Labour mobility for refugees and asylum seekers: Mending or eroding protection systems?

Caroline Schultz (corresponding author), Dana Wagner and Stefanie Allemann (The text reflects the personal opinion of the authors.)  


Several countries are implementing or exploring policies to enable refugees or asylum seekers to access labour migration. While political motives and policy means are varied, the practices can be classified as pre-arrival and post-arrival, and lessons can be derived from their comparison. Comparing five unique practices, the authors make two main policy recommendations.


Linking the asylum system and labour migration? The idea is controversial. Refugees are granted protection and a right to stay for humanitarian reasons alone, while labour migrants are selected because they fill labour demand gaps in demographically ageing and shrinking societies – this is how conventional wisdom goes. While in the interwar period and shortly after World War II, thousands of refugees had been admitted as labour migrants, “history [then] separated refugee and migrant regimes”, as Rieko Karatani put it.

However, we are currently witnessing some receiving countries experiment with programmes and policies that explicitly connect asylum and labour migration. The Swedish and German ‘lane change’ policies constitute an example previously debated on this blog. On the international level, the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants encompasses the commitment by states to increase the availability of “complementary pathways” for refugees, including through opportunities for skilled migration and labour mobility. The Global Compact for Refugees (GCR) also references complementary pathways for admission of persons with protection needs; and the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) includes the objective to “enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration”, including labour mobility for migrants in situations of vulnerability.

These national and global developments are in part an answer to the fact that reality does often not comply with the strict separation between refugees and migrants: First, there are significant protection gaps in the global refugee system; and second, motives to migrate often overlap (‘mixed migration’).

On the one hand, given the deficits of the current international refugee regime and the ongoing global rise in displacement, enabling refugees or asylum seekers to shift status and access an economic migration pathway can be in the interest of countries of first asylum, destination countries and refugees and asylum seekers themselves. On the other hand, are there dangers of further shrinking international refugee resettlement places by linking refugees with labour mobility? Is there a risk that inland ‘lane change’ options attract more asylum seekers? As countries experiment with linking asylum and labour migration, knowledge exchange is essential. Policy-makers, researchers and practitioners can critically examine current practices to better understand the potential and risks of this nascent policy area.

The aim of this blog post is to present five current practices that link asylum and labour migration and bring them into conversation with one another, taking stock of the motives behind their introduction and their benefits and pitfalls. The selection of cases – current practices in Australia, Canada, Germany and Sweden – is based on the expertise of the authors and their networks. We categorize them as pre-arrival and post-arrival, as a pathway shift from asylum to labour migration can occur before or after a person arrives in a destination country. Comparing these practices, we come up with two main claims that we put up for further discussion.



The main paradox of the current international refugee regime is that refugees usually must enter a receiving country irregularly to access asylum. There are few other options. The numbers of refugees selected for resettlement from a country of first asylum to a distant receiving country remain small – less than 1% of the 25 million refugees worldwide access resettlement. If asylum seekers and refugees had the opportunity to access existing or newly developed labour migration pathways, this could benefit both them and receiving countries. For asylum seekers and refugees, pre-arrival programmes could allow them to enter legally and safely (without undertaking a potentially deadly journey), with full work rights, and without prolonged waiting periods in which their asylum claim is being assessed. For receiving countries, these programmes could relieve pressures on their spontaneous arrival capacities (depending on geography) – provided that the programmes are easily accessible and available for many of those who would in their absence enter irregularly. They could increase security and predictability of refugee reception, while filling skills gaps and easing demographic challenges, and therefore might be more easily communicated to the public than spontaneous arrival. Such programmes could also help to alleviate pressure on countries of first asylum like Turkey, Uganda and Lebanon, which carry a disproportionately high share of responsibility for refugees globally. However, these policies also spark criticism: As any immigration programme that selects persons based on their human capital or talent, pre-arrival programmes could be thought of as cherry-picking by destination countries, which could cause brain drain and increase inequality in origin countries. If seen as indistinguishable from resettlement programmes, they could also cause tension or feelings of injustice within refugee communities.


