Although international law gives refugees the rights to live safely, seek employment, put children in school and build a life in a new home, few countries have governance frameworks (practices, policies or laws) that honor these rights. This leaves people without options for taking care of themselves or their families; indeed, these restrictions prevent refugees from rebuilding their lives.
History has shown us that refugee situations are not temporary; refugees in protracted situations are now spending an average of 26 years in refugee camps or left on the margins of society. Only 1 percent of refugees are resettled yearly to the U.S., Canada, Europe or Australia. Coupled with the restrictions placed on refugees, this reality means around the world, the potential of entire generations is squandered with startling frequency.
While humanitarian aid is available for refugees inside camps and out, the provision of food, water and medical care inherently does not lead toward long-term solutions. In recognition of this, donor and host governments, multilaterals and NGOs have increasingly focused on development efforts like vocational training and market interventions. However, these initiatives fall short. Vocational training is only as valuable as the markets refugees can use them in, and most cannot access formal markets. In some countries, market investments have funded companies with poor labor practices and below minimum wage pay. More often than not, the governance frameworks that refugees live under prevent them from moving beyond the need for humanitarian aid, or finding value in development initiatives.
The result of these barriers is profound. Refugees work in the informal market where they are subject to exploitation, abuse, rape, or sometimes detention and deportation for working without authorization. Fearful and misinformed refugees are disincentivized from applying for work permits when bureaucratic and financial requirements provide further barriers and uncertainty of success.
This is a lose-lose proposition: refugees who live in countries with ineffective governance frameworks cannot build a future and cannot contribute to the broader community. In contrast, refugees who live in host countries with rights-respecting governance frameworks not only build bright futures for themselves, but they also stabilize their host country and bolster its economy. Self-reliant refugees also relieve pressures on public services and lower the costs incurred by host countries.
In acknowledging this reality, a complete, balanced response requires investment in not only relief and development, but also in supporting host governments and other key stakeholders to establish rights-respecting solutions that enable full social and economic participation.
Complementing relief and development with governance
In order for humanitarian aid to give way to successful development initiatives, we must address the systemic barriers which prevent refugees from accessing the rights they need to rebuild their lives.
In particular, the protection and enforcement of refugee work rights will serve not only to alleviate refugee dependency on aid and otherwise abject poverty, but also to stabilize the domestic workforce. Furthermore, the impacts of job creation, training and skills matching, and market investments are amplified when refugees’ rights are respected.
The right to work provides an entry point for refugees to access a range of other rights — civil, political, economic, social and cultural. By securing lawful and safe employment, refugees are enabled to provide a livelihood for themselves and empowered to become a member and economic contributor to their host community.
The goal is to promote work rights in order for refugees to access safe and lawful employment and self-employment. Program strategies can utilize a combination of direct service, legal assistance, advocacy for policy change, and other related approaches to achieve the following:
- Refugees understand their options, understand the applicable laws and have support when navigating the bureaucratic complexities information sharing among refugees and employers on the laws available that allow refugees to work
- Where employers willfully disregard laws and policies that limit the exploitation of employees — regardless of legal status — a legal empowerment approach should be available to address employment violations at individual and systemic levels.
- Civil society must encourage governments to respect, protect and promote refugee work rights in a collaborative and solution-generating manner.
- Employers are engaged early so that they become allies in encouraging refugee market participation.
- The general public’s attitudes are well-understood and responded to — their voices are critical when encouraging governments to invoke effective and rights-respecting governance frameworks.
Is refugee work rights relevant in all contexts?
Refugees deserve the right to work regardless of country context. Therefore, while your programmatic or advocacy approach might differ depending on context, promoting refugee work rights is relevant in all contexts.
In countries where refugees have limited or no rights, it is especially crucial to develop a long term vision and build momentum for systemic change. This can include a number of different strategies. For example, to transition refugees from the informal to formal economy, first steps might involve strategies that convene, inform and train decision-makers on refugee work rights. The Needs and Landscape Analysis section will guide you to assess your country context in order to design an effective and impact-focused refugee work rights program.