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Global Refugee Work Rights Report 2014: Taking the Movement from Theory to Practice



Access to safe and lawful employment is a fundamental human right. It applies to all persons, including refugees and asylum seekers, and with good reason. When permitted to engage in safe and lawful work, an individual may fulfill his or her basic survival needs and contribute to the needs of the family, community and the country in which they reside. The realization of the right is 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. As the South African Supreme Court of Appeal observed in 2004: The freedom to engage in productive work – even where that is not required in order to survive – is indeed a part of human dignity... for mankind is pre-eminently a social species with an instinct for meaningful association. Self-esteem and the sense of self-worth – the fulfillment of what it is to be human – is most often bound up with being accepted as socially useful.

Labor and employment rights are enshrined in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (referred to collectively as the 1951 Refugee Convention), which have been ratified by 147 countries. The 1951 Convention sets explicit obligations for host countries to permit asylum seekers and refugees to engage in both wage-earning and self-employment. 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.” In practice, however, efforts to implement work rights have been limited, and many of the world’s refugees, both recognized and unrecognized, are effectively barred from accessing safe and lawful employment for at least a generation.

On average, each of the world’s 16 million refugees will spend 20 years in exile. Traditionally, refugee response actors have intervened primarily through the provision of humanitarian aid. While humanitarian 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 during displacement. Such a response will require that all actors within the refugee response community have meaningful discussions about opportunities for collaboration and strategies for holding governments accountable to international obligations to respect, protect and fulfill refugee work rights.

This report examines 30% of the global refugee population (nearly 5 million refugees in 15 countries) and the struggles they face when attempting to access safe and lawful employment. In doing so, it highlights the many barriers to refugee employment and the opportunities for the refugee-serving community to intervene to expand access to work rights. The report provides a breakdown of the legal framework supporting refugees right to work, as well as useful economic arguments that may be advanced to encourage policy makers to realize work rights in policy and practice.

The findings from this report have been developed based on: (1) a legal analysis of the right to work under international human rights and refugee law; (2) a literature review; (3) primary research in the form of a survey of NGOs; and (4) a baseline study.