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“They are like our family”

Can a Canadian-inspired approach to private refugee sponsorship work in Germany, home to more refugees than anywhere else in Europe?

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29 September, 2021
Members of the Merheimer Treff, or “meeting place” support group at St. Gereon assist refugees with administrative issues at a weekly guidance session. Photo by Tara Brian

Iris Valentin’s day planner is chock-a-block with entries scrawled in blue ball-point pen. Items on the to-do list include: call the local job centre to sort out a missing document for the Tamers’ language course; finalize arrangements with a construction company to get Mr. Tamer working; and, dotted throughout the coming weeks, their two children’s summer schedule of integration and language courses.

The Tamers, a Syrian family of four whose lives crowd Valentin’s day planner, arrived in Wuppertal, a mid-sized city in western Germany, in October 2020, squeezing into the country between its first coronavirus lockdown and its second.

Their home on the eastern flank of the Wupper Valley is decorated with post-it notes: Tisch on the coffee table, Tür on the door, Fenster on the living room window. The Tamers join nearly a million Syrians who already call Germany home. But their arrival is unusual, and not only because of the pandemic. The family is one of the first to participate in a new German model of refugee resettlement: community sponsorship.

The pilot project is one of a growing number around the world inspired by Canada’s longstanding Private Refugee Sponsorship system, in which groups of residents contribute to the costs and process of refugee integration. Initiated in 1979, Canadians have welcomedmore than 327,000 refugees through the program. During the past decade, privately sponsored individuals amounted to over 50 per cent of all refugee arrivals to Canada.

“The pilot project is one of a growing number around the world inspired by Canada’s longstanding Private Refugee Sponsorship system.”

While Canada’s model allows sponsoring groups to choose the refugees they will support, most countries initiating community sponsorship programs, including Germany, rely on the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to select participating refugee families. In both forms of community sponsorship, refugees are selected from “countries of first asylum” — for example Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon in the case of Syrians — and “resettled” or relocated to countries with stronger social support and legal rights for refugees.

Government resettlement programs and community sponsorship differ from unplanned arrivals of asylum seekers who travel clandestinely across borders and claim asylum on entry.

While community sponsorship has been successful in Canada, can such a model succeed in Germany, which has accepted more than a million refugees in recent years and that faces far larger and more unpredictable waves of asylum applicants at its borders than does Canada, sheltered as it is from many of the world’s troubled regions by distance and geography?

Launched in May 2019, Neustart im Team (New Start in Team), is a partnership between Germany’s federal government and community groups, including the Protestant Church of Westphalia, and the Catholic welfare organization Caritas. It aims to bring 500 refugees to the country. Stalled by the pandemic, only 65 had arrived by July 2021, but the number of entries picked up as the summer progressed. 

Similar to Canada’s primary model, five residents form what are called “mentoring groups.” In the Wuppertal team, Valentin, 73, and four other church members are responsible for finding housing and covering rent for two years, plus setting the Tamers up with doctors and bank accounts and working with local authorities to ensure access to schools, language courses and jobs. Much of their work is dealing with German bureaucracy, which one sponsor describes with a chuckle as “gründlich”— or “thorough, leaving out no detail”.

*  * *

Momentum behind community sponsorship has grown since 2015, when the Syrian war contributed to a surge in the global refugee population. Although most refugees stayed in neighbouring countries, it was migration to Europe that spawned the term “refugee crisis.” At its height in 2015–16, nearly 2.5 million people — mainly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis — applied for asylum in the EU, roughly half of them in Germany. Along the way, at least 9,400 died on Europe’s borders and likely thousands more perished farther from its edges.

The UN rallied for the expansion of alternatives to dangerous journeys and unpredictable arrivals of asylum seekers. In September 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration that called for safer and more formal ways for asylum seekers to reach intended destinations, including using resettlement and community sponsorship. This commitment was echoed in the first-ever “Global Compact on Refugees” endorsed by almost all UN member states in 2018.

