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  • Writer's pictureBonny Burger

Safeguarding Refugees’ Rights: Complementary Pathways Within Refugee Relocation

Updated: Jun 30

Refugee flows continue to be driven by ongoing emergencies in North Africa and the Middle East, along with significant global challenges created by conflicts such as the Syrian refugee crisis and the Balkan wars. Traditional resettlement programs exist, but complementary pathways provide additional avenues for relocation. On December 17, 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), emphasizing the need for global cooperation to address refugee crises and protect refugee rights. In support, the UNHCR developed a Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways, promoting options like skilled labor migration and educational opportunities.

In June 2022, the UNHCR released "Third Country Solutions for Refugees: Roadmap 2030," outlining the next strategic phases. The possibility of refugee relocation through complementary pathways is relatively new yet complex and often inadequately understood.

Nevertheless, as seen through various initiatives in the abovementioned report, they are of great importance.

When it comes to refugee relocation, it is not just about enhancing refugee protection and resettlement in the upcoming years. It's also about promoting global solidarity, ensuring refugees can reconstruct their lives with dignity, and enabling them to contribute significantly to their host communities. Therefore, it is important to ask ourselves: Where do we currently stand with complementary pathways? What are the primary objectives until 2030?

What Are Complementary Pathways in International Refugee law?

As noted above the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees (Refugee Compact) in 2018. This is a framework for more equal and predictable responsibility-sharing, acknowledging that international collaboration is necessary to find a long-term solution to refugee problems. In para. 95 we read that the Three-Year Strategy on resettlement will also include complementary pathways for admission, to increase significantly their availability and predictability.

The-Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways from the UNHCR defines complementary pathways as:

safe and regulated avenues for refugees that complement resettlement by providing lawful stay in a third country where their international protection needs are met. They are additional to resettlement and do not substitute the protection afforded to refugees under the international protection regime.[1]

When long-term solutions are not possible for every member of a refugee community, especially in instances involving a high number of refugees over an extended period, complementary pathways can assist refugees in accessing protection and solutions. These pathways serve as additional opportunities for refugees with resettlement needs.

Within literature and resettlement programs, the most recognized pathways include: family reunification, humanitarian admission programs, community sponsorship programs, and education and labour mobility programs.[2]


Family Reunification

According to the UNHCR, family reunification is a critical method for reuniting refugees with their nuclear and extended families after displacement due to war or persecution.[3] It is a key pathway to ensuring refugees' rights and providing them with better protection and long-term solutions. It is the only rights-based pathway to third-country solutions for refugees.[4] However, this process often requires a policy commitment on a national level, including streamlined procedures to overcome practical, administrative, and legal challenges. Such procedures can involve easier embassy access, assistance with paperwork, visa waivers, or the use of humanitarian visas. Despite its importance, the use of resettlement for family reunification is reserved for situations where other immigration channels are unavailable or inaccessible. Therefore, the UNHCR encourages countries to facilitate family reunification outside their resettlement programs. This approach helps not only to conserve limited resettlement spots but also to enhance the integration of the entire refugee family in their new countries.[5] Due to limited interpretations of the right to family unity and the State's obligation to "take the necessary measures to protect the refugees’ family, especially to ensure the family's unity" (Final Act of the UN Conference of Plenipotentiaries), family reunification procedures are all too frequently inaccessible.[6]

A well-established platform that commits to family reunification that is truly worth mentioning is the Family Reunification Network (FRUN). In the context of the Global Refugee Forum 2023 - the world’s largest international gathering on refugees, designed to support the practical implementation of the objectives set out in the Global Compact on Refugees - the FRUN mobilized diverse actors in support of a multistakeholder pledge aiming to reunite 1 million families by 2030.[7] This will be done by removing obstacles caused by law and policy, offering assistance in navigating administrative and practical challenges, and compiling information and proof regarding the benefits and necessity of family reunions, in line with the 2030 Roadmap on Country Solutions for Refugees. In conclusion, family reunification is vital for refugee protection and integration. Efforts like FRUN's aim to reunite families by 2030 are crucial, but success depends on overcoming current administrative and legal challenges.

