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Refugees’ Right to Work: Economic Justification for Ideal Refugee Rights
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An estimated 1,727 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea between January 1 and April 21, 2015, attempting to immigrate illegally to Europe.[1] Some of these migrants were undoubtedly fleeing violent conflict such as that ongoing in Syria and Iraq and would be considered refugees according to international doctrine. Their plight, and that of the 16.7 million other refugees worldwide,[2] is emblematic of a broken refugee regime, one in which refugee rights are enshrined in memorandums and conventions yet unrealized in practice. Host governments in particular play an important role in this system, as their policies directly impact refugee lives.                   

For a variety of reasons, host governments often emphasize the cost of refugees while downplaying or altogether ignoring their economic benefits.[3] This stance, coupled with restrictive policies preventing refugees from legally working, ignores international refugee law, the reality of protracted displacement and forced migration, and research regarding the true economic costs and benefits of refugees. Ultimately, through their own actions, states exacerbate costs associated with refugee populations by preventing their eventual self-sufficiency through work. This status quo is unsustainable. However, through a reframing of refugee crises in government discourse and a renegotiation of host country economic policies the overall economic burden of refugees can be dramatically reduced and shared more equitably among nations.

Background

International Refugee Doctrine

The established international legal frameworks governing refugee status and economic rights, the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees and the subsequent 1967 Protocol,[4] are benchmarks by which the current refugee regime can be evaluated. The Convention is, “the only global legal instrument dealing with the status and rights of refugees”[5] and defines a refugee as a person who

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.[6]

Per the definition, refugees constitute a subset of international migrants: forced migrants who lack the protection of their national government. In concert with the Protocol, the Convention outlines refugees’ rights in host countries regarding a variety of issues such as property, housing, and travel documentation.

In addition detailing other refugee rights, the Convention sets minimum standards for refugees’ regarding employment. Specifically, articles 17, 18, and 19 state that refugees have the right to wage-earning employment and host governments should afford them the, “most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country”. In addition, article 17 stipulates that, legal restrictions designed to protect the domestic labor market, such as those governing foreign nationals, cannot be applied to refugees with a spouse or child who holds host country citizenship, or who have been in the host country for three years.[7] Finally, the Convention states that legal measures enabling or preventing refugee access to the labor market should abide by these guidelines and signatory states ought to “give sympathetic consideration to assimilating the rights of all refugees…to those of nationals”.[8] Thus, international refugee doctrine establishes refugees as forced migrants who should, in theory, have access to wage-earning employment on par with or better than the status of other foreign nationals in a host country.

Protracted Displacement and Associated Economic Needs

Before exploring the failures of host country economic policies in both a legal and practical sense, it is important to note an overarching trend which all host countries must contend with: protracted displacement. Despite the emergency phase of refugee crises, which often garner the most media attention, protracted displacement extending far beyond the initial months is now the norm. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the world’s leading refugee agency mandated by the United Nations, defines protracted displacement as a, “long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives my not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance”.[9] As of 2003, the average length of refugee displacement stretched to 17 years.[10] This protracted displacement, coupled with the very nature of forced migration, ensures long-lasting economic drain on host states.

Refugee populations make economic demands on host states due to the often unwilling or unplanned nature of forced migration and its consequences. Specifically, “common to almost all refugees…is the destitution that results from their flight experience”.[11]  Consequently, refugees require assistance and services, which host governments struggle to provide for extended periods of time, often for decades. Host states experience these associated costs in multiple ways, including: overextended national budgets; increasing demand on infrastructure and public service networks; and, rising administration costs.[12] These costs are exacerbated and extended by barriers to legal refugee employment, which often violate international law.

Barriers to the Right to Work: Impractical Policy

Violations of International Refugee Norms

Despite the economic rights of refugees laid out in 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols, the ability of refugees to engage in legal wage-earning employment is commonly constrained in practice. According to a 2003 UN report, of “214 countries surveyed, only 37 percent fully met international standards in protecting refugees’ right to work, and 32 percent of countries do not even partially meet international law standards”.[13] Host government restrictions on refugee employment may take the form of outright bans, limitations on mobility, expensive and convoluted licensing procedures, police harassment and discrimination, and other methods.[14] These barriers are clear violations of international refugee law.[15] Additionally, though barriers to refugee employment exist for a myriad of reasons, in practice they result in greater host community costs.

Impractical Policy

Barriers to legal refugee economic engagement are impractical policy, ultimately extending costs for host communities far into the future and ignoring the benefits of refugee populations. These barriers exist, in part, due to the many lenses through which states construe refugee populations as national threats.[16] The perception of refugees as a resource burden in government discourse and the public eye constitutes a primary reason for restrictions on the economic engagement of refugees.[17] In addition to states’ responsiveness to the perceived “refugee burden”[18] there exists, “among the general public, the perception that migrants, especially low-skilled migrants, are a major cause of stagnant wages and high unemployment in advanced countries is widespread”.[19] As a result, refugees are often blamed for pre-existing economic problems[20] and restricting refugee right to work is justified. However, these economic restrictions extend the economic burden on host communities indefinitely, or until displacement ends.

