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Complementary pathways for refugees: Policy principles

Australia has established, is piloting or has the potential to introduce a range of complementary migration pathways for refugees and others in humanitarian need beyond Australia’s long-standing and vital commitment to refugee resettlement.

RCOA has worked alongside key organisations involved in the development of complementary pathways to develop core policy principles that should underlie a coherent Complementary Pathways Program for Australia.

2023_Complementary Pathways Principles
Size : 176.2 kB Format : PDF

What are complementary pathways for refugees?

Complementary pathways are ‘safe and regulated avenues for persons in need of international protection that provide for a lawful stay in a third country where the international protection needs of the beneficiaries are met’.[1]  Complementary pathways recognise the importance of ensuring refugee resettlement programs remain focused on providing solutions to refugees with the greatest needs and in cooperation with other international protection actors, but that there are other migration solutions that can provide additional pathways or capacities to provide long-term safety to refugees.

Examples of complementary pathways include labour mobility programs, education pathways, family reunion and community sponsorship programs.

Why expand and embed complementary pathways?

There is a critical global need for more durable solutions for refugees. As at 30 June 2022 there were 32.5 million refugees in the world.[2] In 2021, only 57,436 refugees were resettled globally; less than 0.2% of all refugees. For 2023, UNHCR has identified over 2 million refugees in need of resettlement.[3] In the lead up to the Global Refugee Forum in 2023 and as Co-Chair of the Global Taskforce on Refugee Labour Mobility, it is in Australia’s interests to lead the way in demonstrating the viability of complementary pathways for refugees by building on its existing commitments.

Refugees and others in humanitarian need have skills, educational and employment aspirations, and families in Australia that make complementary pathways relevant. Many would not be considered among priority groups for scarce resettlement places, but still have a strong need for a durable solution. At the same time, there are systemic barriers preventing refugees from accessing existing migration pathways, such as the inability to acquire required documentation, inability to meet the ‘genuine temporary entrant’ criteria for some visas, and prohibitively high costs associated with alternative migration pathways.

While durable solutions should be the key objective of a complementary pathways program, refugees coming on different migration pathways offer many collateral benefits to receiving countries including:

  • a way for non-traditional actors to become involved in a ‘whole of society’ approach;
  • greater public awareness of and support for the provision of managed humanitarian migration pathways, as more actors become sensitised to refugee issues and experiences through their involvement in complementary pathways;
  • enhanced social capital for refugee newcomers with members of the Australian community, including private individuals, community associations/networks, clubs and businesses;
  • enhanced social cohesion; and
  • the potential for diversifying settlement locations within a receiving state.

Current and proposed complementary pathways to Australia

Australia has or is piloting a range of initiatives that could (potentially) be considered complementary pathways for refugees, although only two so far have been in addition to existing commitments made through the Humanitarian Program. Pilot programs such as the Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement Pilot (SRLAP) and Community Refugee Settlement and Integration Pilot (CRISP) have provided proof of concept that complementary pathways are viable and systemic barriers can be addressed. Lessons from these pilots can be taken into consideration to design, unlock and expand pathways for refugees going forward, and to create a coherent Complementary Pathways Program.[4]

Core principles for an Australian Complementary Pathways Program

To unlock complementary pathways for refugees and ensure consistency across existing and future pathways, the following principles should underlie policy and program design.

1.      A coherent national approach

A strong, logical and coherent national framework for complementary pathways should be articulated by the Australian Government. This should provide a clear ‘menu of options’ for non-traditional actors to become involved in refugee protection as part of a whole-of-society approach to Australia’s refugee response.

2.      Additionality

It is essential that admission of refugees through complementary pathways is additional to that facilitated through the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. To be considered complementary, pathways cannot substitute those arriving through UNHCR-referred resettlement programs nor substitute States’ obligations to provide international protection to refugees through access to asylum.[5]

3.      Durability

Complementary pathways for refugees need to be durable solutions that uphold humanitarian protection principles – i.e., provide a permanent visa or a clear pathway to permanency – with safeguarding against risk of refoulement (returning a person to a place where they face persecution or harm).

4.      Accessibility

Refugees and other displaced people (for example, stateless people) require consideration in policy settings to overcome barriers to accessing labour, family and educational migration pathways. Key accessibility considerations within a coherent Complementary Pathways Program include:

  • Simplification and/or support to navigate application processes;
  • Reduction of visa and associated migration fees;
  • Flexibility regarding documentation requirements;
  • Support and flexibility on meeting English language requirements;
  • Aligning definition of family unit and dependents with that used in Humanitarian Program;
  • Ensuring health waiver is applied in alignment with Humanitarian Program; and
  • Facilitating access to travel documents.

(Refer to Appendix in PDF for more details of accessibility barriers and potential policy and program responses.)

5.      Supported settlement and a safety net

Refugees arriving through complementary migration pathways will likely have similar experiences and needs to other refugees with regards to navigating life in Australia. Ensuring adequate settlement support is available is imperative. This can be done in different ways, including by drawing on learnings and models of community settlement support offered by the CRISP pilot, community engagement initiatives by settlement providers, and ensuring a referral pathway to settlement services is accessible regardless of the type of visa the migrant holds but on the basis of their needs.

A safety net for refugees coming on Complementary Pathways is vital, including consideration for how to waive waiting periods for access to social security in cases where relationships of support break down.

Download as PDF

2023_Complementary Pathways Principles
Size : 176.2 kB Format : PDF


[1] UNHCR. Complementary pathways for admission to third countries

[2] 26.7 million refugees under UNHCR mandate; 5.8 million Palestinian refugees under UNRWA mandate. UNHCR (2022). Mid-Year Trends 2022

[3] UNHCR (2022). Projected global resettlement needs 2023

[4] For learnings from pilots to date, see Joint Submission on Complementary Pathways for Refugees and the future of Australia’s Migration System.

[5] UNHCR Complementary pathways for admission to third countries

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