Content of protection

Receiving a protection status entails certain rights being bestowed on the refugee or beneficiary of subsidiary protection. The combination of these rights constitute the content of protection. Differences in the status granted have direct and far-reaching impact on the lives of beneficiaries of international protection, given that they entail a widely different set of rights between refugees and subsidiary protection holders in some countries. The recast Qualification Directive (binding on all countries except Ireland, the UK, Switzerland, Serbia and Turkey) and other instruments of the EU acquis, such as the Family Reunification Directive, allow Member States to distinguish the treatment of refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries on the assumption that the latter have less durable protection needs. On that basis, many countries have opted for subjecting holders of subsidiary protection to less preferential treatment with regard to a range of entitlements crucial to securing their integration in host societies. In this section of the comparator, much of the focus lies on the different rights that constitute the content of protection in Europe.

The information in this section is up-to-date as of the end of 2016.

Residence permit

Under Article 24 of the recast Qualification Directive, Member States are required to issue to beneficiaries of international protection a residence permit with a minimal duration of 3 years for refugees and 1 year for subsidiary protection beneficiaries. In practice the duration of the residence permits issued varies between Member States, but also between the different protection statuses.


Only Spain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Switzerland issue residence permits of equal duration to refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.

In Sweden, permits issued to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection are valid for 13 months under the temporary law. This permit can be extended another two years of protection grounds still exist. The status of international protection granted after an asylum procedure becomes all the more crucial given that the duration of a residence permit for asylum reasons cannot be appealed per se, even though the type of status granted can be appealed, as recalled by the Swedish Migration Court of Appeal in January 2017. Switzerland has a “temporary admission” regime, not subsidiary protection. The “F-Permit” issued in cases of temporary admission does not amount to a residence permit, but rather as a confirmation that deportation is suspended.

Recent reforms

Recent reforms in countries such as Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and Sweden have sought to lower the security of residence afforded to refugees by introducing time limits to residence permits which were previously permanent. The following time limitations have been introduced:

Residence permits in practice

Substantial delays to the issuance of permits are encountered in Bulgaria, Italy, Sweden, Cyprus, Belgium, France and Greece. Other barriers are administrative difficulties related to the entitlement of family members of beneficiaries of protection in France and required registration addresses in Italy and Malta.

Residence permit


Article 34 of the Refugee Convention binds states to “make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings” for refugees. Contrary to other rights, EU law stops short of regulating naturalisation conditions. Hence the recast Qualification Directive remains silent on this right of beneficiaries of international protection.

Minimum required residence period

The central prerequisite for applying for nationality is a minimum period of residence in the country of refuge, defined at the discretion of each state. As a result, national legal frameworks not only vary considerably as regards waiting periods for naturalisation, but also in relation to the differentiation of refugees from subsidiary protection beneficiaries thereon:

Naturalisation in practice

In Malta, in practice, it is close to impossible for refugees to access citizenship by naturalisation as the procedure is entirely at the discretion of the Minister. Moreover, while no written policy is available, refugees are in practice only allowed to apply for citizenship after ten years of regular residence in Malta.

In Serbia, there is no existing practice vis-à-vis naturalisation to allow for an assessment of the procedure.

  • Relaxed residence period requirements: Beyond the general rules on waiting periods, certain countries provide for exceptions or relaxed residence period requirements. France allows for a reduced time limit of 2 years instead of 5 for subsidiary protection beneficiaries who have graduated from a French college, who have rendered an exceptional service to the country or who can demonstrate particularly strong integration. Similarly, Austria allows for a reduced residence period of 10 years instead of 15 for subsidiary protection beneficiaries who can prove language proficiency and/or integration efforts. Germany also allows for the residence period to be reduced to 7 years where the person has successfully attended an integration course, or 6 years where the person has integrated particularly well into society.

  • Other conditions: Additional requirements for acquisition of nationality such as documentation, language proficiency, passing of special examinations or integration courses tend to affect refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries alike in most European countries. Nevertheless, some countries treat refugees preferentially with regard to the fulfilment of such requirements. Italy allows refugees to provide an affidavit to prove their personal data, but not subsidiary protection holders.


Travel documents

Article 25 of the recast Qualification Directive requires Member States to issue travel documents to beneficiaries of refugee status in the form set out in the Schedule to the Refugee Convention. The article also requires Member States to issue travel documents to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection status who are unable to obtain national passports, however there is no requirement that these be Convention travel documents.

Duration of travel documents

The current EU legislative framework does not specify a minimum duration for travel documents, but the proposal for a Qualification Regulation contains a 1-year minimum duration for both types of travel documents. In practice, Member States currently opt for widely divergent durations of residence permits. Differences exist not only between countries, but also between beneficiaries with a different status:

In Cyprus, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection are issued with one-page travel documents valid for a one-journey trip (laissez passer).

Travel documents in Ireland are issued according to the provisions in Section 55 of the IPA, however, these contain no reference to the duration of travel documents. People who have been granted Refugee status receive a Travel Document for a period of 3 years. People who have been granted Subsidiary protection and cannot get a Travel Document from their
own authorities due to fear of persecution would normally receive a Travel Document up to the expiry date of their GNIB card..

