Sponsor a Refugee
Private sponsorship — a Canadian innovation
Canada is a global leader in the private sponsorship of refugees. Learn how it works and connect to key resources in Ottawa and beyond.
What is private sponsorship?
Like many other nations, Canada provides assistance to thousands of displaced people every year through its Government-Assisted Refugee (GAR) program. The government screens United Nations refugees abroad, arranges for their travel to Canada and pays a modest allowance for the refugee's living costs for his or her first year in Canada. Unlike most other nations, Canada has a second sponsorship program that enables private citizens to sponsor refugees directly. Through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program, citizens work in groups to provide living expenses and practical support for 12 months starting from the refugee's arrival in Canada or until the refugee becomes self-sufficient, whichever comes first.
Refugee sponsorship is a tangible way to be part of a solution to the global refugee crisis and can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both the sponsor and the newcomer. Using your time and resources to provide sanctuary to people fleeing war or persecution means you are instrumental in giving them space to breathe, to build a new life, to have hope. It means they have safety and they have options. It enriches our communities with diverse skills, energy and perspectives.
Introduced in 1978 — the first of its kind in the world and still the best-known — Canada's private sponsorship program was for decades sustained by a dedicated but relatively small group of citizens, primarily in faith communities or advocacy groups, who quietly brought thousands of refugees to Canada every year and lobbied with limited success to increase the private sponsorship quotas.
That changed almost overnight in September 2015, when Canadians were shocked to learn of their connection to the death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, his mother and his brother. The family had tried and failed to be reunited with Canadian relatives legally, before deciding to attempt what became a fatal crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.
The photo of Alan's lifeless body on a beach in Turkey sparked a massive outpouring of public interest in sponsoring Syrians. Since the fall of 2015, the national community of private sponsors has grown exponentially and now numbers in the tens of thousands from coast-to-coast. As a result of their efforts, more than 13,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada through private sponsorships between November 2015 and January 2017, along with several thousand more privately sponsored refugees from other countries who arrived in the same time frame.
How does sponsorship work?
Private sponsorship is a simple concept attached to a complicated process. There are applications to fill out and rules to follow, but don't let that deter you. Many individuals and organizations are ready help you navigate the system. Below are some of the main resources nationally and locally.
The toolkit is a practical resource created by the Canadian Council for Refugees to provide information about private refugee sponsorship to groups across Canada. It includes:
- program options across the country;
- how to prepare an application for sponsors and refugees;
- resources for sponsors and refugees (both pre and post-arrival);
- links to other resources;
- information about national and local organizations offering support to sponsoring groups.
- Government of Canada Guide to Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program: The website of the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada provides a more detailed guide to the basics of private sponsorship. When you're ready to apply, you can also consult the complete Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Application Guide, which includes the Private Sponsorship Financial Guidelines as an appendix.
- Refugee Sponsorship Training Program: This project is funded by the federal government to provide information and training to sponsors, sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) and refugees. It also manages a key stream of sponsorship, the Blended Visa-Office Referred (BVOR) cases, in which the federal government shares the financial costs with sponsors. Program staff are well-versed in the intricacies of sponsorship in Canada and the website is full of useful information.
Are you located outside Canada and want to learn more about the private sponsorship model? The Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative shares Canada’s history, experience and leadership in private sponsorship, and supports governments and civil society in other countries to design new sponsorship programs that meet their unique context and needs. Its useful guidebook is available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish.
Sponsorship facilitation and support
Consulting an organization that facilitates sponsorship is a vital step to building your application. These organizations can help you move through the process faster and with better information. They provide advice on how to form your group and assign tasks, how to choose between the different routes to sponsorship and how to develop a settlement plan to support a newcomer after arrival. Even more, they can introduce you to the many services available to support the settlement and integration process, including housing, employment, language, life skills and psychosocial support.
There are two main kinds of sponsorship facilitation services: Sponsorship Agreement Holders and organizations, usually settlement agencies, who assist with Group of Five applications. Some do both, while others specialize in one or the other. There are also organizations providing pro-bono legal advice to support sponsorship applications, and workshops and other resources to help make your private sponsorship a success.
Sponsorship Agreement Holder
A Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) is an incorporated organization that has signed an agreement with the Canadian government to resettle refugees from abroad through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program. SAHs assume overall responsibility and liability for the management of sponsorships under their agreement.
SAHs can authorize other groups in the community to sponsor refugees under their agreements. These groups are referred to as Constituent Groups (CGs). Your Constituent Group can be made up of friends, relatives, community members — people you bring together who are committed to taking on the role of private sponsor. You can then approach a SAH and work under its umbrella.
