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October 21, 2013

Challenging Misconceptions about Observing Refugees’ Work Rights

by Asylum Access

The vast majority of the world’s refugee population is denied the right to work.  Of course, underpinning these policies is a somewhat entrenched, and clearly mainstreamed, perception that granting refugees access to employment would only come at a cost for host countries. In an article recently published in Forced Migration Review, entitled “Refugees’ Right to Work,” co-authors Emily Arnold-Fernandez and Stewart Pollock, suggest otherwise.

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The article challenges misconceptions about the costs associated with observing refugees’ work rights, offering a series of examples that illustrate the economic benefits refugees have bestowed upon host countries when permitted to work. Banning refugees from the labor force, the authors argue, has therefore meant that many first countries of refuge have failed to capitalize on the benefits – including tax contributions, skills and trade opportunities – that would have otherwise flowed from refugee employment.

Our knowledge about the positive contribution that refugees make to the economies of host countries when permitted to work has, to date, been limited. The article explains, however, that where evidence on the issue does exist, it shows that refugees produce clear economic and political benefits to the countries hosting them.

Evidence from Thailand indicates that the employment of Burmese migrant workers has spurred regional development and economic growth in rural areas. Likewise, refugees permitted to work in Guinea have brought new agricultural skills to the country, expanding farming techniques and creating new markets. In Australia, benefits have manifested through the expansion of international trade, a consequence of Vietnamese refugees buying and selling goods in their home countries to sustain businesses in Australia.

There is, and always has been, a strong moral argument for extending work rights to refugees. Employment allows refugees to work towards self-sufficiency and independence and fulfill the human need to interact with and contribute to the society that surrounds them.  It is a core component of human identity and dignity.

For countries willing to overlook these moral arguments, there are now compelling economic and political reasons for opening the labor force up to refugees. The article makes it clear that these mounting justifications merit the attention and consideration of host countries. It is time to look beyond the fears and misguided perceptions to the concrete evidence, which that observing refugees’ work rights can be mutually beneficial to both refugees and the countries receiving them.

To access the full Forced Migration Review article, “The Right to Work,” click here.

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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