Humanitarian Admission Programs and Visas

Humanitarian admission programs are formal programs established by governments to admit refugees for resettlement or temporary protection. They are beneficial for mass displacement scenarios where large groups of refugees need protection swiftly. Usually implemented for a fixed period, this pathway uses processes similar to resettlement. Although these programs resemble resettlement, they may have additional criteria such as humanitarian needs or existing connections to the resettlement nation. Individuals under these programs might receive temporary or other forms of protection status, and might not immediately access a permanent solution. Nonetheless, like resettlement, these programs incorporate protection factors and safeguards.

Humanitarian visas are temporary visas granted to individuals in urgent need of protection due to humanitarian crises, persecution, or other exceptional circumstances.

A prominent example to consider is the Humanitarian Corridors program, which was recognized in 2019 with the UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award for Europe. This program notably sponsored the relocation of more than 2,000 individuals requiring international protection to Italy within less than four years, exemplifying a successful implementation of humanitarian admission.[8]


Community Sponsorship Programs

By providing financial, emotional, and practical support, community sponsorship within refugee relocation allows individuals, groups of individuals, or organisations to come together for the welcoming and integration of refugees granted entry into third countries. A noteworthy difference between community sponsorship as a complementary pathway for admission and community sponsorship as a tool to support refugees admitted through other pathways needs to be made here. For the first, community sponsorship initiatives provide supporters the opportunity to facilitate the arrival and stay of selected refugees in other countries as a means of admittance. With the latter, however, community sponsorship may be employed as a method to involve people and communities in welcoming and integrating refugees who arrive via resettlement programs or alternative routes, including humanitarian visas or educational pathways.[9] During 2019-2021, significant amounts of community sponsorship programs were created or expanded. Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil currently have programs in place or are actively investigating them.[10]


Education Mobility Programs

According to the UNHCR education mobility programs include private, community, or institution-based scholarships, apprenticeships, and traineeship programs.[11]

As indicated by the UNHCR these programs typically offer refugees the necessary protections, such as valid travel documents, legal entry and stay permits during their studies or traineeship, and well-defined options for what to do after graduation, such as finding a job or continuing their education after graduation. UNHCR, UNESCO, and the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) met with stakeholders in November 2019 who have expressed interest or involvement in creating complementary educational pathways for refugees. In February a report called ‘Doubling our Impact, Third Country Higher Education Pathways for Refugees’, outlining the key outcomes of the discussions during the 2019 meeting, was published. The Global Taskforce on Education Pathways was established in part because of this.[12] Global Task Force encourages and supports higher education growth as an additional route for students who are refugees.[13] The global expansion of community sponsorship programs signifies a promising stride in refugee protection and integration. As we progress, refining these initiatives and fostering international collaboration will be pivotal in strengthening our response to the global refugee crisis.


Labour Mobility Programs

Labour mobility programs are opportunities for employment in other countries that are safe, controlled ways to enter or remain in another nation for work, with the option of permanent or temporary residency.[14] Refugee labor mobility pathways are frequently presented as a way for host countries to alleviate their labor shortages and obtain economic benefits, in addition to the chances they offer talented refugees.[15] Programs of this kind must be maintained with appropriate travel papers for lawful entry and stay arrangements as well as pertinent protective protections for refugees throughout and after the term of their job. Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), a civil society project in collaboration with UNHCR, has created a talent register to help refugees find jobs in third-country settings through labour mobility programs.[16] Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) carried out several pilot projects between 2016 and 2019 to investigate if and under what circumstances an employer-driven model of labor mobility might offer refugees and other forcibly displaced individuals an extra, workable, long-term option. The pilot phase successfully demonstrated the viability of labour mobility for refugees and other forcibly displaced people.[17] TBB also launched ‘Talent Catalog’ – an online registration system for refugees interested in pursuing international labour opportunities. A notable example of the working of this Catalog can be found in Australia, Canada, and the UK. TBB has helped 127 refugees find jobs in Australia and Canada by using the Talent Catalog during the pilot phase.[18]

Where Do We Stand Currently with Complementary Pathways? And What Are Our Primary Objectives Through 2030 for Complementary Pathways?

Since the reporting period of The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021), significant changes can be noted in the context of resettlement and complementary pathways for refugees. Firstly, there was an increasingly urgent need for more safe pathways. This was primarily due to a growing gap between the need for durable solutions for refugees and their availability. Additionally, there was a notable shift from record-high resettlement spaces to an urgent need for improved access to family reunification and an expansion of complementary pathways.

