Pathways to protection 

This project explores how refugees and asylum seekers can move safely across international borders to access protection.

Somali refugees board a flight from Dadaab to be resettled in Sweden. ; The Dadaab refugee complex has a population of over 200,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers and consists of four camps – Dagahaley, Ifo, Ifo 2 and Hagadera. The first camp was established in 1991, when refugees fleeing the civil war in Somalia started to cross the border into Kenya. A second large influx occurred in 2011, when some 130,000 refugees arrived, fleeing drought and famine in southern Somalia. There is a considerable difference between the old camps – which have developed into commercial hubs and house refugees who arrived in the 1990s, as well as their children and grandchildren – and the new camp, Ifo 2, which is mostly home to pastoralists who arrived in 2011.

The challenge

When they have no options, people seeking protection may be motivated to take dangerous cross-border journeys. Hard-line ‘stop the boats’ responses to this have proven costly in lives and financial resources – but there are humane policy alternatives. Special visa pathways can have real benefits, both for refugees and for States, disrupting people-smuggling operations and decreasing disorderly movement. These pathways can operate alongside existing resettlement programs, to provide an additional and complementary way for displaced people to safely enter or stay in another country through regularised access to employment, education, or community-sponsored resettlement. 

Known as complementary pathways, these visas come in several forms. Humanitarian visas can grant asylum seekers ‘protected entry’ into another country, allowing people to move safely across international borders. Or, community groups can sponsor extra resettlement places for refugees, and commit to helping new arrivals to integrate and thrive. 

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Migration has called on States to ‘expand legal pathways for people fleeing countries in crisis’ (UN doc. A/71/728). There is, however, a need for more scholarly knowledge and wider understanding about how States have operated such procedures in the past, and how they can best offer these pathways in future as a way to benefit individual refugees and their new host communities, and strengthen the system of international protection. This project meets the challenge by examining the evidence of how, when and why special visa pathways work, drawing lessons from around the world.

Project highlights

With partners Talent Beyond Boundaries and the Regional Australia Institute, we are leading a practical investigation into how refugee job-seekers can more easily and successfully obtain skilled visas and fill job vacancies in rural and regional Australian communities. This research project, titled, Regional Australia's skills shortages and high-skill refugees' employment, is being funded under an Australian Research Council ‘Linkage’ grant.

Our work  

We are researching ways in which visa pathways – such as protected entry, labour mobility, education and community sponsorship – can complement, and never replace, other avenues to protection such as national asylum procedures and existing resettlement programs. 

We have made recommendations to parliamentary committees and government inquiries about the principled operation of protected entry procedures, including the need for programs to offer flexible and transparent application criteria, and for unsuccessful applicants to have the ability to know the reasons for their rejection and to appeal and/or apply again if their circumstances change. 

Our research on labour mobility has tracked how government and employers can partner to provide refugees with pathways to safety and settlement; and, in turn, how those refugees can make economic and social contributions to their new communities. 

  • Labour mobility

    Labour mobility schemes can enable displaced people to safely enter or remain in another country because they are legally authorised to take up employment there. In this way, a refugee is able to access a temporary or durable solution to their displacement by using an ordinary migration process, which, depending on the circumstances, may offer greater opportunities for self-reliance and effective protection than remaining in their own country or in the country where they first sought asylum. A labour mobility scheme may also provide a migration pathway for the applicant’s immediate family members.  

    Our research investigates how a labour mobility scheme for refugees can help address labour demands in rural and regional Australia.

    Protected entry procedures

    Under these procedures people who are fleeing persecution or other serious harm are permitted to safely cross international borders and access protection as refugees by approaching consular officials (or other representatives of a destination country) before they travel.

    Protected entry usually involves bespoke schemes designed to address the needs of particular groups or individuals who are at risk of persecution or human rights violations. The eligibility criteria and application process can differ greatly between procedures.

    Our research project will generate a clearer understanding of the political and legal context of policy development in this area.


    Resettlement describes the process of transferring refugees from a place where they have sought protection – such as in a refugee camp or urban area in a neighbouring country – to a country that is willing to admit them as permanent residents. Resettlement may be necessary to provide protection to people who face the most serious risks to their safety, health or other human rights in the country where they have sought refuge. Resettlement is one of three durable solutions to protect refugees. Resettlement as a solution is available to a very small proportion of refugees, as less than one per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled annually. 

    Our research examines how complementary pathways can function alongside resettlement programs to offer greater access to protection for refugees. 

    Community sponsorship

    Community refugee sponsorship – also known as private refugee sponsorship – refers to programs under which individuals, community, faith-based groups, families or businesses take the lead in the welcoming and integrating resettled refugees into a new country. Our research considers the benefits and limitations of different models of community sponsorship.

    Education pathways

    Education schemes for displaced people (including refugees) can provide qualified students an additional and complementary way to safety enter or stay in another country. Education pathways are usually facilitated by third-country universities, NGOs, governments and/or the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. While some education pathways provide refugees with permanent residence in the third country, thus ensuring a durable solution to their displacement, others are temporary. Our research looks at how dedicated education pathways may potentially create new opportunities for refugees to access higher education and resettlement places.


Higgins, C., Baker, S., Cousins, S. et al. Refugees as Skilled Migrants: Insights from Australia’s 2018 Employer-Sponsored Refugee Migration Pilot. Soc Indic Res (2023). [open access]

Baker, S., Cousins, S., Higgins, C. and Tani, M. (2022), Refugees are a Valuable but Overlooked Economic Resource, and it is Time to Update Our Approach to Migration. The Australian Economic Review, 55: 273-280. [open access]

Evans R; Baker S; Wood T, 2022, 'Expanding durable solutions for refugees: possibilities for developing education pathways in Australia', Australian Journal of Human Rights, 28, pp. 308 - 328,

Higgins, C. and Fee, M (2021), The Risks of ‘In-Country’ Processing: an assessment of the US Central American Minors Program, WRMC Research Paper, 18 October  

Hirsch, A., Hoang, K. & Vogl, A. (2019). Australia’s Private Refugee Sponsorship Program: Creating Complementary Pathways Or Privatising Humanitarianism? Refuge, 35(2), 109–122.


 Tamara Wood
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