Employment Working Paper No. 256, 2019 – Refugees and decent work: Lessons learned from recent refugee jobs compacts

Jennifer Gordon

1. Introduction

Refugees are rarely legally recognized as workers. And yet many regularly work. Inside refugee camps, they trade and sell goods and services to each other and the surrounding community. They may also earn cash from humanitarian organizations for short-term jobs, or grow crops and make crafts to sell. Refugees who live outside camps also work, albeit usually without the right to do so. Most are hired in the informal economy, much like undocumented immigrants.

Work was once central to refugee policy. Between the First and Second World Wars, access to jobs was at the core of assistance to refugees and displaced people in Europe.

Organizations including the ILO sought to find work for those displaced by war, and refugee resettlement was guided by economic opportunity. The 1951 Refugee Convention, however, sharply distinguished between refugees and economic migrants, emphasizing protection rather than employment for refugees. For the next 60 years, refugees were rarely recognized as workers.

Today, refugee crises are on the rise, involving more people and lasting longer than ever. More than 20 million refugees worldwide now live outside their home countries, the highest number since the Second World War. The vast majority reside in low- and middleincome countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The three durable solutions of repatriation to the country of origin, integration in the host country, or resettlement in a third country have not proven possible to implement at a level that would address refugees’ needs. Repatriation is not an option in extended conflicts. Low- and middle-income countries often host refugees for extended periods, but few offer to integrate them on a permanent basis. The world’s developed nations accept only a tiny fraction of the global refugee population for permanent resettlement.

As a result, most refugees today live in a state of long-term limbo. This reality has forced a discussion about alternatives, particularly those that would decrease refugees’ need for aid and increase their self-reliance. In this context, international organizations have brought the idea of allowing refugees to work in host countries back to the table. The proposal is politically charged. Developed nations have tended to support it, for the hope, among other reasons, that offering refugees greater opportunities where they are will keep them from moving on to wealthier countries. Many host governments have been resistant, pointing out their already vastly disproportionate contribution to the supposedly shared responsibility to provide assistance to the world’s refugees. They note the irony of being asked to integrate refugees into their struggling economies when much richer nations are unwilling to do so. Other host states have been more open to discussing economic integration for refugees, albeit in exchange for substantially increased assistance from developed nations.

Before the Syrian armed conflict began in 2011, the international conversation about large-scale refugee access to work as a self-reliance measure had reached an impasse. As the war intensified, more than 5 million Syrian refugees had fled to nearby Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Initially, a relatively small number sought entry to Europe. Over time, however, as the resources of those who had stayed in host countries near home dwindled, hundreds of thousands headed for the European Union. Once the EU became a significant destination, the press closely tracked their dangerous sea and land voyages and the resulting tragedies as well as their journeys northward through Europe. One result was two contradictory sets of political pressures: for the EU to take care of the refugees and for it to fence them out.

Allowing refugees to work in the host country appeared to be a way to achieve the EU’s protection and exclusion goals at the same time. What broke the logjam was the EU’s agreement to provide significant funding in exchange for responsibilities taken on by a host nation. The Jordan Compact was signed in February 2016. Through it, the EU and the World Bank committed to significant financial support for Jordan to provide work opportunities for 200,000 Syrian refugees in the country, alongside increased economic opportunities for Jordanians. Later that year, a related set of actors signed a smaller compact with Ethiopia, to create new jobs for Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees there, as well as for Ethiopians.

Source: International Labour Organization