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September 7, 2011

Invest in Refugee Employment, as Well as Aid

by Asylum Access

Authors: Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Executive Director, Asylum Access; Lavinia Limon, President & CEO, US Committee for Refugees & Immigrants

On Labor Day, Americans celebrate the power of the individual worker in a society that believes everyone should be able to achieve prosperity through hard work and personal ability. That’s our national ethos: The American Dream. This ethos should also form the foundation of the federal government’s overseas refugee assistance.

Refugees spend an average of 17 years in exile. The majority of refugees live in Africa, Asia and Latin America and—whether in camps or urban areas—would prefer to work and support their families, but are denied access to lawful employment in violation of international law.

To address this, and to achieve sustainable global solutions for refugees, the US government should both invest its foreign aid money in programs that promote formal refugee employment and encourage host countries to open their labor markets to refugees.

The world is now witnessing a tragedy in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. These camps were established in 1991 to accommodate 90,000 people but have swelled to a population of over 400,000. Refugees are not allowed to work in Kenya; many of the refugees currently living in Dadaab arrived in the 1990s and, since then, have been unable to provide for themselves.

Today, international organizations and NGOs are struggling to shelter and feed the existing Dadaab population along with the daily influx of another 1,500 Somalis fleeing violence, drought and famine. No resolution to this humanitarian crisis is in sight.

As Americans, we must help meet immediate needs to keep hundreds of thousands of refugees from starving. However, we also must reevaluate our approach if we are to reduce the impact of similar crises in the future. Humanitarian aid, in the form of food and shelter, provides vital short-term assistance when refugees first flee across an international border, but it should not be their primary means of support nearly two decades later. We need a long-term solution that allows refugees the chance to work lawfully and rebuild their lives.

Whether confined to a camp or living in an urban center, refugees seldom have access to the formal labor market in their host country, nor are they able to lawfully start businesses. Instead, refugees in camps are often relegated to making trinkets or taught skills they are prohibited from using, while those outside of camps must work in the underground labor market, accepting jobs at below minimum/prevailing wage and frequently enduring exploitation and abuse.

Currently, our overseas refugee assistance funding does not address this problem—but it could. We have the resources to make smart investments that reduce refugees’ dependence on long-term aid and facilitate self-sufficiency. As the world leader in refugee protection and a nation that embraces the power of each individual to build a better life through hard work, the U.S. should devote a substantial portion of its international refugee assistance funding to promote rights-based programs, especially those that promote access to lawful employment.

Allowing refugees to work doesn’t just make sense for donor governments like the U.S. – it also makes political and economic sense for host countries.  Forcing refugees into the underground economy undermines the host country’s legitimate labor market and encourages illicit industries, ultimately hurting the local population. Refugees who have been denied legitimate employment or the chance to start a business pay no taxes and create no formal-sector jobs, providing little to no value to their host countries.

A few countries, such as Ecuador and South Africa, have recognized this and are making a good faith effort to accord refugees their rights. U.S. policy should prioritize refugee assistance to support these types of programs. Our government already has two easy ways to evaluate how seriously countries are taking refugee rights: The Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the State Department Human Rights Reports. By inserting more serious reporting on refugees’ access to rights—including access to employment—and using these reports to determine where and how to give aid, the US could make decisions that support countries making an honest effort to provide access to work permits and respect labor and employment rights for refugees.

 As we honor American workers today and celebrate the Refugee Convention’s 60th anniversary this year, we encourage the U.S. government to also make Labor Day 2011 the beginning of an investment in the promotion of refugees’ employment rights around the world.

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