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Beyond government: Private sector joins push to help refugees

Immigration Minister John McCallum says he believes Canada’s refugee-sponsorship model can be exported to other countries.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's John McCallum arrived at a conference in New York on Tuesday with a confession to make.

"I am probably the only Immigration Minister in the world" whose main challenge is that "I cannot produce refugees fast enough," he said.

Canada's refugee-sponsorship model was in the global spotlight on Tuesday as corporate leaders and philanthropists gathered to discuss how the private sector could bolster efforts to help asylum seekers.

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The effort was an extension of the summit convened by U.S. President Barack Obama – and co-hosted by Canada – which sought fresh commitments from governments to assist the 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world.

Businesses and foundations joined the push: 51 companies, from Airbnb to Johnson & Johnson to Western Union, announced steps to improve access to jobs and education for refugees in more than 20 countries.

By far the largest private-sector announcement was a commitment by hedge-fund billionaire George Soros, who said he would commit $500-million (U.S.) to new investments aimed at helping refugees and migrants. The funds will go to startups and existing firms that address the problems faced by displaced people, as well as to businesses started by refugees themselves.

Making grants and doing advocacy is "not enough," said Mr. Soros, who was himself a refugee before immigrating to the United States. "We need to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit and technological innovations of the private sector."

Through his Open Society Foundations, Mr. Soros will also partner with the government of Canada and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to find ways to spread Canada's private-sponsorship model elsewhere in the world.

"You are miles ahead if you can bring refugees in supported by your own citizens," Mr. McCallum said. "We believe that this is a good model which is exportable to other countries."

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So far, 13 countries have expressed interest in learning from Canada's experience, including Britain, Australia, Spain and Japan, he said. A conference is scheduled to take place in Ottawa in December to launch the initiative. Mr. McCallum said the effort was likely to cost more than $10-million, which would be shared among the three partners.

In the United States, private sponsorship – long desired by refugee advocates – remains controversial. Anne Richard, an assistant secretary at the U.S. State Department, said Tuesday that in the short term, she expects to see a pilot program to test out such a system. The biggest obstacle, she added, was not the mechanics but the likely political backlash.

"The election dynamic is not helping us," Ms. Richard said. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has turned false allegations about refugees into a centrepiece of his campaign, repeatedly saying they are allowed to enter the United States without being vetted.

Representatives from companies such as IKEA, Uniqlo and Vodafone shared their experiences launching efforts to train, educate and employ refugees. "We are not in the aid business," said Per Heggenes, chief executive of the IKEA Foundation, which began working with the UNHCR about six years ago. "We are in the business of helping people to help themselves."

Ziad Haider, the special representative for commercial and business affairs at the U.S. State Department, urged companies to recognize that a crisis of this scale is displacing "tremendous talent." He saluted companies such as LinkedIn and UPS, which were among the 51 firms answering the call to action, even as he acknowledged it's not always an easy sell in the executive suite.

"Some companies don't intrinsically get the idea of playing in this space," he said. "Some degree of persuasion had to happen."

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About the Author
U.S. Correspondent

Joanna Slater is an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe based in the United States, where her focus is business and economic news and New York City.Her career includes reporting assignments in the U.S., Europe and Asia. In 2015, she was posted in Berlin, Germany, where she covered Europe’s refugee crisis. More

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