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October 1, 2013

Requesting Action: Appeal to UNHCR to Increase Funding for Implementation of Livelihood Objectives

by Asylum Access

On 26 September, Asylum Access and a multitude of organizations and advocates from around the world sent a message to UNHCR: we want to see UNHCR action its operational guidelines for promoting and facilitating refugees’ work rights. In a letter drafted by Asylum Access and addressed to UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres, 29 NGOs and corporations, and over 100 practitioners, scholars and activists from across the globe called upon UNHCR to increase funding for self-reliance and livelihood initiatives.

The letter was sent in anticipation of UNHCR’s 64th Executive Committee session, which is scheduled to commence in Geneva this week. Signatories of the appeal sought to ensure that as governments meet to discuss UNHCR’s goals for the year ahead, refugee work rights are placed squarely on the agenda.

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In recent years, UNHCR has been noticeably more vocal in advocating for the employment rights of refugees. In 2009, it recalibrated its approach towards urban refugees, issuing a new urban refugee policy that trumpeted the right to work as one of the protection priorities for urban refugees. Likewise, in 2012, UNHCR published Operational Guidelines for Livelihood Programming, providing critical guidance for UNHCR and its partners on mainstreaming livelihood initiatives. Paragraph one of the Guidelines states:

The reduction of dependency through economic empowerment and the promotion of self-reliance are at the heart of UNHCR’s protection mandate. Advocating for refugees’ right to work and to pursue livelihoods falls under this mandate and therefore warrants priority in all refugee settings.

While NGOs have embraced UNHCRs willingness to take a more robust approach towards promoting refugee work rights in its policies and guidelines, these guidelines are of little use to refugees if never implemented. Stated livelihood objectives, such as negotiating with governments to issue work permits, conducting research to identify market opportunities and developing partnerships in the private sector, requires staffing and financial backing.  If UNHCR is truly committed to putting these recommended activities into practice, funding must be earmarked accordingly.

Of course, refugees experience a myriad of rights violations during displacement, and it is acknowledged that UNHCR must apportion its budget to address a range of protection issues. One may be inclined to question: why should promoting work rights take precedence? In short, access to employment leads to economic empowerment; and economic empowerment leads to the realization of a host of other rights. The right to work in this sense is the gateway to a range of other rights.

When refugees are given an opportunity to meet their own needs, they make positive economic contributions to host countries, which in turn changes negative attitudes and treatment of refugees. Economic empowerment shifts the power imbalance that entrenches exploitation and permits rights violations to occur with impunity.

As the UNHCRs Executive Committee reflect on funding for the year ahead, we can only hope that it will consider which is more cost effective: promoting a system that seeks to protect refugees by requiring them to rely solely on humanitarian aid for years in exile; or promoting a system that permits refugees to work lawfully so that they may rebuild their lives in exile, accessing other material protections through economic empowerment and restored dignity.

Anna Wirth is the Global Policy Fellow at Asylum Access. She  previously studied and practiced law in Melbourne, Australia (Monash University) and received her European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation (E.MA) from EIUC, in partnership with University of Helsinki.

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