How to grow skilled visas as a solution for people in situations of displacement

Mulham is a skilled carpenter hired from displacement in Libya with the support of TalentLift and the first candidate to arrive under the second phase of Canada’s EMPP. Mulham, centre holding a welcome sign, arrives in Toronto with his family.

Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) is in its fifth year and second phase, and undergoing a review to assess ways to grow and improve. The EMPP is a novel approach to enabling people living outside Canada, who are in refugee circumstances, to compete for jobs that are in high demand but have a low talent supply locally and to relocate using skilled visas.

The principle is that someone with the talent an employer needs, say, in carpentry, who is also in refugee circumstances should be able to access a skilled visa with the same ease as any other skilled carpenter. They should not be excluded because they have an expired passport and no way to safely or affordably renew it, or because they can’t access their original transcripts from a hostile or closed university. Rather, Canadian policy needs to shift to recognize these exclusionary forces and provide reasonable alternatives. The stakes are high: There are more than 26 million people worldwide living as refugees, many needlessly, since thousands have the talent to fill chronic skills gaps in communities across Canada – and Canadian employers from healthcare facilities to manufacturers struggle to meet demand. The double imperative is to fill skills gaps while providing solutions to displacement.

A handful of countries alongside Canada are in early stages of their own pilots. Some of these are outlined in a recent knowledge brief on complementary pathways prepared by Mehrangiz Monsef, Michelle Manks and me for the University of Ottawa’s Refugee Hub.

This overview expands on the discussion within our brief on benefits and challenges of expanding access to skilled visas for displaced talent found in the nascent literature in this field, and provides ideas for Canada and other jurisdictions to strengthen the value part of the equation and swiftly scale.


Foremost among the benefits of opening skilled visas is the increase in choice and opportunity. People living in refugee circumstances have historically had the three – often difficult or limited – options of local integration in a host country, return to a home country or resettlement to a safe third country. At their best, skilled visas offer an alternative for those with the ability and will to meet a skills need in a new country. Greater access to skilled routes, and awareness of them, may have a (so far understudied) link in reducing irregular and dangerous journeys.

Employers gain access to an underleveraged talent pool when they can hire within refugee populations. They find skills that are in short local supply, and they find a wealth of creativity and adaptability in these employees – who are eager to put down roots and find stability in their new careers and communities.

Skilled visas also provide scale potential. Skilled immigration programs are typically the largest entry point to a country, meaning that they’re the largest opportunity space among existing national immigration programs for people in refugee circumstances. Without shifting immigration levels or introducing new programs, governments can therefore support more relocations from displacement simply by reducing barriers.

Adaptations to existing visa pathways model a new equity approach to skilled immigration focused on displacement-related barriers (IRCC 2021). An equity approach, so far taken to a subset of skilled visas in the case of Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, has the potential to scale across the suite of national programs, and to benefit other disadvantaged groups, for example those who face similar documentary or financial barriers but due to other factors such as poverty or internal displacement.

Skilled visas can provide incredible speed relative to traditional resettlement. They’re typically a country’s swiftest entry option. For example, skilled visas in the United Kingdom accessible under its Displaced Talent Mobility Pilot can be processed in five days. Processing time for Canada’s Global Talent Stream work permit is fourteen days.

Skilled visas can also provide strong rights and entitlements such as permanence, family accompaniment, and social services. This is by no means an absolute, but some countries build human-centred skilled pathways that vastly reduce concerns around exploitation and vulnerability when applicants from refugee circumstances move for work.

Use of skilled visas can change narratives on displacement to include talent and potential. Some first-person accounts demonstrate the power of this narrative-change on individuals: People who engage with job and skilled immigration opportunities for themselves and their families have shared the impact on personal confidence and dignity (TalentLift 2021). Others who can experience a change in perceptions are hiring teams, policy makers, civil society supporters, and researchers.


A main concern expressed in the literature we reviewed is the risk of mixing employment, skills or human capital criteria in resettlement and other humanitarian pathways. There is strong consensus within civil society and UNHCR that there should be a clear separation here, with no contemplation of skills in selection for resettlement. However, Australia’s Community Support Program, now closed, is an example that this risk is not merely theoretical: it integrated employer choice into selection requirements despite falling under the humanitarian quota (Hirsch et al. 2019).

