Determining Policy Objectives and Eligibility

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

in Economic Immigration Pathways for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

By Dana Wagner, Stefanie Allemann and Caroline Schultz

Anas, left, and spouse Marah recently arrived in Canada on an economic immigration pathway as part of the Economic Mobility Pathways Project. They were formerly refugees living in Lebanon. Photo credit: Victoria Yan, courtesy of Talent Beyond Boundaries.

Several countries are implementing or exploring policies to enable refugees or asylum seekers to access economic immigration pathways. These can be grouped into policies targeting asylum seekers after arrival and those targeting refugees and potential asylum seekers before arrival; all enable people to access labour migrant status in-country or admission through economic immigration. This analysis identifies a range of policy objectives across these policies in order to help policy makers answer the central question: Who should be eligible for these pathways?


In a handful of countries, practical imperatives or humanitarian objectives are persuading governments to open economic immigration pathways to refugees or asylum seekers. This is a relatively nascent policy area in Western countries, despite a historical parallel: in the interwar period and shortly after the Second World War, thousands of refugees were admitted under systems designed for workers (UNHCR and ILO 2012).

More countries may soon follow. The scale of global displacement (UNHCR 2019) and the limits of the protection regime have led the international community to develop new instruments that include commitments to increase mobility options – such as labour mobility – for refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations. The Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration encourage countries to be practical in ensuring that people who need to move do so in safe and lawful ways. New government practices that flow from the Global Compacts can benefit from the lessons of existing programmes that connect protection regimes with economic immigration.

This article analyses the stated policy objectives of four current practices in Canada, Germany (two policies) and Sweden. These examples can be grouped into policies targeting asylum seekers after their arrival; and those targeting refugees in countries of first asylum and potential asylum seekers before their arrival. All policies seek to enable people to obtain a labour migrant status or admission through economic immigration. Our analysis of policy objectives aims to help policymakers answer this fundamental question: Who should be eligible for these pathways?

Policy Objectives of Four State Practices

Germany’s ‘Lane Change’ Policy

In 2016, Germany introduced a policy enabling rejected asylum seekers to receive a temporary quasi-residence title (suspension of deportation) for the duration of their vocational training, with the possibility to later ‘change lanes’ to a regular residence status with unrestricted access to the labour market. Applicants must secure vocational training in a state-recognised profession and are only eligible if they have not committed crimes, if they are not from a designated ‘safe country of origin,’ and if concrete measures to initiate their return have not yet been taken. For business associations, which had long lobbied the federal government for a lane change option, this offers the opportunity to hire and train rejected asylum seekers and those still in the asylum process without the risk of losing investments in human resources in the longer term; for the government, it presents a venue to fill labour shortages with qualified workers who are already in the country; and for rejected claimants who cannot be deported, it offers the possibility of regular employment. The main argument against the policy (in Germany and Sweden, see below) made by politicians is the potential to create a new ‘pull factor,’ although this is difficult to prove (Kolb 2018; Calleman 2018).

Sweden’s ‘Lane Change’ Policy

Sweden introduced the option for rejected asylum seekers to apply for a work permit in 2008 (Government of Sweden 2007/08:147). They can apply under certain conditions, such as holding a job (on conditions according to collective agreements), and only within a short time window after the asylum decision. The goal of the policy is to increase incentives for asylum seekers to work and to regularise their work status. However, few applicants were found to be eligible. Data on past applications show most applicants were rejected because they fell short of the requirements, such as filing an application within a two-week period following an asylum decision. Calleman (2015) analysed about 500 of these cases and found arbitrary decision-making, concluding implementation of the policy was not always just or consistent. The future of the policy is reportedly uncertain under the current government.

Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project

Canada began to test refugee access to existing economic immigration pathways in early 2018 through a small pilot for refugees living in Kenya, Jordan and Lebanon, called the Economic Mobility Pathways Project. Under the pilot, two partner NGOs, Talent Beyond Boundaries and RefugePoint, refer skilled refugees to Canadian employers and participating provincial and territorial governments. Applicants who meet the human capital criteria and who have employment offers or expressions of interest from a province or territory proceed to an immigration application. The pilot aims to better understand barriers facing refugees in the economic stream and, where possible, solve administrative barriers facing qualified refugee applicants, such as a requirement to provide proof of ‘settlement funds’ or personal savings. The pilot ultimately aims to inform policy that enables displaced populations to access a durable solution in Canada through economic immigration (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada 2018). The first phase of the pilot runs until late 2019 and may inform the development of a new immigration stream or changes across existing economic pathways.

Germany’s Western Balkan Regulation

Germany opened the labour market to nationals from six Balkan countries for a period of five years until 2020. Applicants from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia do not require minimum skills or qualifications, including German language proficiency. They only need to receive a job offer with a German employer and to pass a standard labour market priority check for third country nationals. However, they cannot apply if they have received asylum-seeker benefits in Germany during the two years preceding the application. The policy’s primary purpose is to decrease the number of manifestly unfounded asylum claims from the Balkans by developing a legal pathway; although researchers who traced its introduction also found ‘no clear migration logic was applied consistently in what was a political process’ (Bither and Ziebarth 2018: 15). After the introduction of the regulation, asylum applications from the six countries dropped sharply by over 90 per cent. More than 44,000 Balkan applicants received visas for work between 2016 and 2017. However, according to Bither and Ziebarth (2018), it is difficult to disentangle the effects of the policy on asylum applications from other potential explanatory variables.

