New pathways to international protection: Emergency Evacuation Visas

Friday 16 July 2021

Aleksandar Stojicevic
Maynard Kischer Stojicevic Citizenship & Immigration Lawyers, Vancouver

Mapping the issue: refugee resettlement schemes and their limitations

Refugee resettlement and asylum schemes are at present woefully ill-equipped to deal with the contemporary realities of mass exodus and migration worldwide. An ever-present flow of refugees, despite perilous transport channels, demonstrates that avenues to international protection are limited in scope and fail to completely address the needs of refugees and asylum seekers. Novel and streamlined mechanisms of protection, which focus on burden-sharing, sustainability and collaboration, are necessary in order to meet the challenges faced by the global community of refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers.

The adoption of Emergency Evacuation Visas (EEVs) constitutes a novel approach to improving existing schemes both internationally and regionally. EEVs are visas issued under the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by participating countries ‘for the purposes of emergency transfer of persons in urgent need of international protection and their entry into the EEV issuing country to lodge an asylum application upon arrival’.[1] EEVs go some way to address the central issues of transit and processing times prevalent in existing resettlement schemes.

According to the UNHCR, the current situation of resettlement and asylum worldwide is in a state of disarray, an environment in which:

‘it has become more difficult to rely on the traditional “durable solutions” of voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to address existing needs. There is a growing number of refugee situations in which repatriation is simply not an option due to persisting risks to life and fundamental rights. Local integration opportunities are also in decline and/or have become inaccessible due to policies of non-entrée and obstacles to reach asylum imposed by countries of destination and, increasingly, by transit countries’.[2]

Identifying the mechanisms in which EEVs may prove the most effective requires an understanding of the key issues in current schemes. It is important to stress the extent to which current schemes cannot and will not provide sustainable solutions to the central weaknesses of resettlement and asylum systems generally. It is therefore the obligation of all relevant stakeholders to seriously consider the need for novel solutions as a matter of urgency.

As outlined in the 2019 IBA report A Model Instrument for an Emergency Evacuation Visa, resettlement occurs under various conditions, with ‘classic’ schemes constituting ‘the selection and transfer of already recognised refugees from a country of first asylum to a third state that agrees to admit them as refugees and eventually grants them permanent residence’.[3] The primary reasons as to why resettlement is required varies, but largely has to do with a lack of security, dignity or access for the refugee in their primary host country. This is a particularly pressing issue; 85 per cent of refugees worldwide (of which there are nearly 26 million) are hosted in the Global South, where questions of security, infrastructure and dignity are often more pronounced.[4]

Critically, these schemes only apply to persons already designated as refugees, who generally have to meet requirements for admission to the resettlement country based on various submission categories.[5] Additionally, many countries continue to screen admission based on criteria that may have little to do with matters of protection or precarity. Indeed, language level, integration potential, age and education frequently challenge notions of fairness and access based on need alone and limited right to appeals worldwide means largely exclusionary policy goes unchallenged.[6] These conditions – which frequently fail to meet the demands of recognised refugees – highlight some of the key obstacles facing current schemes internationally.

The need for streamlined and alternate avenues for resettlement is exacerbated by the issue of tangible political will for programmes in host countries. As noted in the IBA report:

‘while state resettlement quotas grew significantly in the period 2012–2016 to respond to growing needs, with a 20-year record peak in 2016 of 163,200 submissions worldwide, there has been a 54 per cent fall thereafter. Based on current efforts, at today’s rates, it would take another 20 years for current resettlement needs to be fulfilled’.[7]

Increased bottlenecks, low priorities and long wait times clearly illustrate the need for different approaches. In the following section, this article explores what sponsorship and humanitarian visas have done to lay the groundwork for EEVs as viable solutions. In this case, it is important to consider the incremental approaches already in place to remediate traditional resettlement challenges, as well as how these can be considerably improved and strengthened by the introduction of EEVs.

Complementary approaches to resettlement in regard to EEVs

More integrated, diffuse and comprehensive approaches to resettlement have been introduced in recent years, though these approaches tend to vary in terms of scale. These models serve to highlight what expanding access to protection and resettlement can mean in context. New complementary pathways to classic resettlement have been proposed, as outlined in the new Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework – part of the Global Compact on Refugees.[8] These approaches take into account one of the most pressing obstacles to resettlement: mass forced movement and legality.

