support. Programmes building capacity for refugee reception across national territories are particularly important for smaller towns and villages with little or no prior experience in hosting vulnerable refugees, supporting their integration in often complex legal and social welfare contexts, as is support to help sponsoring groups to develop approaches that promote the autonomy of refugees as they seek to regain control of their lives and their futures.
This need for support structures to be embedded into sponsorship programmes is being increasingly recognised by civil society and governments alike. Structures are emerging that provide for two or even three-tier systems, with distinct roles and responsibilities for ‘lead’ and local actors:
– Community volunteer groups formed at local level are responsible for welcoming and supporting refugees for defined periods of time, with key tasks (for example transport, language support) divided among the group members.
– Lead sponsors: often national NGOs or faith-based organisations that take up the role of coordinating with community groups within their networks to secure housing and identify and train volunteers involved in providing support. They also conduct post-arrival monitoring, and in some cases assume overall financial responsibility.
– A third tier, now emerging in the UK, where a national coordinating body (RESET, created in 2018) acts as a sponsor self-governance mechanism inspired by the Canadian Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) Association.
Support structures are particularly crucial for family members welcoming refugees. Families cannot be entirely responsible for organising reception, supporting integration and meeting associated costs. Organisations like Ordre de Malte in Indre-et-Loire, France, have demonstrated the benefits of well-coordinated support in this context, by providing access to social integration and mainstream community services to over 700 persons arriving to join their family members. The potential for diaspora organisations to be engaged in this work, for example via partnerships with established national NGOs, should be further explored.
In conclusion, community sponsorship is now a reality in Europe. In the coming period, the good practices and lessons learned from experiences thus far can lead to further engagement of NGOs, churches and citizens in these programmes, and more broadly to the further growth of complementary pathways of admission for refugees in Europe. This will in turn result in increased refugee admissions, expanded opportunities for welcome and integration, and a transformation of European cities and towns into more inclusive and cohesive communities, ready to make a significant contribution to the Global Compact on Refugees and its associated Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways.
 Faith-based organisations in France, concerned about persecuted minorities living under the Islamic State opened a family reunification scheme in 2014, under which a total of 7,344 Syrians and Iraqis were admitted in 2015-2016 on humanitarian visas The scheme allowed family members and (religious) organisations to cover travel and initial settlement costs, until the new arrivals received refugee status and could access state benefits.
 In Italy, funding is via the Otto per Mille scheme (through which taxpayers contribute a compulsory 0.08% of their annual income to charities or faith-based organisations of their choice), and Caritas Italiana provides financial support to local branches of Caritas for one year, for each sponsored person they receive.
 European Commission, Study on the feasibility and added value of sponsorship schemes as a possible pathway to safe channels for admission to the EU, including resettlement, October 2018
 For more on the WUSC Student Refugee Program see https://srp.wusc.ca/ and ERN+ Scoping Papers, 2017: Private Sponsorship in Europe. Expanding Complementary pathways for refugee resettlement, and Student Scholarships for Refugees,
 Canadian Council for Refugees, Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program: Proud history, Uncertain future, 2014
 Phillimore J., Reyes M., Community Sponsorship in the UK: from application to integration, Formative evaluation, Interim report, Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham, July 2019.