By Claire Higgins

Every few weeks since February 2016, a plane carrying asylum seekers has landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The passengers have walked into the terminal to be greeted by welcome banners, breakfast, and smiling representatives of the Italian government. They hand in their applications for protection as refugees, before travelling on to towns and cities across Italy where community and parish groups have volunteered to assist them in their new life by providing accommodation, language classes and skills training for twelve months. 

The asylum-seekers arrive in Italy under a scheme known as the Humanitarian Corridors, which was established in late 2015 by a coalition of faith-based organisations in collaboration with the Italian government. 

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has now named the Humanitarian Corridors a regional winner of the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for 2019. The agency praised the scheme as ‘a lifeline for those at greatest risk’ and an urgently needed pathway to protection.

So far the Humanitarian Corridors has helped more than 2,000 asylum seekers to reach Italy from Lebanon, Ethiopia, Jordan and Niger, and has been replicated on a small scale in France and a handful of other European countries. Staff from faith-based organisations work within these countries to interview asylum seekers for the scheme, and security checks are conducted by national authorities before asylum seekers depart for Europe. 

The Humanitarian Corridors are helping to address the current limited availability of safe pathways into Europe. They are one example of ‘protected entry procedures’, which are visa mechanisms that allow refugees and asylum-seekers to travel safely across international borders to access protection, and which act as a complementary pathway to existing third-country resettlement programs. 

Expanding these complementary pathways is an objective of the Global Compact on Refugees, a non-binding international agreement adopted by more than 180 states in December 2018. The Compact holds that complementary pathways must be ‘made available on a more systematic, organized, sustainable and gender-responsive basis’ and with ‘appropriate protection safeguards’ in place. 

Amid record global levels of displacement, with more than 70m people forced from their homes, more than 20 million of them refugees, there is increasing interest around the world in the utility of protected entry procedures. In December 2018 the European Parliament voted to consider an EU-wide framework for humanitarian visas, to harmonise a varied approach to protected entry among Member States. The Brazilian government has offered humanitarian visas to Syrian asylum seekers since 2015. And in Australia in-country processing is a recurring subject in the national conversation on asylum policy, due in part to the existence of a long-standing but rarely-used visa category for this purpose within Australia’s annual humanitarian program.

Complementary pathways should always be additional to - and never replace - access to national asylum procedures. The Nansen Refugee Award is showcasing the Humanitarian Corridors as a way that States can help asylum seekers to access those procedures safely.