Aforementioned widespread barriers to legal refugee employment effectively reduce the financial means of refugees. As a result, refugees are unlikely to become self-sufficient and incomes are not expected to rise over time like other migrant groups.[21] Given the probability of protracted displacement, these barriers ensure that host governments will shoulder the costs of refugee populations over the long-term. Thus, despite extended years of displacement most refugees will lack “the freedom to pursue normal lives and to become productive members of their new societies”.[22] In addition to ignoring the likelihood of protracted displacement and its financial implications, host states restrictions on refugees’ right to work creates additional economic pressures.

A combination of destitution and barriers to legal employment has forced refugees in search of livelihoods to work in the low skilled or low wage sector. Refugees are predominantly employed in the informal sector, at times far below their levels of education and job training.[23] This exacerbates economic strain for host countries in two ways. Firstly, the informal sector is untaxed. As a result, refugee incomes do not contribute to public coffers as other legal incomes do. In addition, by forcing refugees to compete for jobs in the informal or low-skilled sector, states encourage competition in the employment sector where labor market competition between migrants and natives is greatest,[24] contributing to greater public discontent associated with refugee employment. Thus, employment barriers erected by host governments prevent refugees from contributing to public funds through taxes and increase competition between refugees and vulnerable members of the host population in the low-skilled sector.[25] Additionally, these policies often rest on faulty assumptions concerning the negative effects of influx of refugees on the labor market.

Economic research demonstrates that migrants, and refugees as a subset of international migrant, have limited negative impacts on job markets and are in many instances economic contributors. Common fears that refugees will steal jobs from locals or depress wages are based on what economists term the “lump of labor fallacy: the erroneous notion that there is only so much work to be done and that no one can get a job without taking one from someone else”.[26] Economic analysis, such as that of the 1980 Mariel boatlift case – in which an influx of 125,000 Cubans expanded Miami’s labor force by 7% in four months and had little impact on wages or local employment – demonstrate that large influxes of migrants do not have the assumed negative effects on the labor market.[27] The Mariel boatlift case and others[28] illustrate that “…fears of an adverse impact on wages, unemployment and living standards of native low-skilled workers are largely misplaced, while the positive effects on the broad economy are significantly and typically underestimated”.[29] The case of Syrian refugees in Jordan illustrates how economic misperceptions and legal barriers hinder refugee self-sufficiency and exacerbate costs for the Jordanian government.

Syrian Refugees in Jordan

There are over 620,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.[30] Their presence and need for refugee services and aid stresses Jordan’s finances and infrastructure, as highlighted by Jordan’s Response Plan to the Syrian Crisis (JRPSC). Consequently, the JRPSC estimates that the fiscal impact of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 will be over $2 billion.[31] Like most refugee crises, the Syrian crisis is protracted, with little chance of an end to Syria’s conflict or lasting durable solutions for the majority of Syrian refugees. In recognition of this reality, Jordan’s policy toward Syrian refugees has shifted beyond emergency planning toward development goals. However, continued restrictions preventing Syrians from engaging in legal work violate international norms and ensure that these development plans will be unsuccessful.

As part of their development-oriented approach, the JRPSC aims to attract $2.9 billion in international funding for a one-year program to increase the resilience and absorption capacity of eleven essential sectors including energy, health, education, food security, and more.[32] In this midst of this new approach, the majority of Jordan’s Syrian refugees lack the ability to work legally, constrained by a system that technically allows them to obtain work permits but is prohibitive in practice.[33] These practices are ultimately illegal and impractical. Jordan’s long-term development goals will never be actualized if Syrian refugees are continuously blocked from economic activity. The costs for their care will extend indefinitely, far beyond the $2.9 billion designated for 2015, as their incomes will not rise over time as other migrants’ do. Thus, the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan will continue to require assistance in addition to having no taxable legal income to contribute to the JRPSC. Given the ongoing need and scale of refugee populations worldwide like that ongoing in Jordan, a new approach to refugee assistance and employment is needed: a sustainable, legal approach.

