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).

Of the 1951 Refugee Convention, articles 13 (right to own property), 17 (right to wage earning employment), 18 (right to self-employment), 19 (right to practice a liberal profession), 24 (right to benefit from labor regulations), and 26 (right to move freely) are considered essential to refugee work rights. In the ICESCR, articles 6 (right to work), 7 (right to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work), 8 (right to form or join trade unions and to strike) and 9 (right to social security) form the basis for refugee work rights.

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.