The IBA report highlights the glaring issue of a lack of an autonomously activated ‘refugee visa’, meaning that most asylum-seekers subsequently granted protection arrive through irregular channels. Unsafe options are an overarching reality of asylum-seeking: these people are subject to perilous conditions and are exploited by human traffickers. The report notes that:

‘resettlement provides an indirect route to asylum to those who have already been recognised as refugees according to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the ‘Refugee Convention’), so they can move from a country of first (unsuitable) refuge to a country of effective and durable protection – the transfer directly out of the country of origin to the country of destination not being, in principle, possible under UNHCR’s resettlement programme. However, direct channels to such effective and durable protection are usually ad hoc, if not one off, exercises, adopted by countries of destination in exceptional circumstances’.[9]

This creates systems of undue burden, criminality and risk in the absence of systematic and universal legal protection in regard to transit.

With this reality in mind, complementary approaches to resettlement, such as sponsorship and humanitarian visas, serve as examples of existing evacuation mechanisms upon which EEVs can be modelled. The report highlights the fact that humanitarian visas and private sponsorship programmes, which already expand the categories of protection for individuals who may not fall under traditional refugee status, have a long history in the Global North, providing alternate pathways that distribute third-country solutions across different avenues, ‘typically in asylum-related instances, but also on medical, family-based, and, sometimes, purely compassionate grounds’.[10]  Pilot initiatives at regional levels, as in the case of the European Union, have resulted in historic decreases in irregular arrival, pointing towards the strength of less orthodox resettlement mechanisms.[11] Private and community sponsorship schemes, as pioneered in Canada, also provide some leeway in terms of protection for those who may not be best served by classic resettlement structures. The universal adoption of EEVs as an addition to, and extension of, these largely piecemeal alternate pathways potentially strengthens their sustainability by relieving considerable structural stress.

EEVs as an integrated approach

In its analysis of the viability of EEVs as a potential solution to many of the issues outlined above, the IBA report draws on a number of regional, national and international programmes that recontextualise asylum-seeking and resettlement as models for the visa. In particular, the report effectively highlights the extent to which integrated and diversified approaches to classic resettlement schemes can serve to strengthen existing systems through cooperation and burden-sharing – such as the EU’s ‘expedited resettlement’ and national schemes to facilitate urgent applications in Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Transit facilities have also emerged to meet demands.[12] These programmes, however, share some of the same challenges that make classic resettlement so difficult, including long wait times, lack of appeal mechanisms and poor coordination.[13]

While the report outlines a variety of emergency evacuation approaches globally, the most effective – and in fact the most salient and responsive – schemes to meet the definition of a rapid transfer are ‘schemes that do not entail full processing prior to departure [...] The focus on “urgent”, “imminent” and “extreme” protection needs, assessed on a prima facie basis rather than on complete Refugee Status Determination (RSD), is what allows for the possibility of accelerated arrangements’.[14] All other schemes have failed to meet their own objectives of rapid resettlement. A proposed visa for this very purpose, then, constitutes a rather singular solution to the issues of speed and safety.


The challenges facing current complementary schemes is severely hindered by lack of coordination, universal standards or uniform mechanisms of support. It is also clear that the implementation of EEVs is an urgently needed response to failings in current resettlement arrangements globally, in line with the UNHCR’s long-term goals for solution-oriented approaches to these challenges.[15]

In this vein, the adoption of EEVs prioritises refugee autonomy, expedited access and shared responsibility for all key actors, taking into account specific circumstance, access to legal status and documentation, as well as access to public services of various kinds. In this case, the UNHCR is the main vehicle for realisation, along with relevant partners. As the IBA report outlines, the proposed EEV initiative is a ‘multi-stakeholder, collaborative effort that can be replicated and adapted to new situations’ – an exceptionally salient proposal considering current conditions.[16]

Novel solutions like EEVs are paramount to addressing and meeting the challenges of resettlement and asylum in the coming decades. New channels for international protection, which value state commitments, sovereignty, coordination and safety, should be embraced and prioritised.


[1] Violeta Moreno-Lax, ‘A Model Instrument for an Emergency Evacuation Visa’ (IBA 2019) p 91.

[2] Ibid, p 15.

[3] Ibid, p 9.

[4] Ibid, p 14.

[5] Ibid, p 10.

[6] Ibid, p 10.

[7] Ibid, p 15.

[8] Report on the High Commissioner for Refugees (Part II) Global compact on refugees UN Doc A/Res/73/12 (17 December 2018) paras 94–96, see www.unhcr. org/gcr/GCR_English.pdf.

[9] See n 1 above, p 16.

[10] Ibid, p 25.

[11] Ibid, p 60.

[12] Ibid, p 68.

[13] Ibid, p 72.

[14] Ibid, p 73.

[15] Ibid, p 80.

[16] Ibid, p 80.