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20th June 2019, 01:00:31 UTC

Over the past few years, Amnesty International offices on four continents have been working to support refugees in a way and on a scale never seen before. The goal? To increase the number of people who can start their lives in a safe country. The method? Community sponsorship.

At its heart, community sponsorship is a simple but radical idea: ordinary citizens like you can play a key role in assisting refugees to reach and settle into a new country. Not only does it allow you to work for positive change at a local level; you are also joining a global community that is helping change the conversation about people seeking asylum, even in the most hostile of environments.

How does it work? The people who do the sponsoring generally have to enter into an agreement with their government that they will raise the necessary funds, and assume responsibility for helping with logistical matters like finding accommodation, registering children in school and accessing medical care. The people who are sponsored have usually been waiting for months or years in a place where they are unsafe or they cannot live in dignity; currently many such people are living in countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Country sponsorship schemes

Canada’s model is the world’s oldest, having begun in 1978 to respond to the forced displacement crisis in Southeast Asia following the American war in Vietnam. Since the program began, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been sponsored, meaning that there have likely been more than a million ordinary Canadians involved in these initiatives!

At present, several of our national offices are committed to advancing community sponsorship. They are working with governments, civil society and stakeholders – like the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative – to establish new programmes, or make existing ones more sustainable, accessible and effective.

In Argentina, where more than 400 Syrian nationals have arrived through a scheme set up in 2014, Amnesty has supported local communities in utilising their own power as advocates of change. The office has played a key role in strengthening civil society and communities involved in sponsorship, which culminated with the launch of the Community Refugee Sponsorship Support Network in 2018.

Amnesty Australia has seen positive results across the country and across the political spectrum, with major political parties pledging to improve sponsorship and increase the number of people arriving under the scheme. Around 30,000 citizens have pledged their support. Since the launch of the ‘My New Neighbour’ campaign in March 2018, Amnesty Australia has been continuing its national outreach campaign, securing commitments from representatives from all states except one.

The Government of Ireland launched its community sponsorship programme in March 2019. This success is a testament to the energy and efforts of Amnesty Ireland, who partnered with leading refugee and migrant rights organisations to engage in policy design with the government and build the infrastructure essential to its viability. Amnesty is now turning their attention to mobilising and supporting members of the public to become sponsors via local Amnesty groups and networks. In collaboration with its partner organisations, the office is establishing a National Support Organisation for community sponsorship to strengthen and deepen the programme at a national level and ensure community sponsorship becomes a successful and sustainable example of Irish welcoming at its best.

In New Zealand, the government had undertaken a pilot scheme, and Amnesty was critical in ensuring that the right actors were brought on board by coordinating stakeholders and training volunteers to advocate for the programme to become a permanent pathway for refugees. As a result of Amnesty’s campaigning, 10,000 people have pledged their support for community sponsorship and dozens of potential new sponsor groups have been identified. Amnesty New Zealand showed true leadership in the wake of the March 2019 terror attack in Christchurch, which tragically affected several of the newcomers who had arrived through community sponsorship. They obtained over 10,000 ‘messages of hope’ from all over the world, then prominently displayed many of the messages on billboards, newspapers and online, showing the Muslim community the love and support they have.

In Spain, Amnesty is helping monitor the country’s fledgling programme, through which a pilot scheme was launched in the Basque Country in December 2018. In February 2019 the government started its implementation, with the first families arriving in March. Since the launch, Amnesty Spain has been holding meetings with the government to monitor the programme and discuss introducing it in other parts of the country.

To build a movement of welcome for refugees in the United States, in June 2018 Amnesty USA launched the Longer Table Initiative. Today, Amnesty USA partners with all nine national Resettlement Agencies and nearly 75 local affiliates with community sponsorship and/or volunteer opportunities. In addition, seven Amnesty groups have committed to sponsoring families, and another 14 groups are considering sponsorship. Thus far all the families who have arrived have been from Afghanistan.

Tremendous progress

More Amnesty offices are also actively engaged in the development of community sponsorship in their respective countries. They are boldly working within contexts where there is no current precedent: starting conversations, exploring possibilities and developing plans through which to make sponsorship a reality.

The tremendous progress we have made around the world – together with our local and international partners – shows that even in the midst of hostility and suspicion, ordinary people can build communities of welcome and hope. And it’s working, with more and more governments seeing the benefits of community sponsorship. Join a global community and help us to spread the word!

For more information on getting involved with community sponsorship in Ireland, please email: iwelcome(at)amnesty.ie