The Right To Work: Empowering Refugees and Host States

The word ‘refugee’ conjures up images of desolate camps and tragic, impoverished conditions. As the refugee crisis becomes increasingly pressing, concern grows about how hundreds of thousands of refugees can be housed in specialist camps and how far humanitarian aid resources will stretch. Whilst such aid plays a vital role in the short-term, the provision of aid alone cannot solve the crisis and confining refugees and asylum-seekers to camps means that they are effectively quarantined, unable to integrate into wider society. Isolating refugees in this way is damaging to both the refugees concerned and the host state, creating a cycle of dependency. The only viable way to break this cycle is to empower refugees by strengthening and enforcing the rights they have, under international law, to work within host states.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers and refugees have the right to work. A refugee accrues the right to self-employment once lawfully in the country of asylum, and the right to employed work when lawfully staying in that country. The right does not, of course, guarantee the refugee a job, rather it affords him or her the opportunity to seek out work. Despite the enshrinement of this right in an international treaty, in reality refugees face numerous obstacles, whether legal or practical, in vindicating their right to work. Whilst these barriers are erected by host states in an effort to insulate themselves from the damaging effects refugees are presumed to have, the reality is that enforcing the right to work would be greatly beneficial to refugees and host states alike.

The benefit to refugees is perhaps most apparent. There is a misconception, contributed to by media rhetoric, that refugees are unskilled and parasitic people. The images we see in newspapers of people living in squalid conditions in refugee camps makes it easy to forget that refugees are simply hostages of fortune, displaced from their everyday lives by civil war and other tragedies. The camps contain people who may have been highly trained workers and professionals in the home country before they were forced to flee. When these people are placed within camps and prevented from doing any kind of meaningful work, this can be incredibly damaging to them psychologically. They are forced to be dependent on aid and live passively in artificial communities, cut off from the rest of society. Beyond the detrimental effects this can have on the mental health of refugees, making people more dependent also puts them at greater risk of exploitation by others, placing them in danger of trafficking and forced labour.

Enabling refugees to work and contribute to society allows them to lead autonomous lives and feel valued, plus encouraging people to earn a living rather than rely on government-sponsored aid is but one financial incentive for host states to champion refugees’ right to work.

A second benefit for host countries is the economic growth that can be achieved if refugees are allowed to work. By truly respecting and protecting the rights enshrined within the 1951 Convention, countries housing refugees can grow their own economy by creating new markets for goods, generating employment, and filling gaps in the labour market necessary for that country to develop.

If refugees are allowed to work and run their own businesses, the camps in which they live change from spots of economic inactivity to trading hubs, generating surges in market activity by both nationals and refugees. The refugees who run businesses require goods and they will either buy these from host country nationals, growing the market within that country, or from overseas sellers, increasing the country’s international trading presence. A country where the benefits of such practices can be seen is Tanzania. When the country saw 1.3 million refugees from Rwanda and Burundi settle, the knock-on effect was a sudden increase of activity in the local market, leading to economic growth and development. Guinea is another host state which has benefitted in this way from allowing refugees the right to work. There, refugees from overseas introduced swamp-land rice, a crop which had not previously been used in Guinea. The creation of a new market for this produce contributed to Guinea’s economic growth, whilst giving the additional benefits of imparting new agricultural knowledge to Guinean farmers and making use of previously uncultivated land.

Along with new trade, another benefit refugee workers can bring to the host state is the creation of new employment. Allowing refugees to build their own businesses creates the opportunity for further employment as those businesses grow, necessitating the recruitment of employees to work within them. The result is an upwards, positive cycle of business growth and falling unemployment levels. Where refugees employ other refugees, this reduces the overall dependency levels of the migrant population, leading to the benefits discussed above. Further, nationals of the host state stand to benefit from new job opportunities. In Uganda’s capital, Kampala, 21% of refugees own a business that employs other people. Of those employed, 40% are in fact Ugandan nationals, demonstrating the socio-economic rewards a host country receives when it protects and enforces the right of refugees to work.

Finally, refugees can be seen, by developing countries in particular, as an asset which will enable them to take the leap they need to further develop as a nation. Refugee workers can help to fill gaps in the host state’s labour market and speed up economic growth. An encouraging example can be seen in Jordan where a new economic zone has been created close to the Zaatarai refugee camp which houses 83,000 refugees. Within this zone, refugees receive specialist training, allowing their work to be tailored to Jordan’s specific needs. The symbiotic relationship that this arrangement creates is the perfect example of how the refugees’ right to work is beneficial to both refugees and host states. Jordan is able to plug a labour gap, allowing it to develop its manufacturing industry in a way that would not otherwise be possible and at the same time refugees receive valuable vocational training, equipping them with skills that will assist the re-development of the Syrian economy once they are able to safely return to their home country

The right of refugees to work is one which already exists, but which is impeded by legal and pragmatic hurdles. The imposition of these barriers appears to be part of a political agenda which views refugees with suspicion and assumes that they are burdensome to the host country. However, a brief survey of the above case studies demonstrates that this perception is misconceived and that when refugees are allowed to work, the benefits for both refugees and host countries are countless. 


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