The EU responded by ramping-up surveillance and controls at its external borders and increasingly involving transit countries in blocking migration to the Union, including through training and funding the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean and return them to Libya, and reaching an agreement with Turkey to deter asylum seekers heading to Greece.    

Meanwhile, the EU and some member states, including Germany, pledged to increase resettlement and other more “orderly” modes for refugees to access the Union.

Syrian refugee Shurook poses next to some potato plants on the Church of St. Gereon grounds, part of a project she is running with local children. Photo by Tara Brian

Within this context, community sponsorship gained attention for its promise of fast-track integration and additional resettlement spots. Hailed by the UN refugee agency, 16 programs have sprung up in the past five years in Europe, Australasia and South America.

The European Commission called for a European model of community sponsorship, and funding was made available to support budding national initiatives.

Fundamental to sponsorship’s international popularity is the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, established in 2016 by the Canadian government, the University of Ottawa, the UN refugee agency and several foundations. The initiative, to which the Canadian government dedicates several staff and project funding, aims to “encourage and support the adoption and expansion of refugee sponsorship programs around the world.” Based in Ottawa, last year it set up a second office in Brusselsto keep pace with growing demand. 

*  * *

Canada’s embassy in Berlin sits on a corner of Potsdamer Platz, a busy intersection not far from the capital’s most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate. With visa processing carried out elsewhere, the Berlin office of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is free to focus on an emerging priority: “migration and protection diplomacy.” Community sponsorship is considered a shining example, so much so that last year a position was created at the embassy to support Germany’s New Start in Team project via the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative. 

Ben Mason, the senior migration liaison officer hired for the role, suggests two main reasons why Canada might dedicate resources to supporting adoption of the model abroad.

“Community sponsorship is a proven best practice and so there’s a motivation to share that know-how,” he says. “I think you could also frame it in terms of values. Canada on the global stage stands for values around inclusion and diversity, and so community sponsorship embodies some of those things very clearly and other countries are keen to work with Canada on that.”

Mason is quick to clarify that although Canada offers support, New Start in Team is “very explicitly a German program.” While Canada’s model provided initial inspiration, other countries will do things differently.

“The fascinating work is taking the basic structure of community sponsorship and then adapting it again and again to each local context.”

*  * *

Estimates suggest roughly 12,000 refugees have settled in the Wupper Valley since 2015, when unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers crossed the Aegean Sea and travelled overland into the EU. Like many volunteers in Germany, that’s the year Iris Valentin and the rest of the New Start in Team group first started working with them.

With funding from Caritas, she and other parish members began a weekly tea salon in their church hall. Refugees were welcome to drop in with their problems — usually the infamous bureaucracy — and volunteers would help them sort it out. “Over the years, it was hundreds [of refugees],” says Valentin.

Along the way, a team of committed volunteers developed. When, in 2019, Caritas presented the group with the option of becoming sponsors under New Start in Team, they gladly accepted.

At times their work has been frustrating because of obstacles created by the pandemic and dealings with the city government, which is unused to the new model.

“It took us three months to find a school for the girls,” says Winfried Gunselmann, another sponsor.

“If we had left it up to the city, I don’t know if they would be in school today,” Valentin adds.

As refugee arrivals to Germany escalated through the summer of 2015, so did the mobilization of volunteers. Organizations throughout Germany reported around a 70 per cent rise in volunteering. The country initially got behind a “welcome culture” spirit that was captured by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s now famous declaration “Wir schaffen das,” or “We can do this.” In a study in Erding, Bavaria — a key reception site for new arrivals — researchers estimated that the local district would have needed to double its staff in order to account for the work that was done by volunteers.

Rising public and political backlash later led Germany to restrict the inflow of asylum seekers, but a supportive attitude remains among much of the German public.

That community sponsorship requires that much of work involved in integrating and supporting refugees be done privately doesn’t sit well with everyone involved.

“The state is shifting responsibility from state authorities and state institutions to the public, to the private sector and to the churches, who already did a really good job, who already made the integration of refugees possible, made it function,” says Stephan Dünnwald of the Bavarian Refugee Council, an organization advocating for refugees in Germany’s largest state.