Secondly, multiple initiatives were established. The Sustainable Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Initiative (CRISP)[19], launched in 2020, was one such key initiative aimed at supporting the implementation of the Strategy. In addition, tailored training programs were developed specifically for government officials, practitioners, civil servants, and key stakeholders involved in the reception and integration of refugees. During this time, concerted efforts were also made to engage a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society, in supporting refugees.[20]

The 2030 Roadmap for Third Country Solutions for Refugees places a significant emphasis on the development and implementation of complementary pathways. The roadmap outlines a strategy that includes piloting, evaluating, and subsequently scaling up new complementary pathway programs, with the aim of increasing the number of refugees admitted through these channels.

Furthermore, the roadmap encourages the accessibility of these complementary pathways. This is to be achieved through the improvement of data collection and analysis by states and the UNHCR. By doing so, it aims to better comprehend the availability and utilisation of these pathways, address any existing barriers, and ensure access. In terms of protection safeguards and solutions-oriented approaches, the roadmap advocates for the design of complementary pathways that respond effectively to the international protection needs of refugees. It promotes supporting refugee access to rights and services and contributing to the enhancement of their self-reliance.[21]

These objectives, outlined in the roadmap, underscore the importance of expanding and improving complementary pathways. They are identified as a key component of the overall strategy to provide sustainable solutions for refugees through safe and legal means.

In the absence of other comparable data, the Strategy sets its target of over two million refugees accessing complementary pathways by 2028 using the joint UNHCR-OECD report Safe Pathways for Refugees.[22]


As outlined in this article, the development and implementation of complementary pathways for refugees are increasingly vital in the current global landscape. As conflicts persist and displacement numbers rise, traditional resettlement programs alone fall short in addressing the magnitude of the refugee crisis. Complementary pathways offer innovative, effective, and sustainable solutions that not only fulfill international protection needs but also empower refugees to reconstruct their lives with dignity and contribute to their host communities. The 2030 Roadmap for Third Country Solutions for Refugees provides a strategic direction for expanding and improving these pathways. However, the success of this initiative is dependent upon international cooperation, comprehensive data collection and analysis, and a steadfast commitment to enhancing refugees' access to rights and services.[23] As we progress towards 2030, all stakeholders need to reassert their dedication to these goals.


Reference List:

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways. 2019. UNHCR,

[2]  E.g.  See UNHCR, Key Considerations, and The role of ‘complementary pathways’ in refugee protection, Dr Tamara Wood,Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Sydney, and van Selm, J. (2023) Whose Pathways are They? The Top-Down/Bottom-Up Conundrum  of Complementary Pathways for Refugees. European journal of migration and law. [Online] 25 (2), 137–163, and

[3] See UNHCR, Key Considerations, p. 10.

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways. 2019. UNHCR, p.22.

[5] See UNHCR, Key Considerations, p. 10.

[6] Ibid.

[9] See UNHCR, Key Considerations, p. 8.

[10] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways. 2019. UNHCR, p.30-33.

[11] See UNHCR, Key Considerations, p. 10.

[12] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Final Report: The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways. 2022, p. 18.

[13] UNHCR. Third Country Solutions for Refugees: Roadmap 2030. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 2022, p.20.

[14] UNHCR, Key Considerations, p. 10.

[15] Wood, Tamara, and van Selm, J. "Whose Pathways are They? The Top-Down/Bottom-Up Conundrum of Complementary Pathways for Refugees." European Journal of Migration and Law, vol. 25, no. 2, 2023, pp. 137–163. Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Sydney

[16] UNHCR, Key Considerations, p. 11.

[17] Talent Beyond Boundaries. Global Evaluation, Labour Mobility Pathways Pilot 2016-2019. 1 June 2020, p. 16.

[18] Talent Beyond Boundaries. Global Evaluation, Labour Mobility Pathways Pilot 2016-2019. 1 June 2020, p.47.

[20] UNHCR. The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways: Final Report. March 2022.

[21] UNHCR. Third Country Solutions for Refugees: Roadmap 2030. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 2022.

[22] UNHCR. Third Country Solutions for Refugees: Roadmap 2030. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 2022, p.19.

[23] UNHCR. Third Country Solutions for Refugees: Roadmap 2030. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 2022.


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