Active Refugee Admission Policies in Europe: Exploring an Emerging Research Field

Resettlement and other active refugee admission policies are high on national, regional and international agendas. The UN Global Compacts put safe and orderly migration, access to protection as well as responsibility-sharing centre stage. The EU is negotiating a common framework for resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes. Several European countries are expanding existing programmes or introducing new ones. Traditional resettlement is only one of several active refugee admission policies (ARAPs), alongside, for instance, humanitarian admission, private sponsorship programmes, and scholarship programmes. Often subsumed under the term ‘resettlement’, ARAPs is a broader concept partly reshaping the political objectives, target groups and actor constellations of traditional resettlement. This begs a number of questions that cut across various disciplines and methodological approaches. Laying the basis for continuous engagement with this topic, we map some of these questions and suggest avenues for future research. This blog post introduces the concept of Active Refugee Admission Policies and aims to establish a working group of the same name within the German Network on Forced Migration Research.

The intensifying externalization of EU borders as well as restrictive asylum policies in several Member States make it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to claim asylum on European territory. The governments of some EU member-states have suggested getting rid of the right to claim asylum on European soil entirely. At the same time, European states have recently introduced or expanded active admission policies, which offer safe and legal pathways to protection in Europe. European countries have committed themselves to resettling 50,000 refugees within two years. Although absolute admission figures remain low in light of the global need for protection, these admission policies nevertheless represent a significant increase compared to the past. For instance, this figure of 50,000 resettlement places is a fivefold increase of the 2008 European Council commitment of 10,000 resettlement places. Within and beyond the EU, European countries are exploring new active refugee admission instruments, such as private sponsorship or emergency evacuations from Libya. In addition, since 2012 the EU has been working on a Common Resettlement Framework, currently still under negotiation.

We propose the term ‘Active Refugee Admission Policies’ (ARAP) as an umbrella term for different forms of admission policies and programmes specifically targeting persons who are considered in need of humanitarian protection by admitting states. This overarching term describes all admission pathways with humanitarian scope offering people in need of protection safe and orderly access to a destination country. ARAPs are distinct from individual (territorial) asylum as well as forms of humanitarian protection following arrival to a prospective country of refuge.

The term covers a variety of programmes: Traditional refugee resettlement has been defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as the ‘transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement’. It also includes humanitarian admission programmes which, in contrast to refugee resettlement, usually focus on temporary protection. Compared to traditional resettlement, selection criteria are more flexible. Offering either temporary or permanent protection, private sponsorship programmes rely on private support and funding. States also use other complementary pathways to relocate refugees for the purpose of education, work or family reunification.

Most active admission policies aim to target ‘the most vulnerable refugees’ and people with family connections in admitting countries. Yet the voluntary and discretionary nature of active refugee admission policies also gives admitting states the opportunity to set their own priorities in line with strategic interests, for instance with regard to target regions and additional selection criteria. Also, states seem to increasingly use ARAPs to justify border protection and prevent access to asylum, such as in the EU Turkey statement of 2016 for instance.

A crucial moment for research active refugee admission to Europe

Europe’s increasingly active engagement in this policy area has attracted researchers’ interests across various disciplines. Recent academic and grey literature has started to take stock of the various programmes and policy developments in Europe. Yet the diversification of forms that ARAP takes in the European context limits the generalizability of previous research, mostly focussing on traditional resettlement countries like Canada, the United States and Australia. As ARAPs encompass more than only resettlement with its traditional actors and processes, revisiting and expanding existing conceptual and theoretical frameworks seems fruitful. To this end, we draw on, and wish to extend, existing resettlement-focused work as well as recent scholarly advancements that have taken other admission pathways into account.

Research on ARAP to Europe is a nascent field. This provides an excellent opportunity to broaden research horizons. We suggest focusing on the following seven interrelated topics.

1. Motivations and policies of states offering active refugee admission policies

The questions of why states engage in active refugee admission policies in the first place, and which policy objectives they pursue, are central for our understanding of the design and implementation of ARAPs. States’ underlying rationales are the main determinants of the number of admission spots, choice of regions, formulation of selection categories and concrete admission practices. Existing research has pointed at a number of different reasons from egoistic self-interest, altruistic humanitarianism, reciprocity, and international reputation, to resettlement as an alternative to asylum. Often, states seek to address both humanitarian and strategic interest selection criteria and practices need to address this complexity. Still, many questions remain unanswered. One question that requires investigation is how differences such as geographical location, political orientation, migration history, economic development, and institutional structure affect the design of ARAPs. Also, little is known about the negotiation of these policies among and between different levels of government and ministries. Public justification of ARAPs, including ARAPs‘ connections to asylum policies, also deserve closer analysis.

