US considering pilot programme for private sponsorship of refugees

A protester holds up a sign reading "Refugees Welcome" at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016.
A protester holds up a sign reading "Refugees Welcome" at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016. PHOTO REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Americans might be able to bring a refugee to the US at their own expense if talks between the Obama administration and the nation's leading refugee advocacy group come to fruition.

The State Department is considering a pilot programme that would let citizens sponsor a refugee from their country of choice by paying for airfare, housing, clothing, food and other resettlement costs.

Conversations began in July and are expected to continue in the coming year, said Ms Naomi Steinberg, the director of the Refugee Council USA.

The programme, modelled after a similar one in Canada, is designed to crack open new sources of funding as growing anti-refugee sentiment in Congress threatens to cut resettlement programmes.

"It puts Americans in the driver's seat," said Mr Matthew La Corte, policy analyst at the Niskanen Centre, a Washington-based libertarian think-tank that was an early supporter of the programme. "It allows them to say 'I have a spare bedroom. I was thinking of buying a new car, but I'll instead take that US$10,000 (S$13,694) and put it toward bringing a Syrian refugee over.'"

Such a programme would mark one of the biggest structural changes to US refugee policy in three decades, and would allow Barack Obama or future presidents to skirt opposition by shifting financial responsibility to everyday Americans.

Civil war in Syria, conflict in Africa and more open European borders have combined to displace more than 65 million people worldwide, the deepest refugee crisis since World War II.

About a million people entered Germany last year, and Prime Minister Angela Merkel has said other European countries must do their part. The US admitted 85,000 refugees in fiscal 2016, and only about 12,600 from Syria.

Mr Obama's announcement last month that America would accept 110,000 refuges from around the world in 2017, a 30 per cent increase over this year, was met with fierce opposition by Republican lawmakers.

More than half of US governors have called for a ban on Syrian refugees until stricter national security-screening is put in place, and Congress has introduced Bills that would restrict funding.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has characterised Syrian refugees as "Trojan horses" for terrorism.

"The American people do not support these radical plans, which amount to a complete betrayal from their leaders in Washington," Senator Jeff Sessions, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of resettlement policies, said in a statement last month. The Alabama Republican is a key advisor to Mr Trump.

Away from the political arena, the private sector is becoming increasingly involved. Last month, billionaire George Soros, a major funder of liberal causes, announced he would spend as much as US$500 million to help refugees globally.

The White House announced recently that 51 companies, including Airbnb, Goldman Sachs, Ikea and United Parcel Service, have pledged money or services to help refugees.

The private sponsorship plan under discussion mimics a decades-old programme in Canada that allows private individuals or groups to provide "emotional and financial support" to refugees for a period usually one year in length.

Since November 2015, Canada has taken in about 31,000 Syrians, of whom 11,700 were privately sponsored, according to the nation's government.

Under current law, the president can determine the number of refugees allowed each year. The State Department works with the United Nations and other agencies to screen refugees abroad, which can take two years.

Advocacy groups and state agencies administer cash assistance, job training, housing and other aid.

The US briefly tested a private sponsorship programme in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan used it to admit roughly 16,000 refugees, primarily Soviet Jews and Cubans.

The programme was ended in the early 1990s due to rising costs, said Mr La Corte, from the Niskanen Centre.

For fiscal 2016, Congress appropriated US$3.1 billion for refugee and migration assistance programmes, the same level as two years earlier, according to figures from the agency.

Private sponsorship "is a good option in terms of increasing numbers without increasing budget outlays," said Mr Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Centre for Migration Studies in New York.

Refugee Council USA and the state department began talks about private sponsorship this summer, said Mr Steinberg, director at the Washington-based agency, which is an umbrella group for 22 organisations.

The State Department plans to work on the issue "in the year to come", according to a statement from Mr Mark Storella, a deputy assistant secretary.

"We are deeply impressed with what Canada has been able to achieve in welcoming refugees, especially in the past year," Mr Storella said. "We have been learning a great deal from our Canadian colleagues and are eager to benefit from some of their lessons learned."

Before any programme is launched, critical points must be addressed, said Mr Steinberg.

The group wants to ensure that sponsorship does not replace existing government programmes."The only private resettlement programme that we could support would be one that increases the number of refugees who arrive in the US, while at the same time maintaining and even strengthening the US government commitments," Mr Steinberg said.

Sponsorship is gaining early support from some who have been critical of existing programmes.

"I would certainly be open to considering a programme partnering refugees with US sponsors - especially if it would cut down on the financial burden for American taxpayers," Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who has called for stronger vetting, said in a statement. "The administration needs to significantly increase its verification safeguards before we open anything up further."

In a November 2015 Gallup Poll, just 37 per cent of those surveyed said they approved of US plans to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016.

Still, backers hope they'll be able to tap into a well of public support they say has only grown since last year when a viral image showed the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, drowned on a Turkish beach.

"Unlike some of the politicians that have been anti-refugee, we've actually seen that communities and individuals across the country have been incredibly responsive to the global refugee crisis," said Ms Jennifer Quigley, advocacy strategist for Human Rights First, a New York City non-profit organisation. "They say, 'I want to be able to help a refugee and help them achieve the American dream.'"