What’s the connection between refugee work rights and the U.S. resettlement program? Asylum Access believes the U.S. has an important role to play in ensuring the rights of Syrian (and other) refugees, whether they are in Jordan, Turkey, Europe or Michigan. For this reason, the U.S. should vastly increase its resettlement quotas for Syrian refugees to 100,000 people next year.
On October 1, 2015 Asylum Access submitted written testimony to a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the fiscal and security impacts of refugee resettlement. Based our ten years of experience and research for the Global Refugee Work Rights Report, Asylum Access highlighted that 1) when given access to safe work, refugees contribute far more to their host states than the cost of initial settlement, and 2) security threats and onward migration may actually be mitigated by providing refugees access to opportunity, jobs, and protection from exploitation in first countries of refuge.
Today, nearly 60 million people are displaced as a result of persecution and conflict. About 20 million of those have been forced out of their home countries and become classified as refugees. Half of all refugees today are in “protracted refugee situations” lasting for at least 25 years. This means that about 10 million individuals are living without the right to work, attend school or build a career for 25 years in a foreign hostile country.
Jordan has neither signed nor ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and thus legally avoids most obligations under that instrument. The country is, however, still bound by international customary law, such as the Convention’s principle of non-refoulement, and has subjected itself to a limited protection regime under a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding with the UNHCR.
Jordan’s situation as a host country for Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) is unique. For one group of PRS, Jordan would serve as a second country of refuge: this group consists of Palestinians who originally fled for Syria from Northern Palestine in 1948 and the Golan Heights in 1967. Another group would consider Jordan as their third country of refuge, having originally settled in Jordan, only to be expelled to Syria following the Black September conflict in the early 1970s. Now, Jordan, along with Lebanon and Turkey, faces the onus of hosting upwards of 500,000 PRS.
In late January, more than 200 migrant domestic workers came together in Beirut, Lebanon to establish the first ever trade union of migrants in the Arab world. Supported by the National Federation of Worker’s Union in Lebanon (FENASOL), these workers hailed from places as varied as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. While this is a great victory for the protection and promotion of the rights of this community, the government has put up a stiff resistance against the formation of the union. We at Asylum Access strongly support the right of the migrant workers to form unions and urge the government to take a more enabling approach towards addressing their issues.
Migrant workers in Lebanon and the Middle East in general work under appalling conditions. Devoid of the protections of labor laws, they face several challenges ranging from delayed or non-payment of wages and miserable living conditions, to physical and sexual violence. In addition to this, many migrants throughout the Middle East are subject to the kafala sponsorship system, a labor employment model that binds workers to a single employer; this system leaves such migrants in a near-bondage situation.
In spite of such rampant exploitation, the Lebanese Ministry of Labour has termed the formation of the union as “illegal”. The Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi says “Lebanese law forbids foreigners from forming unions”. While the Ministry acknowledges that “[a]dvanced laws would solve the problems that the [migrant worker] sector is suffering from”, their opposition is made clear when they refer to the union as an “illegal syndicate” within the same statement. Read more
In late 2014, Turkey committed to issuing Syrian refugees temporary work permits and identification cards, which allow them access to basic services like healthcare and education. It remains to be seen whether all refugees will have access to lawful work, and whether the new regulations will be implemented with the issues of gender, labor rights, and fostering entrepreneurship in mind.
The temporary identification card program would secure Syrian refugees’ legal status in the country, after years of being considered “guests” under temporary protection. However, the cards do not grant them official refugee status, which would entitle them to broader benefits like housing, public relief and various social services. In addition to the identification cards, the accompanying measure allocates work permits to the nearly 1.7 million Syrians in the country.
In a victory for economic rights for refugees in South Africa, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) successfully appealed for refugees’ and asylum-seekers’ right to own businesses on behalf of the Somali Association of South Africa and the Ethiopian Community of South Africa.
In September 2014, the South African Supreme Court of Appeal upheld refugees’ ability to operate their own businesses without fear of police reprisal. This decision represents a big achievement for refugee work rights in South Africa, as small enterprises are a common source of livelihood for citizens and asylum-seekers alike.