2. The role of other actors – interests and justifications

While states have the authority to set up and design ARAPs, they do not do so in a vacuum.  Many other actors influence the policy formulation and implementation of ARAPs. This includes the UNHCR, often involved in the design of ARAPs and in the selection of refugees for admission; the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), offering for instance pre-departure trainings to refugees; local authorities; and NGOs in countries of first refuge as well as NGOs, social services and new neighbours in receiving municipalities.  

All these actors influence the effective implementation of ARAPs. Some scholarly accounts have shed light on the way international organisations like UNHCR and IOM navigate their role in ARAPs. For instance, UNHCR’s powerful role as the ‘resettlement expert’ allows it to shape policy discourse and practice. Taking the operational side of ARAPs seriously calls attention to the interests and justifications of other political actors involved in policy formulation and interpretation. With regard to countries of first refuge, we may ask what their interests and concerns are, and to what extent they can influence processes and selection priorities. More attention could also be given to private actors and communities in receiving states.

3. Impact on individual protection

ARAPs can challenge the concept of individual protection. Establishing categories and quotas for individuals to be admitted may enhance the willingness of states to engage in humanitarian admission. However, this can also lead to injustice towards protection seekers. Potential discriminatory effects warrant further examination. Furthermore, the status and rights of individuals admitted legally may differ from those arriving spontaneously. Attention could be drawn to how this might change the content of protection.

4. The impact of the EU level and of the Global Compact on Refugees

In recent years, the EU had played an increasing role in the negotiation and institutionalisation of ARAPs. The EU offers financial incentives to states in exchange for the admission of refugees in line with its strategic priorities. What effects do these negotiations and incentive structures have on national programmes? How can the different positions of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council be described and explained? Institutional bargaining would benefit from further conceptual analysis, for instance through regime theory or investigations of the role of power, as has been done in the case of refugee resettlement. At the global level, non-binding instruments such as the Global Compact on Refugees, and, in particular, the newly created Global Refugee Forum, warrant examination.

5. Access to ARAPs

The question of how to select and prioritize refugees when admission places are scarce is at the heart of current political debates. Yet multi-step admission chains remain under-explored. From their first encounters with local NGOs, UNHCR or the migration authorities of their first country of arrival such as Turkey, refugees are categorised in ways justifying their inclusion as much as their exclusion from ARAPs. The existence of a myriad labels makes refugee eligibility and selection for ARAPs complex and contradictory.

How do resettlement states craft official selection criteria, how do deliberations with other ARAP actors such as UNHCR or NGOs, but also how do practicalities on the ground shape selection criteria? How do various frontline workers throughout the admission chain enact ARAPs’ selection criteria in their everyday work? Opening the black box of policy and programme design, as well as studying concrete practices of admission, are crucial to understanding the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion governing refugees’ mobility and access to protection.

6. Agency and Aspirations of Refugees

Little is known about refugees’ expectations and perceptions of, and experiences with, ARAPs. How do refugees navigate complex admission processes? How do refugees perceive selection criteria and admission practices? Which factors enable and restrict refugee agency in different phases of the admission process? In contrast to individual asylum seekers, refugees who are accepted into an ARAP can legally and safely receive protection in Europe or elsewhere. Most European countries offer pre- and post-arrival trainings, often conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), to facilitate refugees’ reception and integration in their new states. Yet research investigating the lived experiences and aspirations of refugees admitted via ARAPs remains scarce. Scrutinizing ARAPs also from the viewpoint of refugees themselves therefore offers a fruitful avenue of research.

7. Social and Political Theories of Refugees

ARAPs challenge some fundamental assumptions of Refugee Studies, such as refugee protection being based in International Law, the Geneva Convention and Human Rights. With ARAPs, states offer access to protection voluntarily, not as an obligation. States thereby deviate from the dominant legal framework in Europe and the EU. We may thus have to re-conceptualise the relationship between refugees and other migrants and their relationship to the state. How can conflict theories grasp the increasingly passive role of refugees in these policies? In turn, we may have to rethink the role of the state, interests, and norms in Political Theory approaches to refugee policies. Analysing private sponsorship models for instance, we may have to re-engage with fundamental concepts of networks and citizenship, power and sovereignty, borders and boundaries. Thus, ARAPs compel us to set refugee policies in a larger social and political context, offering opportunities to rethinking refugees as a category of Social and Political Theory.

New working group: Active Refugee Admission Policies

This blog post is the starting point of a working group in the German Network on Forced Migration Research. We invite all researchers interested in the topic to participate. Interested practitioners are also welcome. The working group aims to offer a framework for exchange and discussion as well as for joint publications and projects. While the questions proposed in this blog post indicate some directions for the way forward, the group is also open to other relevant topics and suggestions. To complement existing research, the primary focus lies on ARAPs to Europe. However, we understand Europe as embedded in larger global structures, and ARAPs as transnational. Therefore, we are equally interested in global developments and comparative perspectives, including a focus on countries of refuge in the Global South. Our working languages will be English and German. If you are interested in joining the working group or have further questions, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.


Contact: Natalie Welfens ( and Marcus Engler (

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