Is Canada Number One in Refugee Resettlement?

Only if you compare apples to oranges

By Nayla Rush on October 25, 2019

According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canada resettled more refugees than the United States in 2018. This contradicts the analysis I shared last March in which I stated that the United States resettled more refugees than any other nation in both 2017 and 2018.

Upon further scrutiny, it became clear that UNHCR gave Canada the lead in 2018 because refugees admitted through "private sponsorships" were included in the count. "Private sponsorship" is a process that is outside the UNHCR resettlement process and thus is one of what UNHCR calls "alternatives pathways" for refugee admissions. Although there is no exact U.S. counterpart to Canada's private sponsorship program, refugees who came to the United States under any of the other "alternative pathways" are not counted, meaning that the two totals are not comparable.

The United States, Number-One Resettlement Country in the World in 2018

Last March, I based my conclusion on a statistical snapshot of UNHCR's resettlement activities in 2018 (figures are for the calendar year) that had the United States as the top resettlement submission and destination country in 2018:

Submissions by destination (top five countries):

  • United States of America: 29,026
  • Canada: 14,264
  • United Kingdom: 6,286
  • Sweden: 4,967
  • France: 4,926
  • Other: 21,868

Departures by destination (top five countries):

  • United States of America: 17,112
  • Canada: 7,704
  • United Kingdom: 5,698
  • France: 5,109
  • Sweden: 4,871

As noted in that factsheet, "[d]eparture figures reported by UNHCR may not match resettlement statistics published by States as Government figures may include submissions received outside of UNHCR resettlement processes." (According to U.S. government records on refugees, the United States resettled 22,874 during calendar year 2018).

Other UNHCR publications confirm the United States' top resettlement spot in 2018. To cite just a couple:

In its UNHCR "Global Report 2018" (published in June 2019), the UN refugee agency lists the "Top 5 resettlement countries" in 2018:

  1. United States of America: 29,026
  2. Canada: 14,264
  3. United Kingdom: 6,286
  4. Sweden: 4,967
  5. France 4,926

The same configuration appears in the "UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2020" report released in July 2019.

A July 2019 UNHCR factsheet on Canada's 2018 refugee resettlement facts shows that "Canada has an exceptional history of welcoming refugees and is the second largest resettlement country in the world." (Emphasis added.) Even though it is not specified here, it is fair to assume that the number-one resettlement country in the world is none other than the United States.

Canada Moved to the Number-One Resettlement Spot in 2018

It is only in its "Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018", released in June 2019, that UNHCR moved the United States to second place. UNHCR calculations here were not based on its own submissions and departures but on resettlement countries' official government figures:

Based on official government statistics provided to UNHCR, 92,400 refugees were resettled to 25 countries during 2018 [with or without UNHCR's assistance]. Canada admitted the largest number of resettled refugees (28,100). The United States of America was second with 22,900. Other countries that admitted large numbers of resettled refugees during the year were Australia (12,700), the United Kingdom (5,800) and France (5,600). [Emphasis added.]

With this information at hand, I calculated resettlement admissions of refugees in 2018 to Canada and the United States using the UNCHCR dataset Pew referred to in its analysis. This dataset "presents information on resettlement arrivals of refugees, with or without UNHCR assistance" and is "based on Government statistics".

Here's what I found: In 2018, Canada resettled 28,013 refugees and the United States 22,897 (UNHCR calculations are based on a calendar year). I calculated the number of refugees resettled in the United States in 2018 (fiscal year and calendar year) using the official U.S. government Refugee Processing Center portal:

  • Fiscal Year 2018 (October 1, 2017 – September 30, 2018): 22,491 refugees
  • Calendar Year 2018 (January 1, 2018 - December 31, 2018): 22,874 refugees

Both results are close to UNHCR's dataset finding.

I also looked at the 2017 figures for comparison purposes. Using UNHCR's dataset: In 2017, Canada resettled 26,554 refugees and the United States 33,317.

Using the U.S. government Refugee Processing Center portal:

  • Fiscal Year 2017 (October 1, 2016 – September 30, 2018): 53,716 refugees
  • Calendar Year 2017 (January 1, 2017 - December 31, 2017): 33,368 refugees

The calendar year figure is close to UNHCR's dataset finding.

These numbers designate the United States as the number-one resettlement country in 2017. This is further confirmed by UNHCR's "Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2017" report:

Based on official government statistics provided to UNHCR, 102,800 refugees were resettled to third countries during 2017. ... During the 2017 calendar year, 33,400 people were resettled to the United States, a 65 per cent drop compared with 2016 (96,900). Other countries that admitted large numbers of resettled refugees during the year included Canada (26,600), Australia (15,100), the United Kingdom (6,200), and Sweden (3,400).

Canada's Refugee Resettlement Program and Private Sponsorships

We learn from UNHCR's Canada's refugee resettlement facts that Canada has three different resettlement programs:

  1. Government Assisted
    • Refugees referred by: UNHCR
    • Financial assistance: From the Federal Government for one year
  2. Private Sponsorship
    • Refugee referred by: A private sponsor
    • Financial assistance: From the sponsor for the first year
  3. Blended Visa
    • Refugees referred by: UNHCR
    • Financial assistance: Six months from sponsors, six months from government

Canada's system is different from the U.S. system since the latter doesn't include "private sponsorships" in its resettlement program.

