What Is a Humanitarian Visa?

By Dianne Laguerta
Close-up of Visa paperwork.
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For anyone traveling from his native land to another, visas may be an important part to ensuring entry, departure, or stay at his destination. Visas are different based on the nature of the visit: there are visas for tourism, business, religious work, temporary work, and permanent or semi-permanent migration. For most countries, humanitarian visas generally refer to those reserved for refugees entering for permanent resettlement. In other instances, the term may refer to special-purpose visas for temporary visits, such as those issued in family emergencies or for medical treatment.

Definition and Purpose

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 10 million refugees globally that have been displaced from their country of origin. Refugees accepted by the UNHCR face three possible solutions: repatriation to their own country when conditions permit, local integration wherever they are or resettlement elsewhere. Most eventually return home, but a proportion are resettled abroad to a number of countries that open their doors and provide support for the refugees. The United States, Australia, and the Nordic countries such as Sweden are the top resettlement countries in the world. Since 1975, the U.S. has accepted more than 3 million refugees for permanent resettlement, according to the U.S. State Department.

War, Oppression and Disaster

Refugee programs are mostly aimed at those who have been displaced by war or suffered violence from ethnic, religious or other oppression. For example, many Vietnamese "boat people" who fled South Vietnam after its conquest by the north resettled in the U.S. as refugees, as did thousands of Soviet Jews fleeing rampant anti-Semitism and discrimination in the former USSR. However, some countries have also provided humanitarian visas for those that have been displaced by natural disasters. For example, after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Canada's federal and Quebec's provincial governments instituted a humanitarian sponsorship program for more than 3,000 Haitians that were seriously affected by the natural disaster. Brazil also provided humanitarian visas to Haitians who arrived in that country without legal documentation following the disaster, allowing them to work and offering the prospect of permanent residency if certain conditions were met.


The civil war in Syria that began in March 2011 has led to as many as 2 million Syrians leaving the country. Some 4 percent have sought settlement in the European Union, but according to EurActiv.com, only 11 EU countries have agreed to take any. Political trends in the EU countries have become less favorable toward immigration and a 2013 meeting of the EU's 28 home affairs ministers "seemed more focused on border security rather than refugees' protection," EurActiv.com reported. In contrast, the Special Humanitarian Program of Australia, offers humanitarian visas to refugees seeking resettlement in Australia, or who are currently in Australia and applying for permanent status. Offshore refugee applicants can appeal for resettlement in Australia under four types of visa subclasses: Refugee, In-country Special Humanitarian, Emergency Rescue and Woman at Risk visas. Despite growing concerns in the U.S. about illegal -- and, in some quarters, legal -- immigration, the U.S. still planned to admit as many as 70,000 refugees in fiscal year 2014.

Non-immigrant Humanitarian Visas

Some countries issue “humanitarian visas” for non-immigration reasons. For example, Russia reserves humanitarian visas for foreign nationals conducting scientific, cultural, or political work, or visiting for religious reasons like pilgrimage or to provide humanitarian assistance. The United States does not issue humanitarian visas as outlined above, but grants "humanitarian parole" to foreigners who otherwise would not be eligible to enter the country in certain prescribed circumstances, such as a family or medical emergency. The maximum amount of time for which humanitarian parole may be granted is one year, according to USCIS. The U.S. also may provide Temporary Protected Status to certain individuals allowing them to stay and work temporarily in the U.S.; for example, many undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. who had fled the civil wars in Central America were granted TPS in 1990 while action on their immigration status was deferred.

About the Author

Dianne Laguerta is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor's degree in history and Middle Eastern studies. She studied and conducted research in Cairo, Egypt during the 2012 Egyptian elections, and has traveled throughout the Middle East.