Working with a SAH connects you to a wealth of information and experience, as many of them have been facilitating sponsorships for years. Each SAH works a little differently from the next, so sponsorship groups need to determine which one best suits them. Many SAHs are religious organizations that welcome sponsorship groups of any or no faith; however, some require sponsorship groups to work through their congregations. Some SAHs are registered charities that can hold funds raised for the sponsorship in trust for your group and issue tax receipts for donations, others are not. The Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association has more information, news and links.
Group of Five
Groups of Five (G5) or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents also can sponsor refugees, but the criteria and application process are different from those of the SAH program. Under the Group of Five, at least five Canadian citizens or permanent residents get together to sponsor a refugee and his/her dependents to Canada. More people can join the group to provide settlement support, but only five group members sign the required application forms.
G5 is a popular route to sponsorship for Canadians with relatives they want to sponsor, but it has at times been slower than the SAH route. It is a good idea to check with sponsorship facilitators to determine the latest trends in processing times.
Another important point: only refugees with a valid Refugee Status Determination (RSD) document are eligible to be sponsored by a G5. Refugees who don’t have an RSD can be sponsored through a SAH. For more information about RSDs, what they look like and how to know if a refugee has one, please contact the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program directly.
Remember, Ottawa's sponsorship facilitators are either non-profit settlement organizations, faith communities or advocacy groups. They are fuelled by the energy and dedication of a small number of staff or volunteers, all of whom are priceless resources and most of whom are working at or beyond capacity. Also, the guidelines and eligibilities for sponsorship frequently change, making it a struggle to keep up with the latest developments. It is not uncommon for a sponsorship facilitator to go through periods of not taking on new groups.
There is a third stream of private sponsorship, the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program. It is a “blended” program because the federal government and private sponsors share the financial cost of supporting the refugees, while the sponsors are responsible for providing settlement support to the refugees for the full length of sponsorship period. However, you cannot refer a family member or friend to be sponsored under this program. The refugees resettled as BVORs are referred to the Canadian government by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), generally in response to their higher level of vulnerability. Common reasons for referral to the BVOR program include women and girls at risk, survivors of torture, LGBTQ+ and lack of foreseeable durable solutions.
The BVOR program is a good option for Canadians who want to sponsor refugees but have no personal ties to someone in need of sponsorship. You can work with a local SAH to facilitate the sponsorship. The program is managed by the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program. Visit their BVOR page for more information and contact details.
Before you contact a sponsorship facilitator, please respect their time and do your homework first. Read the information on sponsoring refugees at www.rstp.ca — especially the FAQ page — to make sure you are acquainted with the basics of sponsorship before reaching out.
Need help with your application?
The Refugee Sponsorship Support Program is a national program across Canada that trains lawyers to provide free support to individuals and groups seeking to privately sponsor refugees. Contact them if you’re looking to be matched with a volunteer lawyer. You can also find some useful resources on its website.
Information sessions and training
There are several options for sponsorship training in person and online:
- Refugee 613 convenes a Sponsorship Advisory Group, bringing together partners such as local sponsorship agreement holders, refugee lawyers, community groups, the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, and the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program. This group regularly collaborates to organize information sessions and training in English, French and Arabic on the private sponsorship of refugees. For more information or for special language requests, please contact email@example.com or visit us on Twitter, Facebook or on our blog for news of upcoming sessions.
- The YMCA Newcomer Information Centre organizes information sessions on private sponsorship as part of its regular programming. Consult the monthly schedule here.
- The Catholic Centre for Immigrants hosts information sessions on various aspects of the private sponsorship application process. For more information, visit its website.
- The Refugee Sponsorship Training Program hosts free webinars on sponsorship processes in addition to online training courses on the topics of resettlement and private sponsorship of refugees. Visit its website or call toll-free 1-877-290-1701 for more information.
Looking for help with a sponsorship in Ottawa?
The information below is designed to help you navigate the process of finding a SAH or sponsorship facilitator for your G5 application.
Anglican Diocese of Ottawa The Refugee Ministry Office of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa manages the Diocese’s sponsorship agreement with the federal government. It facilitates the sponsorship of refugees from all over the world by Constituent Groups formed by local Anglican parishes, other registered charities and community groups. It provides support and advice for all stages of sponsorship. Visit the website for more information. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI)
CCI administers two sponsorship agreements: the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Ottawa's sponsorship agreement, which serves local parishes exclusively, and a second sponsorship agreement for CCI itself, which serves groups of any affiliation. CCI also offers support for G5 applications. CCI provides all sponsors with assistance with applications and, as a settlement agency, it offers connection to pre-arrival information on the settlement process and post-arrival counselling, orientation and many other services.
Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Ottawa SAH: Julie Salach-Simard, email@example.com, 613-232-9634, ext. 330. Please note that this SAH works exclusively with local Roman Catholic parishes.
CCI’s SAH & support for G5: Roya Atmar 613-232-9634, ext.305 email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jewish Family Services
As a non-sectarian social services' agency, JFS offers more than 65 programs and services to children, youth, adults and seniors, including newcomers. JFS works with local SAHs to provide support for constituent groups and Groups of 5 sponsoring refugees from any part of the world and any religion or persecuted minority. Sponsorship groups must demonstrate they have the capacity to fundraise to cover the cost of the sponsorship. Contact: Andrea Gardner, 613-722-2225, ext. 321, email@example.com
United Church of Canada
The Ottawa representative for the United Church of Canada's national sponsorship agreement provides support for constituent groups, co-sponsorship and information and advice on Groups of Five. It supports sponsorship of refugees from any part of the world and any religion or persecuted minority group who meet the federal government’s criteria. It helps constituent groups outside the United Church who have connected with a local congregation. Sponsors are asked to first read the information on sponsoring refugees at www.rstp.ca before approaching this SAH. Sponsors must demonstrate they have a thorough settlement plan and enough money to support the refugee for 12 months from the day of arrival. Contact: Norma McCord, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO)
OCISO provides G5 sponsorship groups with information on options, criteria and eligibility requirements as well as guidance on the completion of the application. As a settlement agency, OCISO also provides pre-arrival information on the settlement process and post-arrival counselling and orientation. OCISO is partnering with the Canadian Council For Refugees to offer sponsorship fund top-ups for eligible G5 private sponsorship groups and OCISO also matches sponsorship groups with identified refugee families, where possible. Currently, family-linked cases significantly exceed interested groups. OCISO is a non-sectarian agency that serves sponsors and refugees from all faith backgrounds and parts of the world. https://ociso.org/contact/
Ethiopian Evangelical Church in Ottawa (EEC Ottawa)
The Ethiopian Evangelical Church in Ottawa is a national SAH that focuses on the sponsorship of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees. It supports sponsorship of refugees mainly from African countries, including Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, South Africa, Uganda, Djibouti and Ethiopia. It also provides supports to refugees from Beirut, Syria and Dubai and any religion or persecuted minority group that meets the criteria of the Canadian government. EEC Ottawa works mainly with its congregation, but it also helps the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities outside the EEC Ottawa who have connections with the congregation. Contact: Pastor Dereje Gebreyesus, email@example.com, 613-725-9777. Fantu Melesse Tewabe, firstname.lastname@example.org, 613-440-8697
I'm new to sponsorship and have so many questions — where can I learn more?
This introduction to private sponsorship from RSTP is a great place to start, followed by this extensive FAQ page. The sponsorship section of the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website is also very detailed.
Where can I get clear information about the latest news on sponsorship rules and numbers?
Sponsorship processes often change and many experts and advocates struggle to keep up. Here are some good places to get the latest news and context on sponsorship:
- Refugee Sponsorship Training Program website and newsletter
- Canadian Council for Refugees media room and web resources
- Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders blog
- Refugee 613 mailing list
- Informal Facebook groups run by Ottawa sponsors (while the information is not verified or regularly monitored by sponsorship or settlement experts, the pages can be useful for crowd-sourcing local resources)
If you can't find the answer you need elsewhere, send an email to email@example.com and we'll connect you to an expert.
Where can I get help to sponsor my relatives or friends?
OCISO and CCI both work to match sponsorship groups with funds to Ottawa residents who want to sponsor relatives or friends (known as “named” or “family-linked” cases) but don’t have the financial means. It is a challenging route — the demand is high and the number of cases is far greater than the number of sponsorship groups interested in going this route, but there have been successes and it is worth exploring. Remember, if your relatives or friends are still living in their home country, they are not considered refugees and therefore not eligible for the private sponsorship program.
How can I sponsor a refugee if I don't know anyone in Ottawa who wants to form a group?
There are others like you looking for a group to join. Sometimes three people want to form a group and need more, or large groups lose members if the process is too slow. OCISO and CCI actively support the formation of groups, or you can contact local SAHs and ask them if they know of groups that need additional members. If you don’t succeed, email Refugee 613 at firstname.lastname@example.org for further advice.
Our SAH/sponsorship facilitator keeps asking for more documentation. Don’t they know what they’re doing?
The application process is complicated and it’s common for applications to be returned by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for more information, sometimes more than once and sometimes for reasons that don’t seem to make sense. This is usually not a statement on the competence of your sponsorship facilitator — it happens to many of them. It is more likely to be a reflection of a process so cumbersome that even the experts struggle to get it right.