Private Sponsorships as "Alternative Legal Pathways" to Resettlement

In 2016, I wrote about the private sponsorship system as UNHCR started pushing for "alternative legal pathways" to resettlement to address the Syrian crisis and the millions of refugees it brought along. In a panel discussion on "The Global Refugee Crisis: Moral Dimensions and Practical Solutions" in 2016, Elizabeth Ferris, research professor at Georgetown University who also served as a senior advisor to the U.N. General Assembly's Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York from January to September 2016, spoke of the limits of the refugee resettlement program:

UNHCR next month [March 2016] is convening a meeting to look at what are being called "alternative safe pathways" for Syrian refugees. Maybe it's hard for the U.S. to go from 2,000 to 200,000 refugees resettled in a year, but maybe there are ways we can ask our universities to offer scholarships to Syrian students. Maybe we can tweak some of our immigration policies to enable Syrian-Americans who have lived here to bring not only their kids and spouses but their uncles and their grandmothers. There may be ways that we could encourage Syrians to come to the U.S. without going through this laborious, time-consuming process of refugee resettlement. [Emphasis added.]

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi elaborated on those "alternative avenues" for refugees (not just Syrians):

These pathways can take many forms: not only resettlement, but also more flexible mechanisms for family reunification, including extended family members, labour mobility schemes, student visa and scholarships, as well as visa for medical reasons. Resettlement needs vastly outstrip the places that have been made available so far. ... But humanitarian and student visa, job permits and family reunification would represent safe avenues of admission for many other refugees as well. [Emphasis added.]

While the U.S. refugee resettlement program is limited in scope and subject to oversight (with ceilings set every fiscal year), "private sponsorships" are not part of this program and are not subject to numerical limits. Those "alternative legal pathways" are hard to trace, as I wrote in 2016. While we can keep track of those being resettled to the United States under the refugee resettlement program, we won't be able to calculate how many more are coming through these private detours.

That is not the case in Canada. As noted above, and unlike the United States, "private sponsorships" are accounted for within Canada's refugee resettlement program. According to official sources, "[p]rivate sponsors across the country also help resettle refugees to Canada. Some do this on an ongoing basis. They have signed sponsorship agreements with the Government of Canada to help support refugees. These groups are known as Sponsorship Agreement Holders."

Actually, most refugees resettled in Canada in the past years were through "private sponsorships" (i.e. referred and financially assisted by private sponsors).

Canada's Refugee Resettlement Figures in 2018

According to UNHCR's Factsheet on Canada, 28, 076 refugees were resettled to Canada in 2018. The breakdown is:

  • 67 percent or 18,810 refugees under the "Private Sponsorship" program (refugees referred by private sponsors)
  • 29 percent or 8,142 under the "Government Assisted" program (refugees referred by UNHCR)
  • 4 percent or 1,123 under the "Blended Visa" program (refugees referred by UNHCR)

Most resettled refugees to Canada in calendar year 2018 are under the "private sponsorship" system. Refugees resettled in Canada in 2018 outside this system total 9,265 only — which is less than half the over 22,000 (FY 2018: 22,491 or 2018 calendar year 22,874) refugees resettled in 2018 in the United States. Therefore, if we do not take into account private sponsorships, the United States remains the number-one resettlement country in 2018, as I explained in a previous post.

What about previous years? In 2017, Canada resettled 26,980 refugees:

  • 63 percent or 16,997 refugees under the "Private Sponsorship" program (refugees referred by private sponsors)
  • 32 percent or 8,634 under the "Government Assisted" program (refugees referred by UNHCR)
  • 5 percent or 1,349 under the "Blended Visa" program (refugees referred by UNHCR)

Outside the private sponsorship system, Canada resettled 11,332 refugees (vs. 33,368 in the United States in calendar year 2017).

In 2016, Canada resettled 46,702 refugees:

  • 51 percent or 23,818 under the "Government Assisted" program (refugees referred by UNHCR)
  • 40 percent or 18,680 refugees under the "Private Sponsorship" program (refugees referred by private sponsors)
  • 9 percent or 4,203 under the "Blended Visa" program (refugees referred by UNHCR)

Outside the private sponsorship system, Canada resettled 28,021 refugees (vs. 96,874 for the United States).

Canada's refugee resettlement targets for 2018-2020 were laid down in November 2017 as follows:

  2018 2019 2020
Government Assisted Refugees 7,500 (27.8%) 8,500 (29.1%) 10,000 (31.5%)
Blended Visa Refugees 1,500 (5.5%) 1,650 (5.7%) 1,700 (5.4%)
Privately Sponsored Refugees 18,000 (66.7%) 19,000 (65.2%) 20,000 (63.1%)
Total 27,000 (100%) 29,150 (100%) 31,700 (100%)

It is clear that "private sponsorships" account for most refugee admissions under Canada's refugee resettlement program. But if "alternative pathways" were included in the U.S. resettlement program, no doubt resettlement admissions in the United States would be much higher than the current ones (not to mention Canada's).

The UN Global Compact on Refugees Encourages "Private Sponsorship" Admissions

One final note, the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, that was set in motion in 2016 following unanimous adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants by UN member states (including the United States under the Obama administration), not only advocates for increases of resettlement admissions; it "pushes for faster and more flexible means of resettlement processing" and "encourages other pathways for admission as 'complements' to resettlement". This UN refugee compact seeks more resettlement places while using expedited processing modalities and encourages complementary pathways for refugees through private sponsorship programs (such as student scholarships, employment opportunities etc.). The United States under the Trump administration chose not to endorse this refugee compact, but Canada did. In view of the figures displayed above, I would say Canada has been a very good student.