Refugees, You Have a Friend in Canada

It’s time to face some facts: As it stands now, it would take a small miracle to get Samy legally resettled into the United States. I’m not yet ruling it out, and neither is he, and there are certainly still some unlikely avenues worth exploring. But the bureaucratic systems that enable refugee resettlement in the United States and Thailand remain at odds, and have the end effect of putting Samy in a deadlock indefinitely.

Which doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying to find a way to make it work. But it does mean it’s time to consider some other feasible final destinations for Samy—specifically, countries with more flexible immigration laws than the United States. There aren’t as many as you might think, but there are nations out there that allow refugees entry on a less-strict basis, and some that even allow their citizens to sponsor particular refugees’ resettlement directly, like Australia and Canada.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: it just so happens that Samy may have found another ally in a Canadian named William, who met Samy shortly after I did. He’s currently preparing Samy’s resettlement application for the Canadian government, which means that as it stands, the Great White North is the leading contender for becoming Samy’s new home.

But why is Canada so different from the United States? Marina Sharpe, our ever-handy, always-sagely human rights lawyer, explains: “The theory is that Canada wants to be a safe haven for persecuted people. And Canada recognizes that there are people in need of international protection who don’t meet the [United Nations'] very restrictive definition, and that there are people who maybe are refugees but can’t access refugee status because the country they fled to hasn’t signed the Convention—or for whatever reason.”

Canada’s government is aware—and I think the U.S. government should be as well—that the technical definition of a refugee excludes hundreds of millions of people who face threats like persecution, hunger, and disease exposure in their country of origin. This includes Samy: He’s persecuted, stateless, and unable to return home, and yet according to the United Nations, he is not technically a refugee. Which is why Canada’s more flexible resettlement criteria may give him a much better shot at starting a new life than the States can.

“Basically a lot of Canadian groups, especially church groups, have availed themselves of this Canadian law, that allows a group of Canadians to bring a person of humanitarian concern—so it doesn’t have to be a refugee—to Canada for resettlement, provided that the people bringing the person to the sponsors make an undertaking to support the person financially,” Sharpe says.

And that’s where the other big difference lies. In Canada, if you want to sponsor a refugee yourself, then there’s a legal framework in which you can do so. The sponsor will typically join a group of other people interested in helping, pledge to support the refugee, and make a commitment to financially support him or her for at least a year. “They allow these people to come to Canada provided they won’t become a burden on the state, which is why private individuals undertake to sponsor them,” Sharpe says. She calls this “another route,” noting that “it’s entirely outside the refugee sphere.”

The most proactive thing an American can do to help an individual refugee is either A) Donate some cash to, volunteer with, or find a job with a refugee group that does this sort of work, or B) Do what I’m doing and try your best to haplessly advocate for the individual, which includes making a bunch of long distance phone calls really late at night, bothering nice aide workers, and damning yourself to consistent frustration. (B is not recommended.)

This Canadian route is huge: It means that the biggest catch—the fickle, esoteric Thai government agency that hasn’t granted Samy refugee status—may actually have a straightforward workaround.

Which brings us back to William, a man who, it turns out, may be in a far better position to help Samy than I. Because he’s Canadian.

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