What do we mean by "refugee work rights?"

Under international and oftentimes regional law, refugees have access to a series of rights that facilitate their ability to rebuild a life in a new country. This includes the right to access jobs and business permits, and also a right to be free from workplace discrimination, forced labor, and other abuses. Paired with rights to freedom of movement, legal documentation, education and access to financial services, you get the package of “refugee work rights” that allow a person to become self-sufficient and build a life in a new country.

Why refugee work rights matter

Today there are 26.4 million refugees who have fled their home countries due to persecution or war. They spend on average nearly 20 years in exile, whether in camps or on the margins of urban society. Many lack formal legal status, are barred from entering the labor market, or are housed in camps far away from economic centers. This creates generations of families without opportunity or any hope of contributing meaningfully to society.

Traditionally, refugee response actors have offered support through the provision of humanitarian aid. While such aid has an essential role to play in protecting the physical security of refugees, it alone is not enough. A comprehensive response must extend beyond short-term needs if it is to enable refugees to rebuild their lives and achieve self-sufficiency.

By investing in refugees’ access to safe, lawful employment, we are investing in the long term success of refugees and their host communities.

The economics of refugee work rights

Counter to common misconceptions, refugees can provide economic benefits to their countries of asylum, when permitted to meaningfully participate in the economy. In fact, countries of asylum are well advised to grant the right to work fairly soon after refugees seek asylum in their country. Refugees that engage in commerce help spur economic growth and create jobs, alleviating fears that working refugees will increase competition in the labor market.

Evidence suggests that refugees can effectively contribute to economic growth:

  • Self-employed refugees are self-sufficient and may create jobs. Refugee entrepreneurs do not stress humanitarian aid or government services, and may create jobs as they grow and expand their businesses. (Betts et al. 2014, Arnsdorf Haslund 2019)
  • Refugees fill labor gaps. Refugees ensure that a growing economy is not slowed by a declining labor force.
  • Trade in food and goods. Refugees trade humanitarian aid items for local merchandise.
  • Creation of new markets and expansion of existing markets. Refugees place new demands on the local economy that merchants seek to supply and earn a profit.
  • Increase in cross-border trade. Merchants satisfy refugees’ demands by importing foreign goods.

These cases also highlight the consequences of denying the right to work:

  • Increased job competition. Refugees denied employment rights inevitably find work, and displace nationals when employers opt to pay refugees less in the informal economy.
  • Depressed wages. Nationals are forced to offer their labor for less than the local wage rate in order to compete with refugees for work.
  • Lost tax revenue from refugee income. Refugees denied employment rights work informally and are unable to pay taxes to contribute to the provision of public goods and services.

Refugee work rights under international law

A refugee’s fundamental right to earn a living through work that has been freely chosen is protected in international human rights and refugee law. The right to work is part of a number of international and regional human rights treaties, namely the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (referred to collectively as the 1951 Refugee Convention) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The right to work has been recognized to be so essential to the realization of other rights that “without the right to work, all other rights are meaningless” (Henkin 1951). Work rights are the means through which the individual may achieve a range of other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, fulfilling the human desire to feel useful, valued and productive.

While 149 countries have committed to honoring the right to work as parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and 171 have committed to the ICESCR, the reality is that many of the world’s refugees lack access to safe and lawful employment.

Work is a human right available to refugees and not merely an entitlement that may be extended or withheld as a matter of policy or discretion. When permitted to engage in safe and lawful work, a refugee may fulfill their basic survival needs and contribute to the needs of the community and country in which they reside.