Blog post by Madeline Holland and Betsy L. Fisher *

The last several years have seen a dramatically increased focus on pathways for refugees to relocate to countries offering durable legal status through avenues other than refugee resettlement. These pathways are commonly referred to as complementary pathways, as they complement refugee resettlement and asylum. UNHCR defines complementary pathways as “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.” Together with traditional refugee resettlement, these additional or complementary avenues for refugees to relocate are called “third country solutions.”

The proliferation of diverse third country solutions represents a powerful opportunity for more people in need of international protection to relocate to durable safety. But the field is “fragmented” – actors working on specific pathways or geographies have limited ability to refer people to relocation opportunities beyond their own areas of focus. As a result, refugees must navigate a complex maze of organizations and information sources to find the opportunities that meet their needs.

We believe that, to maximize the number of people who relocate via third country solutions, the ecosystem of refugee-serving organizations must pursue deeper collaboration. This article offers a set of modest proposals towards greater collaboration. First, it offers a taxonomy for analyzing and comparing pathways or relocation programs. Second, it proposes that refugee-serving organizations adopt common screening tools and technological interoperability, and build mutual referral networks. Finally, it considers the preconditions necessary to see the adoption of these proposals.

A taxonomy for third country solutions

Discussions about third-country solutions are often hindered by terminology. If a person is sponsored for refugee status for a work opportunity, is the refugee accessing a resettlement, sponsorship, or labor pathway? Or all three?

These questions become more complex because legal statuses vary across potential destination countries, and because one actor may serve many functions in supporting refugee relocation. As one example, consider pathways that interact with higher education institutions. A refugee may relocate to attend a university on a student visa. Or an individual may be selected for private sponsorship for the purpose of pursuing higher education. Or a person resettled as a refugee or via another pathway may receive welcome and integration services from a university.

We offer a new taxonomy that would categorize pathways or relocation programs by:

  1. the legal status that a refugee would receive when relocating;
  2. the basis by which a refugee is selected for the pathway; and
  3. the people or entity (if any) who provides integration (or settlement) services.

Considering these questions separately – legal status on arrival, basis of selection, and welcoming services – will allow advocates for third-country solutions to have more precise conversations about pathways across jurisdictions and areas of work. This precision will advance discussions among service providers, advocates, and policy makers about how to expand and improve relocation programs. Moving from conversations to operational collaboration like common screening and referral systems, as described below, will require a common foundational understanding of each pathway.

We also acknowledge the importance of questions of additionality and complementarity. For the purposes of this article, we note that, under the status quo, the overwhelming majority of refugees and forcibly displaced people lack access to durable solutions. For that reason, it is critical to expand refugees’ access to protection.

Legal status

The first part of the assessment is the legal status with which a person will enter the destination country. For example, an individual who receives private sponsorship for the purpose of accessing higher education is resettled as a refugee, whereas one who relocates via a student visa is a student. A refugee who resettles via refugee family reunification is resettled as a refugee, while one who relocates via general family processes is often relocated as a permanent resident.

While these statuses and terms will vary across jurisdictions, the four major categories of legal status are:

  • Temporary status for work or study, such as student visas or time-limited employment visas, which require further action to bridge to long-term status.
  • Humanitarian status which requires further action to bridge to long-term status, such as a humanitarian asylum visa or parole in the United States.
  • Long-term status based on family or employment.
  • Long-term status based on refugee status.

Means of selection

The second part of the assessment is the means by which this person is identified for this pathway. For example, someone might be selected on the basis of a family tie (for family reunification), educational attainment or potential (education), employability (labor), comparative vulnerability (resettlement), humanitarian need, some other critical affiliation or government-designated eligibility criteria. An example of the latter is the United States’ Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program. This is not a refugee resettlement program but relocates Afghans who face threats because of their work with the U.S. government in Afghanistan. If relevant, this part of the assessment would also account for what entity is responsible for identification and selection: an NGO, a university, an employer, a government, UNHCR, etc.

Integration services

Considerations of legal status and selection criteria should be assessed separately from a third element: who will provide local integration services after relocation. Sponsorship is a modality of welcoming and integration; in some pathways, sponsorship also allows the sponsor to nominate a refugee for resettlement. In a case where government-selected refugees are then referred to sponsors for integration, as in Canada’s Blended Visa Office-Referred program, sponsorship is an integration service but not a selection method. In the case of “named sponsorship,” where sponsors identify and nominate an individual for relocation, sponsors are both part of the means of selection and the provider of integration services.