The appeal came as an attempt to challenge the state-sanctioned xenophobia that has been rampant in the country for the last several years. It reached a critical point in 2012, when police in Limpopo coordinated a government raid where officers shut down businesses operating without permits and confiscated property. “Operation Hardstick” unfairly targeted small businesses operated by asylum-seekers and refugees, who depend on these businesses as their only option for a source of income.
In a strong affirmation to the work rights movement, a new discussion paper released by UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) in December 2014, “Which side are you on?,” advocates for the adoption of a rights-based approach for addressing the issues surrounding “incentive payments” for refugees working for the organization.
This unambiguous call by UNHCR for a rights- based approach in restructuring the incentive system is highly encouraging. This will go a long way in restoring hope, dignity and self-reliance in the daily lives of refugees, besides enhancing their motivation in delivering services in a timely and professional manner to others in the refugee community. This will also foster the economic contributions of refugees, especially the skilled workers, to the local economy.
The report estimates that thousands of refugees are currently working in what is often characterized as “volunteering” positions for mere “incentive payments” which frequently fall below the minimum wage. These refugee workers are engaged in critical functions such as teaching, health services, cleaning and sanitation as well as community outreach. The report acknowledges that at present, there are no formal guidelines on the processes and criteria for recruitment, retention or remuneration of these workers. This has resulted in simmering discontent, leading to high turnover as well as deterioration and disruption of services, including through strikes.
Today, in commemoration of U.S. Labor Day, Asylum Access and the Refugee Work Rights Coalition release the publication, Global Refugee Work Rights Report 2014: Taking the Movement from Theory to Practice.
The report examines the laws, policies and practices for refugee work rights in 15 countries around the globe (affecting a total of 30% of the world’s refugee population). Our findings reveal that almost half of the 15 countries examined in the report have a complete legal bar to refugee employment, and in the countries where some legal right to work exists, significant de-facto barriers to employment, like strict encampment, exorbitant permit fees or widespread discrimination, undermine refugees’ ability to access lawful employment.
In simple terms, refugees’ work rights are respected as the exception, not the rule.
The publication also calls upon stakeholders – governments, UN agencies, civil society, refugee and local communities – to take concrete steps to bring national employment laws and policies around the world into line with international human rights and refugee law standards. In doing so, the report (i) provides a breakdown of the right to work under international law, which may be used by advocates to inform policy makers of their legal commitments; (ii) an explanation of the economic arguments in favor of granting refugees’ work rights, which may be used to supplement legal arguments; and (iii) concrete recommendations for achieving legal reform, and administrative and judicial support for work rights domestically.
Asylum Access recently attended the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva with the purpose of interjecting refugees’ right to work into the discussion about business and human rights. Although Asylum Access has previously attended UNHCR’s Annual Consultations with NGOs in Geneva, this was Asylum Access’s first time making an intervention at the UN Human Rights Council.
The intervention was directed toward the Working Group and Forum on Business and Human Rights, which have been tasked with the responsibility to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Forum also promotes cooperation and dialogue amongst various relevant stakeholder groups, including States, the wider UN system, intergovernmental and regional organizations, businesses, labor unions, national human rights institutions, NGOs, etc., for the purpose of realizing these Guiding Principles.
In March, UNHCR published its Global Strategy for Livelihoods, pledging to promote refugees’ right to work as a matter of priority for 2014-2018.
The agency’s commitment to promote work rights is an important acknowledgement that the legal frameworks of host countries must support refugees’ right to access formal markets and labor protections if livelihood programming is to be effective. Without national legislation, as well as administrative and judicial support for the right, refugee employment and related livelihood programs run the risk of being unsafe, unsustainable or inaccessible.
The inclusion of work rights into the Global Strategy is an encouraging sign: UNHCR is taking a more active role in calling upon governments to respect the economic rights of refugees and committing to mainstream those rights in its operations.
Last week Asylum Access joined more than 6,000 participants from all over the world at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s (CSW) 58th session, which lasts from March 10-21. This year’s priority theme was challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls. To address this theme nearly 135 side events were organized by UN agencies, along with more than 300 parallel events organized by NGO CSW.
In attending CSW, Asylum Access asked the question, how can refugee women and girls be included in the post-2015 development agenda to increase access to their rights? In order to achieve the MDGs amongst refugee women and girls, integrated development programs should be aimed at promoting access to rule of law, work rights and livelihood initiatives, and political participation. See our talking points here.