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October 11, 2011

Labor market arguments on refugees’ right to work: a pragmatic rebuttal

by Asylum Access

Photo by Gorgon from

By: Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter, Overseas Operations Director, Asylum Access

You will read elsewhere in this blog the legal arguments for the right to work of refugees. International human rights law generally, and refugee law specifically, set out a strong foundation for refugees’ rights to seek employment and to enjoy rights in the workplace.

Today I will step out of the legal zone:  this post will counter the arguments one most often hears in support of limiting refugees’ access to lawful employment and corresponding rights.

One common argument against refugees’ right to work in many host countries reads like this:

Our country has a high unemployment rate and a struggling economy. We must protect our labor market for our nationals before refugees are allowed to work.”

This argument, however, makes several incorrect assumptions.

Wrong Assumption A: “Refugees won’t work without a government permit.”

Refugees tend to be smart, entrepreneurial individuals – by definition they are those who were strong and smart enough to navigate their way out of persecution into a safer country. If they need to provide for themselves and their family, they will find a way to do so, no matter the risk.  Where work is a matter of survival, lack of work permits is no deterrent to refugees entering the labor market.

Refugees will work and earn a living regardless. It’s up to each state whether it will leverage and regulate this as an opportunity, or react with policies that force an entire category of people into the illegal labor market.

Wrong Assumption B: “Granting work permits to refugees will open the floodgates.”

Not necessarily. The right to work under discussion here is specific to refugees. These are people who are in the host country as forced migrants, meaning they can’t return to their country even if they want to.

Depending on the local context, refugees tend to be only a fraction of all migrants, and the status that separates them from the rest is determined by usually-strict status determination proceedings. The gates to employment are typically only open to those who can prove they are refugees. In this sense, allowing refugees to seek employment legally is more like an injection of a small, naturally entrepreneurial workforce into the economy, rather than the opening of a floodgate.

Wrong Assumption C: “Our country can’t protect the labor rights of refugees if we grant them a permit– it would be like giving them preferential treatment over our own nationals!”

Host countries struggle to different degrees in protecting their workers from exploitation, discrimination, and unfair labor practices. Refugees are workers with labor rights too. Our argument is that any initiative, policy, or advocacy for better labor rights for nationals should include refugees as equals – no less, no more.

Further, not documenting, registering, and regulating refugee workers can be bad for the labor standards of nationals. This practice creates a perverse set of incentives for employers to under-pay undocumented refugees to absorb the risk of hiring people without a permit. This undercuts regular wages and forces specific labor markets into a lower average pay.

There are also human arguments against forcing people into the black market – refugee girls and women become prime targets for sexual trafficking, and refugees in general are left unprotected from near slavery work conditions.

Do you have examples of good practices for refugee workers in their countries of first refuge?  Please, share in a comment, propose a blog post, or join our mailing list.


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