Published on People Move

Refugees’ right to work: Necessary but insufficient for formal employment of refugees

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For refugees the right to work and access to labor markets is key for becoming self-reliant, rebuilding their lives and securing dignity, and allowing them to contribute to their host communities. To this end, articles 17-19 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees provide for opportunities for wage-earning employment, self-employment and for employment in liberal professions.

How does this play out in practice? A study conducted for the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD) by Roger Zetter and Heloise Ruaudel looked closer at 20 countries hosting 70 percent of the world’s refugees. Based on this sample, the study investigates the role and impact of the principle determinants of the right to work and labor market access: refugee and employment law, policies and practices that facilitate or constrain the right to work, and mediating socioeconomic conditions. The case studies were reviewed amongst others in collaboration with ILO and UNHCR staff.

The study shows that the right to work is rarely simple and clear cut. Some countries completely legally bar refugees from work, be it as an employee and/or starting a business. Many countries that in principle allow refugees to work, place restrictions on this right to work, limiting for example the sectors that refugees can work in. Besides the right to work per se, other related laws and regulations as well as other factors that facilitate, constrain or mediate access to labor markets play a very important role for the actual access to labor markets. These include restrictions on the freedom of movement that do not allow refugees to move where the economic opportunities are, or restrictions on their ability to own property, open a business or a bank account. How and if refugees are able to access protection is a key factor determining their ability to obtain the right to work. In some countries, the number of undocumented refugees is much higher than the number of those registered. Processes to obtain work permits are often confusing and costs can be exorbitantly high. Refugees also struggle with the recognition of their skills and diplomas.

There is a remarkable diversity in legal provisions and other constraints on refugees’ right to work. The KNOMAD study did not find any significant distinction between signatory and non-signatory countries when it comes to right to work. There are also a number of mediating factors: Refugees often face discrimination, lack the skills needed on the labor market or live in host countries that face high unemployment and underemployment. The complex interplay between the different factors shows the importance to look at both, the de jure and de facto situation, to be able to understand the actual access of refugees to the labor market.

The right to work is a necessary but insufficient condition for formal employment of refugees. As the KNOMAD study showed, overwhelming majority of refugees (regardless of status and right to work) are employed in informal sector. This is not only due to difficulties in accessing formal employment but also reflects that the majority of refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, where the informal sector plays an important role in the economy. The conditions under which they work are, however, often less satisfactory and more exploitative compared with nationals. This shows us that it is important to not only look at the right to work but also the rights at work.

KNOMAD Study Part I: Synthesis

KNOMAD Study Part II: Country Case Studies


Kirsten Schuettler

Senior Program Officer, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, World Bank

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