Determining Policy Objectives and Eligibility Criteria

If skilled immigration pathways for refugees or asylum seekers should be complementary to the protection system, a key conceptual question in developing these pathways is whether these constitute a protection policy with some economic objectives; or an economic policy with some protection objectives. Broadly considered, protection objectives may include providing protection, deterring unsafe mobility, or enabling regular status for those unwilling or unable to return home. The balancing of these and other objectives, such as orderly and managed migration, should inform policy thinking on eligibility for these pathways.

Table 1 categorises some of the main stated policy objectives across the four practices from Canada, Germany, and Sweden. We group the objectives in three categories, recognising that there is often overlap among them and that they may be conflicting: economic growth, protection, and managed migration. We then suggest respective eligibility criteria. These criteria can also be categorised: immigration status criteria, as well as skills and employment criteria.

Table 1 – Policy Objectives and Eligibility Criteria

Eligibility criteria should derive from clear policy objectives, and the degree of selectivity should vary accordingly. This clarity may help to achieve greater policy coherence, communication to the public, and monitoring and evaluation of the policy in the longer term. In general, we argue:

  • if a policy intends to meet primarily economic growth objectives, eligibility criteria related to immigration status may be more open, but criteria related to skills and employment may be more selective; and

  • if a policy intends to meet primarily protection (humanitarian) objectives, eligibility criteria related to immigration status may be more selective, but criteria related to skills and employment may be more open; and

  • if a policy intends to first and foremost meet managed migration objectives, all criteria may be more selective.

These considerations are visualised in the matrix in Table 2.

Table 2 – Eligibility Criteria Matrix


Clear policy objectives should inform how policy makers determine who qualifies for economic immigration pathways that are designed for refugees, migrants in vulnerable situations or asylum seekers. The stakes are high because there are few safe and regular mobility pathways globally relative to the scale of the displaced population. Any limits placed on the eligibility of these groups should therefore be thoughtfully determined. Our analysis shows that, in general, economic growth objectives may lead to more selective skills and employment criteria but more open immigration criteria; while protection objectives may lead to more selective immigration status criteria but more open skills and employment criteria.

Coherence between objectives and eligibility will likely deliver other significant benefits, such as the ability to take steps to implement a policy and to better measure its effectiveness. If relevant authorities know what the policy intends to achieve, and who is eligible to benefit from it, then it will become easier to identify indicators to assess its impact.

A second, critical reason for developing clear objectives and eligibility criteria is to better evaluate needed safeguards such as residence status and the right to stay. Economic immigration pathways may enable either temporary or permanent residence status, and different pathways may carry different rights and obligations, including access to citizenship in the longer term. Options for permanent residence may be essential if these pathways change or limit prior access to protection, for example, when refugees move from a country of first asylum to a new country as economic immigrants. But participants in new mobility programmes should not, as a result, lose the basic protections previously entitled to them. Temporary work permits may be sufficient for other groups, such as rejected asylum seekers; but offering permanent residence may be more consistent with a stated objective to increase international protection space for displaced populations.

Another benefit is credibility and legitimacy of asylum and immigration systems in the public eye. Without clarity on what a policy intends to achieve and for whom, there is a risk that it will be viewed as providing undue privilege over others or incentivizing travel by unsafe routes. Clear policy objectives can help to maintain public trust in these emerging migration pathways and policy decisions.

Dana Wagner is the director of Canada operations with Talent Beyond Boundaries, a non-profit working to open labour mobility pathways for refugees. She previously worked with Canadian Independent Senator Ratna Omidvar, the Global Diversity Exchange, Maytree and the IOM. She is a co-author of Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada, a board member of Jumpstart, and co-founder of the non-partisan political fact-checker FactsCan. She earned a Master of Global Affairs from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University. She has worked in Toronto, Ottawa, Hanoi, and Nairobi.

Stefanie Allemann works as a policy advisor for the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration. She is part of the multilateral affairs team in the international cooperation directorate. Previously she worked as an advisor for the Swiss Ambassador for International Cooperation in Migration, Eduard Gnesa. She holds a master’s in International and European Law (University of Bern) and a master’s in International Law and Economics (Universities of Bern, Fribourg and Neuchatel - World Trade Institute).

Caroline Schultz is a research associate and doctoral candidate at the Chair of Political Sociology at the University of Bamberg. She holds a master’s in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and a bachelor’s in Philosophy & Economics from the University of Bayreuth. Currently, she teaches seminars on various topics of migration research. From 2013 to June 2017, she worked as a researcher at the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration; before that she held a position in the Migration & Health Unit of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva. She is interested in comparative and international migration policies, migration and development, and labour market integration policies.


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