Exploring safer pathways for refugees and asylum seekers

23 Jul 2019

Steph (right) with Maha Mamo (left), an inspiring leader and formerly stateless refugee who came to Brazil through the country’s Syria humanitarian admissions program. Maha is now a Brazilian citizen, and is pictured here proudly wearing the Brazilian flag. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, May 2018.


For decades Australia has spent billions of dollars and an incalculable amount of political energy to deter people seeking asylum by boat. We’ve detained people seeking asylum indefinitely, warehoused them on remote islands and pushed their boats away. These policies have caused irreparable harm to women, men, children and families. As an Australian who believes in human rights I’ve always been deeply troubled by these policies.

What if instead of just deterring people from coming the “wrong way”, we invested in alternative pathways for refugees to get to Australia safely? To try to answer this question I embarked on a Churchill Fellowship to explore, document and share evidence about how other countries have welcomed large numbers of people seeking asylum into their communities.

In April 2018 I said farewell to my husband Jules and my nine-year-old son Owen and began an utterly life changing journey around the globe. I visited Brazil, USA, Canada, Italy, Germany and Switzerland searching for ideas and solutions. In each country I met with government officials, community organisations and refugees themselves to learn about innovative programs that have worked to create safe and legal alternative pathways for refugees.

I designed my Fellowship program with great optimism, buoyed by a range of welcoming policies and programs I planned to study in each of these countries. But as I travelled I witnessed firsthand the undeniable trend towards rising nationalism and xenophobia in our world, and a growing tendency of governments to close borders and restrict people's access to asylum and refuge.

While the politics of the day is leaning against immigration in general, and refugees in particular, I discovered that we have the solutions to open up safe and legal pathways for refugees. We just need political leadership to implement them.

(Top Left) Iconic mural of people seeking protection painted on remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany, May 2018.
(Bottom Left) Standing outside the International Organisation of Migration in Brasilia, Brazil. IOM assists the Brazilian government to run its humanitarian admissions programs.
(Right) Siham Abu Sitta, who was sponsored by a church group to resettle in Canada with her two daughters. Here Siham is holding a quilt given to her by one of her sponsors when she arrived. Toronto, May 2018.


My Churchill Fellowship was an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience. I met so many amazing, inspiring people working to create solutions for refugees - many of whom have been refugees themselves. There is so much more we can and should do to provide safe-haven for people uprooted by conflict and crisis. This Fellowship has helped me to clarify concrete solutions I can work towards throughout my career, and has propelled me to keep pushing for policy change.

From my research I believe there are three solutions that could be adopted by Australia to help refugees find safety while reducing unsafe irregular migration.

  1. Create a humanitarian admissions pathway for asylum seekers so they can come safely and legally by plane: The “humanitarian admissions” approach has been used in Brazil, Italy, Germany and to a narrow extent the United States. I found Brazil’s humanitarian admission programs for Syrians and Haitians have been particularly successful at opening legal pathways and eliminating people smuggling routes, with minimal cost to Brazilian tax payers. I believe Australia should create a special humanitarian visa to use in response to large displacement crises that significantly increase the risk of irregular migration to Australia.
  2. Empower the Australian community to sponsor refugees: By drawing on the goodwill of everyone in society, community sponsorship programs can significantly increase a country’s capacity to welcome refugees. Canada pioneered this approach and now welcomes around 20,000 refugees each year through sponsorship programs. Their approach works as the government has the right policy settings in place to empower a wide range of community actors to take part. I believe Australia could achieve similar results.
  3. Let refugees migrate for work: Almost half of the world’s refugees are working age and millions have skills in high demand globally, yet most are stuck in countries where they cannot legally work. Refugees are generally unable to secure skilled visas due to bureaucratic hurdles and lack of funds. Removing these barriers could be a game changer. If just 1% of the world’s working age refugees could relocate with their families for work, nearly 500,000 refugees would have an additional path out of displacement.

(Left) Child playing in the rain in a refugee camp for members of the Warao Indigenous community displaced from Venezuela in Boa Vista, far north Brazil. 
(Right) Participants in the inaugural Global Summit of Refugees, bringing together refugee-led organizations and refugee change-makers from around the world to propose more effective refugee policy. Geneva, Switzerland, 25 June 2018.


Since returning I have published my Fellowship report on my website www.makerefuge.org, which also includes stories and videos posted on my journey. I plan to continue to grow this online resource for ideas and research about solutions to displacement. With the assistance of Churchill Fellowship Dissemination Support I also presented at a workshop on refugee sponsorship hosted by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. This was a great experience to discuss refugee sponsorship best practice with other practitioners, and input into proposals to the Government.

Just before starting my Fellowship I became the inaugural Australia Director of Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), a global NFP dedicated to opening up skilled pathways for refugees and asylum seekers. In this role I have been able to directly incorporate lessons from the Fellowship into my work. I am now advocating for Australia to create a hybrid skilled/humanitarian visa program to address the barriers refugees face in accessing skilled migration, working closely with Churchill Fellow, Marina Brizar, who was awarded her Fellowship in 2018 to explore the creation of such a hybrid scheme.

I am so fortunate to have had this opportunity. My sincere thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for supporting this journey.


To read more about Steph Cousin's Fellowship findings read her Fellowship report.


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