The Role of Complementary Pathways for Refugees in Light of Resettlement Gaps

Emanuel Garavello
International Relations and Legal Advisor, AsyLex; Head of Refugee Protection, CSD Diaconia Valdese


Bridging the Resettlement Gap

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions exacerbated an existing gap between the ambitious goal of resettling refugees, and the actual number of safe transfers to third countries. Far before the pandemic forced the world into lockdown, only 4.5 percent of the 1.4 million estimated eligible refugees were resettled for protection in safe countries. Several are the reasons underlying this gap. The heavily bureaucratic resettlement procedures often require significant time, information and resources. Moreover, an increased politicization of immigration in major immigrant-destination countries reduced refugees allotment, such as in the United States under Donald Trump’s Administration for instance.

In the search for innovative tools to scale up third-country solutions for refugees, complementary pathways have gained much prominence in recent policy discussions. Since the early 1990s, various high-level international conferences and documents called host countries to establish and strengthen complementary pathways to facilitate access to protection and/or solutions, from the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants to the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees. As outlined in a report by the University of Sydney, they might represent a supportive instrument to resettlement, having the potential to provide refugees with protection and durable solutions, and to promote international solidarity and responsibility-sharing among states. UNHCR is clear in saying that complementary pathways “are additional to resettlement and do not substitute the protection afforded to refugees under the international protection regime”. However, in some Western countries they have already become more prominent than resettlement in offering third-country solutions. While waiting for an increase in resettlement numbers, are complementary pathways suitable to fill the third-country solution gap?

Innovative Solutions to Protect Forced Migrants

In the context of international protection, “complementary pathways” is quite a recent term, which has not been fully conceptualized by policymakers and scholars quite yet. According to the UNHCR, “complementary pathways are safe and regulated avenues that complement refugee resettlement and by which refugees may be admitted in a country and have their international protection needs met while they are able to support themselves to potentially reach a sustainable and lasting solution”. Various initiatives may fall under this broad definition, such as humanitarian admission programs, community sponsorship, humanitarian visas, family reunification, labor mobility schemes, and education programs.

So far, particular attention has been given to the so-called “private” or “community-based” sponsorship programs, under which private actors are encouraged to engage in refugee resettlement efforts. The longest-running example of such a scheme is given by the Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program (PSRP). It consists of a collaboration between the Canadian state and different segments of its civil society, which enables groups of private Canadian residents to sponsor the entry and settlement process of a refugee or household in the country. Since its inception, the program has allowed the transfer to Canada of more than 325,000 refugees. This model was subsequently systematized by initiatives like the French and Italian humanitarian corridors, whereby federations of civil society organizations are sponsoring the transfer and reception of refugees from host countries, based on multiannual agreements with receiving Governments. According to the OECD, complementary pathways related to family, work and study have shown a high potential for expansion. In a report released with UNHCR, OECD outlined that between 2010 and 2019, the admittance related to the three mentioned pathways already exceeded the number of resettlements. Even though the vast majority of them were related to family reunification procedures, the potential underlying work and study opportunities are not to be underestimated.

For instance, on refugee labor mobility, Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) represents perhaps the most advanced example of complementary tools leveraging on refugees’ professional skills to provide third-country solutions. Through TBB’s “Talent Catalog” Western employers are able to connect with skilled refugees (and vice versa) in hosting countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, providing a labor mobility solution to displacement along with complementary positive benefits for employers and destination country economies.

Parallel to the pursuit of talented professionals, universities, student groups, and organizations are increasingly spearheading initiatives to establish educational pathways for refugees. A recent example is given by the University Corridors for Refugees (UNICORE), a project established in 2019 and promoted by twenty-four Italian Universities in partnership with UNHCR and other organizations. Through UNICORE, selected students are offered the chance to continue their study in Italy with a study grant and financial support, being supported by tutors and social workers during their stay in Italy.

Challenges Ahead

Although complementary pathways have proven to be effective in expanding third-country solutions, they cannot completely replace other protection instruments when it comes to providing solutions to the diverse needs and backgrounds of refugees. Complementary pathways related to education, labor, and family ties address those refugees who already have (even if minimal) social or professional connections, or financial means. On the other hand, the most vulnerable and/or resourceless refugees will still have to rely on resettlement as a more suitable protection tool. In this respect, some scholars argue that such migration schemes might inadvertently exacerbate the narrowness and elitism surrounding the international refugee regime.

Ideally, a balance should be struck between “qualification-based” and “needs-based” complementary solutions. In other words, maintaining the expansion of pathways for resourceful refugees while strengthening vulnerable-targeted initiatives like humanitarian visas and admission programs.  This relatively straightforward proposition can be difficult in practice. States may be more willing to adopt qualification-based pathways as they represent a “win-win” solution for both governments and individuals. For instance, the need of professionally-skilled refugees to find durable solutions to displacement are congruent with governments’ desire to attract a workforce. On the contrary, needs-based pathways primarily serve humanitarian goals – being, therefore, more subject to political will. Complementary pathways have the potential to yield a wide range of benefits for refugees. However, realizing these benefits depends on further endeavors in deepening their study and regulation, to guarantee their availability on a more systematic, organized and sustainable basis.