Example 1: The German Western Balkan Regulation (WBR)

The WBR was introduced as a temporary measure in late 2015 for a period of five years. It opened the German labour market to nationals from the six Balkan countries Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia – without any minimum skill or qualification requirements. Applicants merely need a valid job offer by an employer in Germany, and pass a standard labour market priority check for third country nationals. Persons who had received asylum-seeker benefits in Germany within 24 months before applying were not eligible. Uniquely, the WBR targets countries that are sources of asylum seekers to Germany, rather than countries hosting large refugee populations. According to a recent research report, the key assumption behind the introduction of the WBR was that legal pathways would lead to a decrease in numbers of spontaneous arrival asylum seekers. After the introduction of the regulation, asylum applications from the six Balkan countries indeed dropped sharply, by over 90 per cent. At the same time, more than 44.000 visas for work were issued (2016-2017). However, according to the report authors, it is impossible to disentangle the effects of the WBR on asylum applications from other potential explanatory variables.


Example 2: The Australian Community Support Program (CSP)

This Australian pilot project launched in 2012 and was recently converted into a regular policy, the Community Support Program (CSP). Developed as a model of community sponsorship of refugees, this programme offers the opportunity for persons aged 18-50 years who possess a job offer or relevant skills and are willing to work in rural Australia to enter the country as resettled refugees. The policy has been widely criticized primarily because it does not provide additional numbers to the Australian resettlement programme, but takes away up to 1.000 places from the general resettlement programme of 16.250 places in 2017 and 2018, i.e. from other refugees who are selected on traditional vulnerability grounds. Critics also view the CSP as shifting resettlement responsibility from the government to private citizens instead of enabling them to support the arrival of additional refugee families. These critiques are more pronounced because the CSP integrates skills-based selection, prioritizing ‘skilled refugees’. Another critique is that the costs for obtaining a visa are relatively high (approx. 100.000 Australian Dollars/65.000 Euro for a family of five, to be paid by the sponsor).


Example 3: Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project

The Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP) is a pilot project funded by the Government of Canada to test refugee access to economic immigration pathways. The project works with refugees living in Kenya, Jordan and Lebanon and is implemented by two NGOs, Talent Beyond Boundaries and RefugePoint alongside UNHCR. The partners test refugee access to Canada’s existing economic immigration pathways, which are varied and can be governed federally or provincially, but which all result in permanent residence status and a pathway to citizenship. Currently, refugees living in countries of first asylum enter Canada predominantly through the resettlement programme. Those who are eligible from a human capital perspective could theoretically apply instead as skilled immigrants; however, there are many obstacles in the way. For instance, refugees may lack valid passports or the finances to apply for labour migration programmes. The EMPP aims to achieve a better understanding of the barriers facing refugee applicants in order to inform policy development in this area. To date, across Canada, job offers have been made to seven refugee candidates through this pilot. It is unknown if Canada will develop a new skilled refugee programme based on the findings of the pilot, or instead seek changes across all current economic programmes to make them more accessible to refugee applicants.


Among these three pre-arrival practices, the Australian model seems to be the most controversial one. While all three programmes principally seem to combine the interests of refugees and migrants, origin and destination countries, the Australian CSP cuts from existing resettlement places and thereby confirms concerns of a destination country shifting selection criteria from protection need towards economic potential. From an analysis of these three examples stems our first main claim, that pre-arrival programmes linking asylum and labour market criteria should be separate and additional to resettlement including private refugee sponsorship programmes whose principal purpose is protection. In other words, they may be better implemented as labour migration policies with a protection impact, rather than protection policies. This distinction emphasizes that they ought to be complements, not substitutes to existing protection efforts.



Status change models apply to asylum seekers or rejected asylum seekers already on the territory of a receiving country. In practice, one possibility to implement status change is to assess labour market compatibility in parallel to assessing the asylum application. Another possibility is to open access to a labour migration residence permit for asylum seekers whose application has been rejected. These policies can in principle help both asylum seekers and receiving countries: They enable regular status in the country, avoiding (costly) situations of marginalization in case of non-deportability, and pragmatically open possibilities to fill labour market demand gaps with those who are already present. However, there are also concerns about the potential ‘pull effects’ when more options to stay are open to asylum seekers.


