Legal pathways for refugees to Europe: developments and challenges
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How effective are existing complementary pathways for meeting protection needs?
Resettlement, which consists in ensuring the transfer of vulnerable third-country nationals or stateless people present in a first country of asylum to a State willing to welcome them sustainably, remains an important legal pathway for refugees to enter the EU, with 26,000 arrivals in 2018. However, since the eruption of the Syrian civil war and the 2015 “migration crisis”, other legal pathways, complementary to resettlement, have been developed to provide secure, regulated routes which allow people in need of protection to settle in a third country. While not intended as a substitute for resettlement or national asylum systems, these do however provide additional options to try to meet the needs of displaced people when there are simply not enough places in the existing resettlement programmes. There are a variety of mechanisms, ranging from family reunification and private sponsorship to humanitarian admissions. For the UNHCR, there are three key objectives in play: alleviating the pressure on host countries, meeting the significant protection needs worldwide and giving refugees access to sustainable solutions. However, there are obstacles which prevent them from being used on a systematic basis. So, how effective are complementary legal pathways in meeting the growing protection needs?
Statutory family reunification is the biggest route into the EU in terms of the number of beneficiaries: according to Eurostat, 44,871 first-time residency permits were granted in 2018 by the EU Member States. This process enshrines the right to family unity for refugees by allowing their “nuclear” family (spouse and children under 18) to join them in their host country. A European directive regulates the right to family reunification within the Union and imposes more favourable conditions for people with refugee status. “Extended” family reunification, used as a complementary pathway for admission, refers to the possibility, left to the discretion of States, of exceeding the criteria of the Directive to admit members of the “extended” family, such as dependent parent(s) or unmarried adult children, as part of family reunification. Its development is supported by UNHCR, which nevertheless has stressed that it must not be used as a substitute for reunification through usual immigration channels or for any other means of legal entry. The objective remains to increase the options available to vulnerable people who want to access the EU.
Humanitarian admission programmes and humanitarian visas allow access into Europe according to the terms defined by each State. “Humanitarian admission” programmes are similar to resettlement, but they are implemented on a more “ad hoc” basis and are frequently on more flexible terms. For those concerned, this generally implies a specific and temporary protected status, with more limited rights than those granted to beneficiaries of refugee status or subsidiary protection. UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) support these programmes and are working to simplify the identification, transfer and recognition of status for the beneficiaries. In Europe, several states have developed humanitarian admissions programmes in response to the Syria crisis. Perceived advantages include flexibility in setting them up, the possibility to adapt and tailor them to each situation, as well as their temporary nature linked to specific crisis. Using this approach, Germany has welcomed 35,000 Syrians via their “humanitarian admission” programmes since 2013.
Humanitarian visas, while different, have played a similar role to humanitarian admissions during the Syrian crisis. This type of visa allows people in need of protection to travel legally to a country in order to file an asylum request. According to a study conducted by the European Parliament in 2014, sixteen Member States have (or have had) a national procedure in place to allocate various types of humanitarian visas. France has been the main European country using this admission pathway, issuing 6,001 short-stay for humanitarian reasons in 2018; while Belgium granted 2,174 such visas the same year. In those two countries, these visas have mostly been granted to Syrians or minorities from Iraq. However, they are by no means easy to obtain; the person first needs to file a request with the consular authorities – with no guarantee of success – and being granted a humanitarian visa does not lead systematically to a successful asylum application in the host country. In late December 2018, the European Parliament adopted a legislative initiative report recommending the introduction of a European humanitarian visa, but the European Commission did not follow suit. For the time being, the effectiveness and accessibility of these pathways depends entirely on the political will within each Member State.
In response to the increasing number of Syrian refugees and the ever-growing death toll in the Mediterranean, different civil society actors, including faith-based organizations, have been working to promote another legal complementary pathway based on public-private partnerships: private sponsorship. This “other resettlement” system increases the options for people to enter Europe legally and helps relieve the financial burden. It does however raise the issue of “privatisation” and the potential withdrawal of the State from the reception process. The main model has been imported from Canada, and involves public bodies facilitating legal admission and residency in the country while private organisations provide financial, administrative and social support. Permanent programmes are now in place, primarily in English-speaking countries, in addition to one-off programs such as the “humanitarian corridors” in Italy and now in France. In total, from 2013 to 2018, more than 30,000 people have entered the EU using this type of pathway, with three quarters entering Germany under “community sponsorship” programmes run by almost all the Länder –but only four of these are still active. Humanitarian corridors have for their part given almost 2,500 people the opportunity to enter Europe from 2016 to April 2019, with more than 2,000 settling in Italy.
Finally, entry into the EU can be based on skills and qualifications, using professional or student mobility programmes. These programmes concern very small number of people in need of international protection because of the eligibility criteria, administrative complexity and the lack of guarantee of obtaining protection once in the host country. Yet, a number of ad-hoc programmes have been specifically created for refugees, but these require (as stressed by UNHCR) specific administrative measures and guarantees of protection if they are really to benefit vulnerable migrants: travelling documents and residency permits must be provided, along with travel costs, student loans, housing benefits and language classes. It must also be possible for people to file asylum requests if they want to, and allow them to remain in the host country following their studies if they wish to work. In 2015, the Occitanie region, in France, implemented a programme which provided yearly student grants to 20 Syrian students registered with UNHCR in Jordan to attend a university in the region. Similarly, the “United World Colleges” (UWC) launched an initiative in 2017 with UNHCR, which allows 100 young refugees and internally displaced people per year to study for an international baccalaureate diploma in one of the 18 UWC schools around the world, with the ultimate aim of enrolling them into a university.
Although there have been an increasing number of complementary pathways for admission to Europe in recent years, they are under-used and not nearly sufficient to meet current needs. Their access suffers from a form of opacity, and a lack, to date, of any properly established legal European framework. Confronted with an increasing need for protection and a growing death toll on migratory routes, there is a pressing need to develop more such pathways to Europe and standardise how they are used within the Union, especially as the overwhelming majority – up to 90% – of the protection given by states comes after people have arrived illegally. This is also one of the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees, adopted on the 17th of December 2018: “There is a need to ensure that such pathways are made available on a more systematic, organised and sustainable basis”. Several groups in the European Parliament have also put forward this proposal. Against this backdrop, UNHCR’s Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) for Resettlement and Complementary Pathways aims, in particular, to develop these routes and make it easier to use them. UNHCR has set objectives regarding the number of people benefiting of such pathways worldwide at 120,000 by 2019, 200,000 by 2023, and 300,000 by 2028. This gives a cumulated target of 2.1 million beneficiaries by 2028.