Directly related is the risk of reducing resettlement and other humanitarian pathway space if governments consider the use of skilled visas as a replacement instead of an additional, complementary route. One could imagine a government carving out resettlement space to account for uptake in other routes, or setting an overall level for applicants from refugee circumstances agnostic of visa program. Both approaches would ultimately reduce resettlement space.

Protections for skilled immigrants vary significantly by country, and some may provide weaker rights and entitlements for refugee newcomers relative to resettlement, which could increase risks of exploitation or vulnerability after arrival. Ideal conditions to mitigate this risk include a pathway to permanence and citizenship, family accompaniment, and access to social services such as healthcare and public education (Alboim and Cohl 2021; Smith and Wagner 2021).

Another critique is the potential brain drain effect, which is levelled at skilled immigration regimes in general and is not specific to this field. This critique should rather be moderated in displacement contexts in recognition that people living in refugee circumstances are often barred by law or practice in host countries from working gainfully or in their field of training. 

There is concern that women may face greater barriers to access than men. This may result from cultural or social factors that prevent women from paid work or work outside the home, reducing their competitiveness for international jobs and skilled visas. Another factor may be the greater availability of skilled visas that respond to sectors in which men are more represented, such as tech, manufacturing and other skilled trades.

The governments of Australia and Canada have introduced progressive flexibilities that recognize the disadvantage of often years-long displacement, for example, an increase in the age limit of a principal applicant (Australia) and removing a recency period for required work experience (Canada). But many barriers remain unaddressed by piloting governments that limit equity and scale. For example, a requirement to demonstrate temporary intent when applying for work permits, or the sole eligibility of a spouse and children (TalentLift 2021). The latter can disproportionately exclude women who undertake caregiving roles for parents, siblings or certain extended family members.

Efforts to implement pilots or proof of concept programming have been resource-intensive because of visa costs and staffing costs, as typical non-profit models involve case work to support individuals through recruitment and relocation processes (Fratzke et al. 2021:9). Visa costs may fall if governments take an equity approach to pricing for displaced talent. Staffing costs may fall with more predictability and accessibility embedded in visa programs, economies of scale within implementing organizations, and, as a result, greater willingness by employers to pay.

Ideas for improvement

So, where to next? How can Canada and peer countries move towards greater scale, in a direction that deepens value and mitigates risk?

1. Make equity the core goal. If an equity approach is taken to skilled visa access by displaced talent, then the starting point is access to all skilled programs. Not a subset of existing programs, not a new boutique program that may limit size and be easier to axe – but full and equitable access to all skilled visas on par with talent from any other background. Equity is the key to achieving the greatest scale. It may also help safeguard additionality by virtue of its focus on an existing space separate from humanitarian resettlement.

2. Remove as many barriers as possible. We should seek to remove all the barriers we can with available tools and resources, across all skilled visa pathways. Let’s use the Canadian example: Canada currently operates a patchwork pilot where some flexibility is available in some programs only. And yet solutions to many of the main displacement-related barriers are already in practice or at hand. A tested solution should be broadly applied.

3. Make access as frictionless as possible. There are simple ways to determine who among the software developers, nurses, carpenters, and cooks merits (straightforward) flexibility like use of an expired passport. No complex process or document to prove their displacement is needed. The operating principle here should be deference to the declared need of a talented applicant for flexibility due to displacement. Why? We want to attract talent, so let’s orient policy towards swift and seamless arrivals.

One of the people recently supported by our team at TalentLift to receive a job offer in Canada and start a skilled visa application is a software developer set to work in the cleantech sector with a starting salary of $96,000 CAD. He’s Rohingya and living stateless and displaced from Myanmar, so he’ll be gaining a secure status as Canada gains his talent.

These powerful stories of shared value are unfolding globally as pathways open and people leave displacement for work, for study, or by sponsorship. Countries that expand choice expand human potential too.

The views expressed are those of the author/s, and are not attributable to the host organisations of the Resettlement.Plus website.

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