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May 12, 2014

UNHCR Prioritizes Refugee Work Rights in Livelihood Programming

by Asylum Access

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 3.52.31 PMIn 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.

UNHCR has a great deal of negotiating power when it comes to working with governments to devise domestic refugee policies. The agency’s global policies and strategies in this regard set the agenda for refugee response around the world. It is therefore of crucial importance that UNHCR advocates not just for the immediate needs of refugees but also for the full realization of rights.

The concentration on work rights is part of a positive trend within the organization to focus more heavily on refugee self-reliance and not just humanitarian assistance. In 2008, UNHCR established the Livelihoods Unit, which has since been thinking innovatively about how to facilitate economic opportunities and rights for refugees. In 2009, the agency recalibrated its policy towards urban refugees, explicitly acknowledging the importance of work rights in urban contexts. In most recent years, the Livelihoods Unit has released a number of publications and guidelines emphasizing the importance of refugee work rights, and, importantly, increased its funding to implement those guidelines. As the Strategy identified:

 The global budget planned for livelihoods activities grew by more than 25% between 2011 and 2012 and by another 15% in 2013. In 2012, 18 operations had budgets ranging from USD 4 million to USD 24 million for livelihoods activities. In 2013, 87 operations conducted livelihood interventions, up from 79 in 2012.

It is hoped that the scaling up of livelihood programming will lead to enhanced self-reliance, and the concurrent scaling down of programs that place refugees in a position of prolonged dependency on humanitarian aid. Concentrating on work rights within that livelihood programming is an important step in the process to take international law principles, which host countries have committed to uphold, and translate those principles into actions that will improve the everyday life of refugees.

Anna Wirth is the Global Policy Fellow at Asylum Acces (bio here)

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