Screening and Referrals

Second, this article proposes that, to ensure that eligible refugees can access these pathways in practice, refugee-serving organizations must collaborate not just in exchanging information but in adopting common screening systems and developing mutual referral networks.

Academic studies across a range of service areas demonstrate that referral networks increase the number of individuals who access services and decrease the number of individuals who fall through the cracks. Referral networks can also ensure that a refugee need not register in multiple, fragmented platforms to identify opportunities for assistance. In doing so, referral networks can shift focus away from each agency and its processes and instead center the experience of the refugee and how to best connect them with available services and resources.

Consider a refugee in Malaysia. She is currently seeking recognition from UNHCR with hopes of being considered for resettlement to any safe third country. She has strong credentials as an engineer. She also has family members in Germany. She has three potential areas for third-country relocation assistance: refugee resettlement, an employment-based visa, and family reunification. A person in this situation might well contact dozens of organizations to obtain information or assistance in these three different matters.

However, if refugee-assisting organizations had more integrated systems, this refugee could contact one organization assisting in any of those areas. That organization could screen for not only their own area of focus but also any other opportunities for third-country solutions, and refer to appropriate providers.

Preconditions to collaboration

Many organizations, such as the Sustainable Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Initiative (CRISP), the Third Country Solutions Identification Referral Network (TIRN) and EU Passworld, provide needed platforms for actors working in third country solutions to share information. While information sharing about new and diverse pathways is critical, ensuring that refugees are accessing these pathways in practice requires moving from information sharing to operational collaboration.

First, refugee-serving organizations must develop and adopt common screening systems. Ideally, this would include options for refugees to access online screening tools and also, mindful that internet-based tools will be inaccessible to many, individualized screening by organizations. These tools should include the preliminary identification of eligibility across the range of services (or pathways) that can be offered within the network. They should also direct refugees to accessible, up-to-date self-help information. A chatbot developed by IRAP is an early example of a tool able to screen individuals for their eligibility across dozens of pathways; it could serve as an ecosystem-wide resource. The Talent Catalog, developed by Talent Beyond Boundaries, is another example of a digital tool being used by multiple ecosystem actors to identify individuals for labor mobility globally.

Second, refugee-serving organizations should agree to share referrals across networks. Participating organizations should both direct applicants to the tools for common screening and receive referrals for individuals identified via these tools. If the refugee in our previous example first contacted an organization in Germany to assist with family reunification, the German organization could refer to a partner organization for assistance with a request for recognition as a refugee in Malaysia – or vice versa. Seamless, dynamic exchange would require a greater level of technological interoperability than actors engaged in third country solutions currently share.

To get there, we will need to pursue multiple strategies at once: we need convening spaces and ecosystem-wide leaders is geared towards getting down to the “brass tacks” of collaboration. We need funding that will reward organizations for building out their referral networks and adopting and integrating one another’s tools. We could consider training and staff exchanges among actors working across different pathways, geographies and populations. We can seek to learn from other fields about challenges and opportunities that they have faced in their pursuit of greater interoperability.

Over the last decade, much innovation and expansion of opportunity in third country solutions has been led from the periphery – for example, by smaller grassroots, national, or bilateral organizations and efforts. H; how we consolidate and scale these solutions so they serve far greater numbers of refugees without replicating well-known inefficiencies of a centralized system is a major challenge we must grapple with in the coming decade.


We need multiple strategies to advance deeper collaboration among actors supporting third country solutions. One tool to facilitate collaboration is to utilize common language about pathways, distinguishing between the legal status, basis of selection, and integration service provider for each pathway. Deeper collaboration also means moving from information sharing to coordinating at the programmatic level via common screening and referral systems and technological interoperability.

Neither of these proposals are without their implementation challenges. Any taxonomy of complementary pathways will need to be stress-tested by organizations in practice, especially as new programs continue to emerge and evolve. Implementing shared screening tools and building out referral networks raises important and complex questions about accountability, ownership, data security and transparency in a global system. These proposals are intended less as prescriptions than as invitations for others to engage in further reimagination of how we collectively ensure refugees have the greatest possible access to long-term residence in safe third countries.

* Madeline Holland is a graduate student at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. Betsy L. Fisher is the U.S. Director of Talent Beyond Boundaries.

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