What is the difference between refugee status and subsidiary protection?


What are the differences between refugee status and subsidiary protection in Germany, Italy, the UK and France? Here’s what you need to know.

Refugee status and subsidiary protection are two forms of international protection granted to asylum seekers. It is not up to the asylum seeker to choose which one to apply for – the authorities decide what status they will grant. There is a European directive (a non-binding rule) setting the standards of protection, but it is up to each country in the European Union (EU) to incorporate them into its own laws, so there are differences between member states.

As a rule, to be granted refugee status a person must meet the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention (“Geneva Convention”). An important aspect of this is whether denial of the refugee claim would result in ” refoulement ”(illegal forced return) of the person to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. If so, they will be recognized as refugees.

Subsidiary protection – also called humanitarian protection – is a lesser form of protection that can be granted when a person does not meet the criteria for refugee status. To benefit from subsidiary protection, a person must generally prove that he or she risks suffering serious harm if returned to their country of origin. You don’t have to be in danger for a specific reason such as race, religion, or political opinion.

The major difference between the two types of protection is the possibility of reuniting family members. Most EU Member States apply different family reunification rules to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection compared to refugees. Some countries, including Greece, Cyprus and Malta, totally exclude people with subsidiary protection status from family reunification. Austria, Germany, Sweden and Hungary impose requirements such as sufficient income, health insurance and housing. In Sweden, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection receive a 13-month residence permit which can be extended for 2 years, but they have almost no possibility of family reunification.

EU flags beside the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium | Photo: ArchiveEPA / Julien Warnand


Refugee status is granted to people who have been persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or association with a particular social group in their country of origin. A person can obtain refugee status even if they entered Germany through a safe third country.

Recognized refugees are issued Three years residence permit which can be extended for three more years if the situation in their country of origin does not improve. Refugees have the option of applying for permanent residence after three or five years.

Recognized refugees are also entitled to a refugee travel document (or “Convention”) which allows them to travel abroad but not to their country of origin.

If a person obtains refugee status, then they have the right to bring their immediate family members to Germany, to work and receive unemployment benefit, receive family and parental benefit, take a course in integration and study or undergo vocational training.

Subsidiary protection applies to people who are not recognized as having the right to asylum or refugee status. This form of protection can apply to people who are not personally facing persecution but who are in grave danger, for example due to war or serious human rights violations such as the death penalty, torture or inhuman treatment.

In Germany, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection receive a residence permit valid for one year. This permit can be extended by two more years if the situation in the country of origin does not improve. As with refugee status, there is the possibility of applying for permanent residence.

With subsidiary protection in Germany, a person has the right to work, to receive unemployment benefit, job search assistance and family and parental benefits, to take an integration course, to study and to study. participate in vocational training.

However, people with subsidiary protection do not receive a refugee travel document.

In 2018, Germany abolished the right to family reunion for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and introduced a provision allowing a maximum of 1000 family members to obtain a visa to enter Germany each month.

There is more information here.


In practical terms refugee status and subsidiary protection (called humanitarian protection) are very similar to UK: both entail the authorization to stay in the country for five years, with the possibility of apply for permanent residence after that. In the UK, this is called “indefinite leave”.

Note: After Brexit, the UK is not changing its humanitarian protection laws and regulations, although it may do so in the future.

In the United Kingdom, as in Germany, refugees can travel on a Convention travel document, but not those enjoying subsidiary protection. Other differences were pointed out in a blog post by John Vassiliou, a UK immigration lawyer, for the Asylum Portal. Free movement.

One of them concerns the revocation of a person’s status. In the United Kingdom, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR must be able to review a person’s case when their refugee status has been revoked, but this requirement does not apply to persons benefiting from the refugee status. subsidiary protection. In addition, according to Vassiliou, following a change in immigration rules, partners of refugees who are victims of domestic violence can now apply for permanent residence, but partners of those benefiting from subsidiary (humanitarian) protection are not. not. “People with humanitarian protection can still sponsor their partners to join them in the UK, but if they are violent or abusive towards them, these partners do not enjoy the protection provided by the rules,” explains- he does.

Both recognized refugees and persons enjoying subsidiary protection have the right to request family meeting, as well as permission to work and study. They also have access to health care and other benefits.


In Italy, the two refugee status and subsidiary protection (Permesso di soggiorno per protezione sussidiaria) are granted for five years and can be renewed. The two statutes allow the person to travel in the Schengen area without a visa. Recognized refugees receive the Convention travel document, while those enjoying subsidiary protection receive a travel permit or ‘Titolo di viaggio per stranieri’. Both allow the person to travel for up to three months, but not to work or stay permanently in another country. As in other countries, beneficiaries of refugee protection and subsidiary protection are not allowed to travel to their country of origin.

Like a recognized refugee, a person who benefits from subsidiary protection in Italy has the right to stay in a SPRAR center (accommodation for refugees), to work in Italy (but not in other European countries), to have access to health care and other benefits, and education. People with this type of status also have the right to obtain an identity card (carta identità), to apply for Italian nationality after 10 years and to apply for a permit to work or study in another country of the EU after five years of living in Italy. and under certain conditions.

Beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and refugees both have the right to family reunion.


When it comes to residence, the difference between refugee status and subsidiary protection in France is much greater than in other countries. A person who has been granted refugee status receives a 10 years residence permit and right to work (automatically renewed). Those who benefit from subsidiary protection in France receive a one year residence permit with the right to work. This is renewed on condition that the situation in the country of origin has not significantly improved.

In France, the same rights apply to refugees and to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection in matters of family reunion. As soon as a person benefits from one or the other form of protection, he or she has the right to request family reunification and the same rules apply.

Read also: When can the refugee status or subsidiary protection be revoked?

Please consult a lawyer or check with national authorities, as laws may be subject to change.


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