The Answers    Edition 6

The Canadian remedy to Australia’s toxic refugee politics

By Max Opray


Boat turnbacks, refugee refoulement, island prisons, hotel detention, precarious temporary protection visas: Australia’s relentlessly cruel mistreatment of asylum seekers attracts international condemnation, but in domestic politics it is backed with bipartisan support. 

Desperate to avoid tabloid headlines about boat arrivals, both the Coalition and Labor are locked in a grim race to appear the toughest on border security.   

Many Australians feel a sense of powerlessness about this state of affairs, but an example of a more humane system overseas could pave the way for individuals to assist the people our leaders refuse to help.


A barefoot woman and child walk ahead of a crowd of people

Source: AAP Image/UIG/Mondadori Collection. A group of refugees leave Saigon in 1968,; in the foreground a woman is carrying her baby in her arms. 


a) Then – a friendly welcome to Canada  


        Across the 1960s and 1970s, the world fell into the grip of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Millions were fleeing the Indochina region, rocked by war and political unrest across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

People escaped however they could – many on precariously overcrowded boats. Countries all over the world welcomed these refugees, but one nation in particular went above and beyond.

Canada resettled the highest number of South-East Asian refugees per capita globally, with the sparsely populated country taking in more than 200,000 people.

Like many countries, Canada had a government-led resettlement program, but it had also just introduced a unique system for Canadian citizens who wanted to sponsor individual refugees themselves. 

Under this system the refugee intake went to another level – 56 per cent of South-East Asian asylum seekers to Canada in 1979–80 were resettled through the new private sponsorship option.

Since the late 1970s, more than 770,000 refugees have been resettled in Canada – 48 per cent via private sponsorship programs.

Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power, who spoke to The Answers while he was in Canada visiting community welcome centres, says the Canadians who offer to provide sponsorships do more than just donate money.

“[Volunteers] commit to welcoming people at the airport, helping them find and pay for accommodation, language training, employment, setting up of bank accounts,” he says.

A man puts a warm jacket onto a young girl, while another woman watches with a smile

Source: AAP Image/Lukas Coch. A guard is seen at the entry door during a tour of the North West Point Detention Centre on Christmas Island.


b) Now – from offshore detention to Vancouver freedom


        When Rohingya refugee Myo fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar for Australia in 2013, he received a rather less hospitable welcome than that offered to new arrivals to Canada. 

The boat that was supposed to carry him to freedom was intercepted and diverted to detention on Christmas Island, with Myo languishing in island prison camps there and on Nauru for seven-and-a-half years.

“The experience was very, very terrible,” he says. “Living in tents, hot tropical weather, taking away all our freedom, lining up for an hour for broken internet, medical issues, no time limit about when we can leave – so many bad things.”

That all changed in 2020, when Myo and dozens of other detainees were taken in under Canada’s community sponsorship program. 

They were resettled from offshore detention under Operation #NotForgotten, a collaboration between the Refugee Council of Australia and Canadian organisations including Vancouver-based resettlement organisation MOSAIC.

“The welcome was very amazing, they surprised me at the airport to welcome me to Vancouver,” Myo says. “Got a permanent resident card in three months, my eyes were in tears, is it real or not real? I was in shock. After so many years, this was my biggest chance.”

The program provided him with income support, access to hospitality training, and medical treatment for his diabetes. Today Myo works as a permanent settlement worker at MOSAIC.

Australians have donated more than $4.5 million to the program via the Refugee Council of Australia, while Canadian volunteers do the work on the ground to welcome the new arrivals.

A man puts a warm jacket onto a young girl, while another woman watches with a smile

Source: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives newly-arrived Syrian refugee Sylvie Garabedian, centre, a winter jacket as her mother Anjilik Jaghlassian, right, looks on at Pearson International airport, in Toronto. 


c) Refinements – private sponsorship for Australia


        Australia is experimenting with this approach domestically via the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP), directly inspired by the Canadian system.

The federal government has partnered with Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia in its design and delivery, supporting 1500 refugees over four years.

Introduced under the Coalition, places are currently drawn from within Australia’s annual humanitarian intake of 20,000 places per year, but Labor has committed to one day change this so places are in addition to the current cap.

Without this step, critics warn that all community sponsorship does is essentially pass government responsibilities over to private individuals.

Under the program, a group of five or more volunteers offers to provide 12 months of practical hands-on support to a refugee household.

Power says the program, if expanded to the scale seen in Canada and made in addition to the humanitarian intake cap, could not just help refugees directly, but benefit the volunteers too – leading to a broader societal shift on refugee politics in Australia.

“I would hope it has the impact, as in Canada, of getting a much broader proportion of the population involved and interested in refugee resettlement,” he says.

“Major parties in Canada are now essentially outbidding each other on resettling refugees in Syria. I’m hoping for similar longer-term implications in Australia. What community sponsorship does is broaden the number of people who have this perspective in their minds that makes them resistant to scare campaigns.”

Iris Challoner, co-ordinator of the refugee sponsorship program at MOSAIC, says she has seen this happen firsthand in Canadians who volunteer.

“What volunteers get out of this, is they get to meet people from all over the world, it changes hearts and minds,” she says. “We don’t call them refugees, we just call them newcomers. It just changes your perspective. It is no longer ‘them’ and ‘us’ … volunteers say to me: ‘Oh, they’re just us.’”  

Thanks for reading The Answers. If you know anyone who would be interested in this special series, forward it on – or if someone has forwarded this on to you, sign up for free. For more on refugee issues, we have included further reading below.


d) Further reading:


SEP, 23 (TM)


SEP, 23 (TSP)


JAN, 23 (TSP)


JUN, 21 (TM)


Max Opray

Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.

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