Recommendations

Refugees are not migrants of choice. Thus, the costs associated with their presence cannot be avoided without drastic measures such as forcible return, likely to bring international condemnation and uncommon in modern refugee crises. Host states must accept the likelihood of protracted displacement and enact policies designed to raise the employment profiles and incomes of refugees, decrease their dependence on welfare or aid, and thus reduce spending on refugee services and balance domestic budgets. The international community, which partially funds refugee operations through international aid, must encourage this shift in state policy through conditioned aid. International aid must be structured to address host state economic and development challenges, to improve capacity in the short term while refugees become self-sufficient over time. “Refugees can act as economic enablers or burdens, and they can be political thorns in the sides of host authorities. Enlightened governments will seek to harness their skills and abilities to support development and reduce their burdensome-like aspects”.[34]

To host governments, particularly those experiencing severe budgetary and infrastructure shocks due to large refugee populations:

- Reframe discussions to calm public fears surrounding refugee right to work and minimize the resource burden in public conjecture.

Top officials must focus public remarks on the true cost of stagnant refugee policies over the long-term in order to build public support for a policy shift. Reframe the discussion of refugees to emphasize the impracticality of current policies and economic benefits of an employed refugee population who contributes to the economy through taxes and increased spending.

Engage with civil society to promote and justify a change in refugee policy to support legal refugee employment.

- Change economic policy and practice to improve refugee self-sufficiency, maximize economic benefits of refugee populations, increase international development assistance, and improve relations between host and refugee communities.

Allow refugees the right to work legally and remove legal and administrative barriers to refugees’ employment. Allow refugees to become self-sufficient over time. This will decrease economic stresses and, given the right policies, may ultimately create an economic stimulus.[35]

Leverage improved policies and employment access with the international community to increase short-term development aid or guarantee funding for current projects with funding gaps.

Target short-term development projects to communities and sectors particularly stressed by refugee. Improved services and capacity, which benefits both refugees and locals, will likely reduce tensions and foster support for increased refugee economic access.

To international humanitarian donors:

- After the initial emergency phase, when durable solutions are unlikely for the majority of refugees and protracted displacement is established, condition funding for host states on the principles of development, sustainability, and economic integration.

Insist upon an end to unsustainable practices, such as economic exclusion, which force host states and the international community to shoulder the burden for refugee care throughout protracted displacement. In exchange, offer increased structured short-term development assistance to offset short-term costs.

Focus assistance on sectors particularly strained by refugee populations and those shown to effectively allow economies to absorb influxes of migrants or improve migrant economic contributions.[36]

Emphasize economic integration and refugees’ right to work, as core international legal principles, which must be met in order for host states to continue receiving aid.

Assess true costs and impacts of policies and refugee movements by use and further development of appropriate methodology such as Oxford Refugee Centre’s “Guidelines for Assessing the Impacts and Costs of Forced Displacement”.[37]

International Affairs Student Writing Competition Semi-Finalist M. Anela Malik is a Thomas Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow and a graduate student at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. Her primary academic interests are refugee policies and movements in the Middle East as well as educational equity in the United States. 

 

Appendix A: Examples State Officials’ Cite Resource Burden

"Impact of the Refugee Population on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq." Kurdistan Regional Government. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://cabinet.gov.krd/p/page.aspx?l=12&p=484&h=1&t=407.

"Syria War, Refugees to Cost Lebanon $7.5 Billion." Reuters. September 19, 2013. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/19/syria-crisis-lebanon-idUSL5N0HF3I220130919.

"Jordan Sees Syria Refugee Costs Soar, Vows Subsidy Reform." Jordan Times. November 16, 2013. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://jordantimes.com/jordan-sees-syria-refugee-costs-soar-vows-subsidy-reform.


[1] Onyanga-Omara, Jane. "Mediterranean Migrant Deaths 30 times Higher than 2014." USA Today. April 21, 2015. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/04/21/migrant-deaths-higher/26114589/.

[2] "World Refugee Day: Global Forced Displacement Tops 50 Million for First Time in Post-World War II Era." UNHCR. June 20, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html.

[3] Zetter, Roger. "Are Refugees an Economic Burden or Benefit?" Forced Migration Review. January 1, 2012. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.fmreview.org/preventing/zetter.

 

[4] As of April 2015, 146 nations were parties to the Convention, having formally declared their consent to the Convention’s framework to the UN. Of those member nations 85% “have committed to extend refugees the right to engage in wage-earning employment and self-employment, without reservation”. As there are 193 UN member states as of April 29, 2015, this overwhelming support for the 1951 Convention has firmly established it as an international norm.

 See: http://www.unhcr.org/3b73b0d63.html; http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/FINAL_Global-Refugee-Work-Rights-Report-2014_Interactive.pdf; and, http://www.un.org/en/about-un/index.html.

[5] "The 1951 Convention and Its 1967 Protocol." UNHCR. January 1, 2011. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/4ec262df9.htmlhttp://www.unhcr.org/4ec262df9.html. 5.

[6] "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees." UNHCR. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html. 14.

[7] "Global Refugees Work Rights Report." Relief Web. January 1, 2014. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/FINAL_Global-Refugee-Work-Rights-Report-2014_Interactive.pdf. 4.