Persons under the temporary admission scheme in Switzerland have no automatic right to a travel document and must first apply to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) (via the cantonal authority) for a return visa and a valid travel document. A return visa is only granted in specific circumstances (severe illness or death of family members and close relatives; to deal with important and urgent personal affairs; for cross-border school trips; to participate in sports or cultural events abroad; or for humanitarian reasons). They must also show that it is impossible for them to obtain travel documents from their home country, or that it cannot be expected of them to apply for travel documents from the authorities of their home country. Both requirements are very strictly applied, making it basically impossible to travel. The issued travel documents are valid for one journey and for a maximum of 10 months.

In Serbia, the issuance of a travel document is subject to the establishment of a bylaw on the format and content of the travel document, however no such instrument has been adopted so far.

Travel documents

Family reunification

The right to family unity is guaranteed in Article 23 of the recast Qualification Directive. Further details can be found in the Family Reunification Directive, which makes explicit reference to refugees but not to subsidiary protection holders.

Recent reforms

Recent legislative reforms in countries such as Austria, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Ireland, Denmark or Finland have imposed stricter conditions on the enjoyment of family reunification. Several countries have excluded subsidiary protection beneficiaries from the right to family reunification, contrary to the Commission’s 2014 guidance. Greece, Cyprus and Malta fully exclude beneficiaries of subsidiary protection from the right to family reunification. This is now also the case in Sweden following the entry into force of the temporary law from July 2016 to July 2019. The exclusion of beneficiaries of subsidiary protection from family reunification affects only those applying for asylum after 24 November 2015. Germany has recently excluded subsidiary protection holders from family reunification from March 2016 to March 2018, only eight months after granting them equal footing to refugees in terms of preferential conditions for reuniting with family members

Minimum waiting period

At EU level, the Family Reunification Directive allows for minimum waiting periods of up to 2 years prior to a family reunification application, but prohibits those in the case of recognised refugees. Against this backdrop, a number of countries have established waiting periods before an application for family reunification may be submitted, usually but not exclusively affecting subsidiary protection beneficiaries: in the case of subsidiary protection in Austria, “temporary subsidiary protection” in Denmark, and temporary admission in Switzerland, subsidiary protection holders must wait 3 years before applying for family reunification. In Malta's case, a one-year waiting period is imposed on refugees, contrary to the Directive.

Deadlines before submitting an application

Some countries have laid down a deadline following the grant of international protection for applying for family reunification in order to be exempt from material conditions, applicable to both refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries. In the Netherlands, this time limit is 3 months, whereas in Poland it is 6 months, and in Belgium and Ireland it is 12 months. In Germany, Sweden, Greece and Cyprus, where only refugees are entitled to family reunification, the time limit is 3 months.

In Austria and Hungary, such a deadline exists only for refugees, who must apply within 3 months of recognition if they wish to benefit from preferential treatment. Otherwise they must fulfil the material requirements applicable to subsidiary protection beneficiaries. The deadline of 3 months for submitting an application was introduced on 1 June 2016 in Austria, despite concern from civil society organisations around family members’ difficulties to access an Austrian embassy in person to file an application.

On the contrary, Switzerland imposes a maximum deadline of 5 years on temporarily admitted persons, after their 3-year waiting period has passed. This is reduced to 1 year if family reunification concerns children over the age of twelve. No deadline exists in France, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Material requirements

The material conditions required for family reunification under the Family Reunification Directive are threefold: the sponsor must guarantee (a) accommodation regarded as normal for a comparable family in the same region, to meet the accommodation needs of the family; (b) sickness insurance; and (c) sufficient income to cover his or her own and the family’s costs without recourse to social assistance. Refugees are expressly exempt from these requirements, although Member States are allowed not to apply the exemption if the refugee has not applied for family reunification within 3 months of recognition.

Out of the countries allowing both categories of international protection beneficiaries to apply for family reunification, Belgium exempts both refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries if the application for family reunification is filed within 12 months. Conversely, only refugees are exempted from fulfilling material conditions such as income, accommodation and health insurance in Austria, Switzerland and Hungary, although in Austria and Hungary this exemption is conditional upon applying for family reunification within the aforementioned deadline. Material conditions are always applicable to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection / temporary admission, although Austria provides an exemption for unaccompanied children. On the contrary, refugees are subject to requirements to prove accommodation, sufficient income and health insurance in Malta. Subsidiary protection beneficiaries are excluded from family reunification.  No material requirements are foreseen in France, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Family reunification


Article 32 of the recast Qualification Directive requires Member States to ensure that beneficiaries of international protection have access to accommodation under equivalent conditions as other third-country nationals legally present in the territory.

In practice, several Member States allow beneficiaries of international protection to stay in reception facilities for a certain period of time after recognition. These time limits vary greatly:

In France, Italy and Malta, these periods can be prolonged upon request. However this is only granted in exceptional cases. In Italy, the time limit of 6 months is only applicable to beneficiaries’ stay in SPRAR facilities, whereas rules on residence in temporary reception facilities (CAS) may vary considerably from one region to another. Beneficiaries may be required to leave CAS within periods ranging from 6 months in Trieste to 24 hours in Padova or immediately in Ancona.

In Cyprus this is not regulated but practice shows that beneficiaries remain in reception centres for several months after receiving protection status.

In Switzerland and Ireland there is no maximum time limit to accommodation connected with receiving the status. As long as a person depends on social assistance, housing will be provided by the canton. Due to the political structure in Switzerland the concrete arrangements depend on the canton.


About AIDA

The Asylum Information Database (AIDA) is a database managed by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), containing information on asylum procedures, reception conditions, detenti