Dünnwald acknowledges that community sponsorship can enhance integration but says this is something the state could and should be doing better with asylum seekers who make their own way to Europe and claim asylum on arrival.

*  *  * 

Advocates of community sponsorship often raise the notion of “additionality” in response to those who believe sponsorship is taking responsibility away from the state

A cornerstone of Canada’s system, additionality ensures privately sponsored refugees come on top of state-set resettlement targets.

The Church of St. Gereon in the district of Cologne-Merheim. Photo by Tara Brian

“In my view, provided community sponsorship is additional to existing government resettlement quotas, the model does not act to privatise or outsource refugee integration,” Nikolas Feith Tan of the Danish Institute for Human Rights wrote in an email to Open Canada. “That said, certain safeguards must be in place …[including] an understanding that governments bear ultimate responsibility for refugees’ integration, not private individuals.”

Furthermore, resettlement, and community sponsorship in particular, is often presented as a way to bring the most vulnerable to safety because it means they can avoid physically demanding, dangerous and expensive journeys.

“To arrive from a country of exile into, say, Europe, a refugeehas to overcome all kinds of obstacles,” says Vladislav Mijic, who heads the migration section of Canada’s embassy in Berlin. “The most vulnerable refugees never make it in many cases; they simply don’t have the resources.”

Those directly involved in community sponsorship say it also eases the often-difficult process of rebuilding a life in a new country.

“I call it turbo integration,” says Ottmar Bongers, who leads the social work of the St. Gereon Catholic parish in Merheim, a leafy suburb of Cologne.

A retired banker, Bongers happily describes the busy schedule of the Merheimer Treff” or “meeting place,” which has operated in the community for over a decade. He presents a pamphlet listing more than 20 regular activities for refugees and other community members, including a kindergarten, guitar classes, bicycle repair workshops and language exchanges with students from the University of Cologne. 

Like the group in Wuppertal, becoming mentors with New Start in Team fit easily into their existing structures of support built up over years assisting refugees in the community. In November 2019, they welcomed the very first refugees to Germany under community sponsorship: Syrian sisters Shurook and Heba.

Shurook, a bright-eyed 28-year-old and the elder of the two, already speaks German well enough to work as an assistant in the church kindergarten, as a homework tutor and leader of a gardening project for children. Her sister, who grapples with psychological trauma and severe rheumatism, studied physics in Syria. She is now dedicated to learning German so she can resume university.

Shurook describes the St. Gereon community as “like our family here.”  

The initiative was such a success that in July the St. Gereon group welcomed their second New Start in Team family: a young couple and their three-year-old son from Somalia.

* *  *

It’s unclear how much Germany’s New Start in Team program might grow.

Perhaps the factor most likely to limit its expansion is the inability of German groups to choose which family they will sponsor. In Canada, experts cite the possibility to “name” refugees for sponsorship as an important factor in the program’s growth because it allows refugees themselves to sponsor additional family. In 2013, Germany introduced a program for Syrians to sponsor extended family if they covered costs for five years. The program was eventually discontinued in most German states, however, in part because of the high burden placed on sponsors.

So far, promotion of New Start in Team — and much of the funding for sponsor groups — has been through the Catholic and Protestant churches.

“Our task now is to broaden our target group, because of course we cannot reach all possible volunteers through these church networks,” says Katharina Mayr, from the program coordination team.

Bongers and Valentin are also optimistic. “I think the readiness of the German population is still there,” says Bongers, proposing that by promoting community sponsorship, Germans could make a strong political statement in opposition to anti-immigrant rhetoric in Germany and other EU member states like Hungary.

“Yes, [community sponsorship] could be big, because it’s the best way to integrate people to have this contact,” says Valentin. “And for us ourselves, it’s a way of learning to respect other cultures, it’s a way of pulling this world together.”

“It’s so important for society, especially Germany,” she adds. Germany’s history in the Second World War, has bequeathed a “mortgage” to Germans alive today, Valentin says, obliging them to welcome those seeking shelter from violence and persecution.

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