[8] "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees." UNHCR. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html. 22-23.

[9] "The State of the World's Refugees 2006, Chapter 5: Protracted Refugee Situations: The Search for Practical Solutions." UNHCR. June 28, 2007. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/4444afcb0.pdf. 106.

[10] Ibid. 105, 109.

[11] Jacobsen, Karen. The Economic Life of Refugees. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005. 1.

[12] "Social and Economic Impact of Large Refugee Populations on Host Developing Countries." UNHCR. Accessed April 28, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/3ae68d0e10.html.

[13] Kagan, Michael. ""We Live in Country of UNHCR": The UN Surrogate State and Refugee Policy in the Middle East." New Issues in Refugee Research201 (2011). 20.

[14] "Global Refugees Work Rights Report." Relief Web. January 1, 2014. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/FINAL_Global-Refugee-Work-Rights-Report-2014_Interactive.pdf. 6.

[15] In addition to being a violation of international law for all refugees, these barriers are doubly unjust for the majority of refugees as they live in a state of protracted displacement. Per Article 17 of the 1951 Convention, refugees who have been present in host states for at least three years should be exempt from barriers to the labor market such as those imposed on foreign nationals. See footnote 7.

[16] See: Weiner, Myron. "Security, Stability, and International Migration."International Security, 1992, 91-126.

[17] Jacobsen, Karen. The Economic Life of Refugees. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005. 15.

[18] See Appendix A: Examples State Officials’ Cite Resource Burden

[19] Dadush, Uri. "The Effect of Low-Skilled Labor Migration on the Host Economy." Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and DevelopmentWorking Paper 1 (2014). 1.

[20] Jacobsen, Karen. The Economic Life of Refugees. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005. 17.

[21] Ibid. 56.

[22] "The State of the World's Refugees 2006, Chapter 5: Protracted Refugee Situations: The Search for Practical Solutions." UNHCR. June 28, 2007. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/4444afcb0.pdf. 105.

[23] Jacobsen, Karen. The Economic Life of Refugees. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005. 43.

[24] Dadush, Uri. "The Effect of Low-Skilled Labor Migration on the Host Economy." Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and DevelopmentWorking Paper 1 (2014). 1.

[25] Though some distinguish between refugees in urban areas who are more likely to seek livelihoods through employment and refugees in camps, who typically rely on aid, that distinction is unnecessary as most refugee populations today are urban. In addition, setting up camps and attempting to limit refugee mobility is itself a method of restricting refugee economic activities. Finally, refugees in camps often engage in economic activity such as trading their food aid for necessary goods, setting up markets within the camp itself, or leaving the camp in search of employment. Similarly to urban refugees, these activities are untaxed or, in the face of host government restrictions, largely lead to employment in the informal sector, generating the same repercussions. See: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4b0e4cba6.html; and, Jacobsen, Karen. The Economic Life of Refugees. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005. Chapters 2 and 3.

[26] Davidson, Adam. "Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant." The New York Times. March 28, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/debunking-the-myth-of-the-job-stealing-immigrant.html?_r=0.

[27] Card, David. "The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 42, no. 2 (1990): 245-57.

[28] See: Dadush, Uri. "The Effect of Low-Skilled Labor Migration on the Host Economy." Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and DevelopmentWorking Paper 1 (2014). 1; and, Betts, Alexander, Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan, and Naohiko Omato. "Refugee Economies Rethinking Popular Assumptions." Refugee Studies Centre, 2014.

[29] Dadush, Uri. "The Effect of Low-Skilled Labor Migration on the Host Economy." Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and DevelopmentWorking Paper 1 (2014). 1.

[30] "Syria Regional Refugee Response." UNHCR. Accessed April 30, 2015. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=107.

[31] "Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis." The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, 2015. 3.

[32] Ibid. 3-14.

[33] "Refugees Right to Work in Jordan A View of the Syrian Refugee Crisis through Labour Law and Policy." UNHCR. Accessed April 26, 2015. 14-15.

[34] Jacobsen, Karen. "Sudanese Refugees in Cairo: Remittances and Livelihoods." Journal of Refugee Studies, 2014. 17.

[35] "Social and Economic Impact of Large Refugee Populations on Host Developing Countries." UNHCR. Accessed April 28, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/3ae68d0e10.html.

[36] Nationally and transnationally integrated refugees, with the ability to exchange goods and information through these networks, have been shown to be economic contributors. Development aid could be targeted toward communication sectors to help improve refugee network capacity. See: Dadush, Uri. "The Effect of Low-Skilled Labor Migration on the Host Economy." Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and DevelopmentWorking Paper 1 (2014).

[37] Zetter, Roger. "Are Refugees an Economic Burden or Benefit?" Forced Migration Review. January 1, 2012. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://www.fmreview.org/preventing/zetter.

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