Example 4: Sweden’s ‘lane change’ policy

The Swedish regulation introduced in 2008 allows rejected asylum seekers to apply for a work permit under certain conditions. The motivation behind introducing this possibility was to increase incentives for asylum seekers to work, and also to turn irregular work into regular work. However, not many persons were eligible for this. Data on past applications show the applicants’ nationalities included Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Egypt and Turkey and employment was mainly found in restaurants or construction. Interestingly, the majority of applicants for lane change were rejected because of not meeting the requirements, e.g. finding a job within two weeks after the rejection of the asylum claim. A probe covering about 100 cases asked whether the regulation was just and predictable for the applicants. It came to the conclusion that there was uneven application, and implementation could not be called just or predictable. As the Swedish case lacks comparative data, we cannot say whether this regulation indeed constituted a ‘pull factor’ for asylum seekers or not. The future of the programme is reportedly uncertain under the current Swedish government.


Example 5: Germany’s ‘vocational toleration’

The discussion about a ‘lane change’ from asylum to labour migration for foreign nationals already present is hotly debated in Germany at the moment. Although there are already a few lane change possibilities in the German Residence Law, these constitute the exception rather than the rule. The general principle of German Residence Law is to keep asylum and labour migration separated. As the reality is complex, though, for a certain subgroup of migrants – rejected asylum seekers who cannot be deported – a lane change can be a pragmatic way to legalize their stay in Germany. Business associations had long lobbied for the introduction of such a lane change, as it could promote hiring asylum seekers by diminishing the risk of losing trained employees after a negative decision. For the case of vocational training, this specific type of a lane change was introduced in 2016 (§60a Residence Law) – granting i.a. rejected asylum-seekers the possibility to get on a path to regular residence for the purpose of employment. One of the main arguments against the introduction of a general lane change possibility between asylum and labour migration is that these could constitute ‘pull factors’, i.e. incentivize further dangerous border crossings, an assumption that is however hard to prove or disprove.


Both the German and the Swedish ‘lane change’ from asylum to labour migration show how employer interests link with pragmatic forces in destination country governments that struggle to enforce the return of rejected asylum-seekers. Pragmatism, in this case, seems to be in the interest of migrants, the state, and employers. And yet, there remains a risk to the perceived legitimacy of inland asylum determination systems if people whose asylum applications are rejected, stay. Inland asylum systems are highly politicized in many destination countries, and if they are not perceived to be well-managed, their legitimacy may be eroded in the eyes of the public. Our second main claim is that to maintain the legitimacy of the asylum system, post-arrival programmes may need to target specific subgroups, for example those with no real option to remain in or leave the country, who may otherwise become marginalized within the destination country. For that to work, programmes need to be accessible in practice to rejected asylum seekers (i.e. the time period for finding employment needs to be appropriate) and implemented consistently in federal states. Further research is needed on the question of whether these policies in fact create wrong incentives for individuals to embark on an often costly and life-threatening journey, which is a genuine concern but one that is difficult to test.


A promising link?

Given the limitations of the current global refugee regime, complementary labour mobility pathways for asylum seekers and refugees certainly promise more access to protection while benefiting employers and communities in need of talent. However, there are risks in this developing policy area alongside the opportunities. The debate triggered by the Australian Community Support Programme is a good example, showing the real risk that expanding meritocratic elements in selection policies can undermine humanitarian principles of refugee protection.

Having compared five current practices, we first posit that pre-arrival programmes linking asylum and labour migration should be separate and additional to resettlement programmes where the principal purpose is protection for vulnerable refugees. This separation would avoid another risk, that states privatize their protection responsibilities, if private actors (whether community groups or businesses) take part in refugee labour mobility. Second, we argue that to not erode the legitimacy of national asylum systems, post-arrival programmes may need to target specific subgroups that would otherwise become marginalized, with no real option to remain in or leave the country. This should prevent ‘lane change’ from being perceived as a possibility for asylum seekers to ‘queue-jump’ relative to those applying for economic migration pathways; a perception which could weaken public support for asylum and immigration.

Knowledge exchange and research on current practices can inform the development of ‘linking’ policies that aim to benefit individuals, communities, and host and receiving countries without displacing or otherwise negatively impacting other refugees and asylum seekers. We hope that the models discussed here and the cautious conclusions derived from their comparison contribute to a deeper understanding of the emerging policy area of labour mobility for refugees and asylum seekers.


This blog post is based on the discussions at a workshop entitled “Skilled Immigration Pathways for Refugees and Asylum Seekers”, held in October 2018 in Berlin, hosted in partnership with the Embassy of Canada to Germany. It was organized by fellows of the Young Policy Network on Migration (YPNM), a network convened by the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies and The German Marshall Fund of the United States, and supported by the Stiftung Mercator Schweiz and the NCCR – on the move.

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