1 in every 103 persons is either a refugee, asylum-seeker, or internally displaced person. In theory, according to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees signed by 147 countries, refugees have the right to seek asylum and all countries have a shared responsibility towards providing safety and offering a way to integrate refugees into society. In reality, this is not the case. Today, refugees in almost any path they take struggle to find empowerment in employment. This is because most policymakers fail to recognise refugees as people with talents and skills, capable of contributing to society and deny them the right to work in the first place.
When someone decides to flee their country, there are three common options. One is taking a long, expensive and potentially life-threatening journey to another country. A recent example may be those paying smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to reach the Greek islands. Even in 2018 when there was a drop in the number of people reaching European shores, an estimated 2,275 died or went missing along the way.
Another option may be travelling not so far, but entering a nearby refugee camp in a neighbouring country. However, these often are in very bleak environments: in arid lands, in poorly constructed shelters where there are employment bans in place. Alexander Betts, Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford, notes how this is worsened by the fact around 80% of refugees who stay in camps are not allowed to leave for at least 5 years. This most likely explains why only 9% of Syrian refugees take this option.
His study goes onto explain how 75% of Syrian refugees choose to take the alternative and third option: to enter an urban area of a neighbouring country. However, the same difficulty to gain access to work still remains.
Whatever option refugees take here, there are inevitable struggles to gain a sense of independence. Protracted refugees are defined as those living in exile for more than five consecutive years in a state of limbo. Refugees in these situations often find themselves in a rut: most countries do not offer them freedom of movement, legal employment, access to land and systems of justice. Access to education is also limited and risks of child labour and sexual abuse is higher in such situations. At the start of 2019, almost 16 million people were in a protracted refugee situation. Such a huge amount of people are given no economic opportunity, with no chance to contribute to society.
Part of this problem lies in today’s populist politics. The media's way of describing refugees, such as how they are ‘flooding’ into countries can make national citizens view refugees as a threat. Fears that refugees may take people’s jobs, as well as conceptions that they are costly for the taxpayer have left politicians torn. On the one hand, they realise the need for a practical and ethical approach towards helping refugees. On the other hand, they also seek to do what voters want for the sake of political survival. The UK and most EU countries take this path, barring refugees from working for long periods of time after they have arrived. Even when they are finally granted asylum status and the right to work, they are still left in a situation that is difficult to gain employment. The UK, for instance, may offer support through job centres. However, refugees often struggle to have their various qualifications and educational certificates validated in what is a long drawn out process of costly administrative fees and missing paperwork.
Policies designed towards empowerment
The assumption that refugees are a costly burden on a country and lack skills should be questioned. Rifaie Tammas argues that “Empowering refugees does not have to come through emphasising their heartbreaking stories” and that, once resettled, “most refugees try to move on with their lives, focus on their families, establish new careers and contribute to the society that has taken them in.” Employment bans that countries impose on refugees are short-sighted and overlook the fact that refugees want to play an active role in the countries they move to. Moritz Marbach, a researcher at ETH Zurich, highlights that “Instead of having refugees depend on government welfare for years, countries can capitalise on their initial motivation and integrate them quickly.”
Of course, policies during the emergency phase that fund for shelter, food and safety for large amounts of refugees that enter a country are important. Another problem is the psychological struggles that migrant refugees face. For example, battles against PTSD as refugees escape war-torn countries is one factor that is important to address and a key distinction between a standard migrant and migrant refugee. Though it is essential to provide mental health support for refugees, it is also important to provide them with a gateway towards independence and empowerment. Acknowledging what long-term actions can be taken is essential towards improving the livelihoods of refugees and the development of host countries.
Jordan offers economic zones in which refugees can play a part in their workforce. The Jordan Compact project reflected advancements made by the government that sought to improve the livelihoods and increase self-reliance opportunities for refugees. The change was designed not only to combat the increasing number of refugees entering Jordan, but also to benefit Jordanian host communities. They invested in local areas, building road networks to connect factories to communities and refugee camps. In 2016, the project envisaged 200,000 Syrians would be working legally with work permits. However, figures from 2019 show only around 40,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan held valid work permits. In comparison to expectations then, the results have been low.
Another fundamental issue with the Jordan Compact was its disproportionate distribution of work permits. Figures released by the Livelihoods Working Group showed that Syrian women typically hold only 5% of the work permits issued. The project hoped that by the end of 2016, 2,000 women would be employed; the result was just 30 women. Part of this failure was because of the assumption that most women would want to work outside of their homes, when in fact most did not want to work in factories. What can be learnt from this project, though it did have some successes, is that refugees need to be heard and their voices and opinions prioritised if such policies are to prove more successful. Though it may not have initially been successful, the fact further investment has been made in this project indicates its potential in widening Jordan’s job market and increasing economic growth.
Uganda goes one step further in terms of progressive policies towards refugees. Hosting more refugees than any other country in Africa, at around 1.4 million, Uganda offers an exceptional approach from its neighbouring countries. Where Kenya and Tanzania deny refugees the right to work and keep them closed off in camps, Uganda has granted more freedom to refugees. Their refugee policy grants refugees freedom of movement, houses, the right to work and to start their own businesses. They also offer free education for children and land to be used for residential housing, as well as for agriculture. By providing large plots of land and greater economic freedoms, Uganda has allowed refugees a more open opportunity to become self-reliant. In 2016, the BBC called Uganda “one of the best places to be a refugee” and is one that has attracted the investment of the UK and EU countries.
However, often with foreign aid investments comes big money leakages. Countries that invest often struggle to monitor where their money is actually going and sometimes can end up in the wrong hands. In the case of Uganda, a recent study from 2021 has shown that issues of corruption are still present, resulting in an inefficient use of funds. For example, in 2017, a $7.9 million contract for road repairs was awarded to a contractor with no road construction experience. With the rapid rate in which Uganda is taking in refugees, problems are still very much inevitable. Many do still live in poverty and are vulnerable.
Despite this, Uganda's unique policy has still shown huge successes. It can offer an insight into how other countries — those with better resources — can begin to improve their approach to refugees. One survey reflects the entrepreneurial potential of refugees, with 1 in 5 refugee households owning a non-agricultural enterprise in Uganda. What is more, 1 in 5 of these employees in refugee enterprises are Ugandan nationals, demonstrating how refugees can benefit host communities.
Ultimately, countries that consider refugees not as a burden, but as an asset have the greatest capacity to benefit. It is time we start redefining our conceptions of what a refugee is capable of. Policies that actually listen to the wants and needs of refugees are the ones that will enable refugees not to be dependent on government support, but to thrive and flourish, allowing host countries to prosper with them.
Henry is a second year English Language and Literature student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.