What they are, why they matter

When it comes to filling out applications for the private sponsorship program of refugees to Canada, the 'supporting documents' can seem like an afterthought. They're anything but.

For one thing, if you don't have the proper documents for the person you're sponsoring (such as the UNHCR certificate), that person may not even qualify for private sponsorship.

And if you do have the right documents, it can take weeks to gather, translate and package them properly. Which means you should start early - even as you begin writing the narrative and the application itself.

First let's talk about which documents to include.

The refugee status document

To be privately sponsored to come to Canada under the PSR program, you need to be officially certified as a refugee. That's because Canada may be the only country in the world that 'double screens' its refugees, first by an organization like the UNHCR, and then by itself (with the help of the IOM).

Who doesn't require this all-important refugee document? Those who have been lucky enough to find a Sponsorship Agreement Holder in Canada (often a church) to be their sponsor. However, SAH 'spots' are verryyyy hard to find, and the waiting list can last for years.

Everyone else needs an official refugee certification, usually given out by the UNHCR. It takes the form of a document that can look like a driver's license, a passport-style document with a blue cover, or most commonly a single piece of paper.

Note that across the Middle East, the UNHCR has largely stopped giving out these certificates. Instead it gives out the similar-looking 'asylum seeker' document - which is sadly useless in the eyes of Canadian immigration. This leads to the heartbreaking discussion:

"I have UNHCR status, so can I come to Canada?"
"You actually have the asylum seeker document, and so no, not so easy."

In countries where the UNHCR has not been allowed to process refugees, like on Manus and Nauru - and Pakistan - the country's immigration gives out its own refugee status documents, and those are considered good enough to qualify a person for the program. Thankfully!


You can actually fly to Canada under the PSR program without having a passport or any other form of ID. Refugees are provided with a travel document and a (temporary) permanent residence paper right before their flight, to get them here.

That said, Canada does want to know who you are, which means it's good to provide as much proper identification as you can with the application. Proper identification means any identification from your country of origin that hasn't expired. Including:

  • Passport

  • National ID

  • Driver's license

  • Birth certificate

  • Family book some countries, like Iran and Afghanistan, issue these. they're kind of like a birth certificate but showing all the members in the family


Any document written in a non-English language needs to be officially translated. That means they have to be signed and stamped by a translator. Sometimes the translator also includes a cover sheet that has more information about the business and its location.

Translations can be expensive in rich countries like Canada or Australia, and finding a translator who speaks the right language can be hard. In that case, the refugee applicant often asks a family member or friends back home to get the translation done there, and then send a scan of the result.

Turning images into scans: fun with Photoshop

There’s a certain art to scanning and packaging the IDs and translations that make up the bulk of the supporting documents. The final product should be:

  • on a white background

  • in a PDF that’s 8.5 x 11″ in size

  • at 200 DPI

In other words, they should be properly scanned – which may be difficult for some applicants. It’s tough to find a Kinko’s store when you’re living in detention on a tropical island.

If someone is detained or has left their key documents back home, we may be stuck with poor quality images taken on a cell phone, with a Persian rug or kitchen table as the backdrop. In that case, time to start Photoshopping. Here’s a typical process of turning a bad cell phone image of an ID into the semblance of a scan:

  • Crop the image to get rid of the Persian rug or kitchen table in the background. Hopefully the edges of the ID are showing – all four of them

  • Use the ‘free transform tool‘ to restore the document to right angles, if it has been taken from the side.

  • Use the eraser or paint tool to get rid of any remaining bits of Persian rug in the background.

  • Recrop the image, with the crop set at 8.5 x 11, so that it now sits on a white page, at lifelike size.

  • Add a helpful title at the top to explain what this document is

  • Resave the resulting image at 200 DPI, at 8.5 x 11″

And since any PDF attachment you send by email must be under 5 megabytes in size, use this very handy compression software to shrink the PDF to a smaller size.

The result is something like this:

The country conditions letter

This is more of a 'nice to have' than a 'must have'. The country conditions letter (sometimes called a rationale) is a kind of research article about the persecution faced by the refugee. It offers evidence of persecution written by media outlets or by human rights organizations, with footnotes to indicate sources.

The letter (which can look like this, only with plenty more footnotes) can be helpful in speeding up the wait time for people who are really in danger. Here's generally what you should cover, according to the Refugee Sponsorship Training program:

  1. A brief recap of the person's own persecution. This is often a summary of the refugee case narrative, as written in more detail in Schedule 2, Question 1.

  2. Evidence of similar persecution by others of a similar background. You could talk about the decades-long persecution of the Hazaras in Pakistan or Afghanistan, for example, or of the Christians in Iran.

  3. The difficulties faced by the refugee where they live now

For most of the claims you make, include references (footnotes or end notes) to newspaper articles, human rights reports, and country condition reports. Suggestions for places to look for research are major news outlets, Refworld, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Response to Information Requests at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, and Country Condition Information on the RSTP’s website.

Other evidence

Let's quote the RSTP guide on the next supporting documents, which are not as crucial as the previous ones. Here's the explanation of 'Reason for persecution':

"For example, if someone is persecuted based on their membership of a workers’ union or political party, a document confirming their membership would be a great support. If someone is persecuted based on their religion, a document confirming their religious affiliation can be included, for example a baptism certificate if the person is Christian."

If someone has been physically injured through torture or conflict, medical reports if available are very helpful.

Refugee photo

And while it's not part of the supporting documentation - it occupies its own PDF in the final application - let's cover it here, shall we? You will need a passport-style picture for everyone on the application, even the children. Here are the specs. Ideally you should also have an image of the back, with a stamp from the photoshop, and the person's name and date of birth. When the person in question is in detention or unable to make it to a photoshop, the omission of the back is usually forgiven.

For the photo, remember these specifications:

  • 50 x 70 mm

  • White background

  • No smiling

  • No harsh shadows

  • Centred and face-on

  • Starting below chest bone

  • White space above head

Of course it's not always possible to get a professional headshot. (Like when you're living in refugee jail, for example). In that case we usually ask the person to take a picture against a white wall, and use Photoshop to crop it to the right size, make the background properly white, and get rid of any extra shadows. (This only works for emailed applications.)

Then use Photoshop to put the image on a white or off-white background on a PDF that measures 8.5 x 11" in size. Add the person's name - centred - and their date of birth below their image.