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January 26, 2015

UNHCR Discussion Paper Promotes Work Rights for Refugee “Volunteers”

by Asylum Access

In a strong affirmation to the work rights movement, a new discussion paper released by UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) in December 2014, “Which side are you on?,” advocates for the adoption of a rights-based approach for addressing the issues surrounding “incentive payments” for refugees working for the organization.

This unambiguous call by UNHCR for a rights- based approach in restructuring the incentive system is highly encouraging. This will go a long way in restoring hope, dignity and self-reliance in the daily lives of refugees, besides enhancing their motivation in delivering services in a timely and professional manner to others in the refugee community. This will also foster the economic contributions of refugees, especially the skilled workers, to the local economy.

The report estimates that thousands of refugees are currently working in what is often characterized as “volunteering” positions for mere “incentive payments” which frequently fall below the minimum wage. These refugee workers are engaged in critical functions such as teaching, health services, cleaning and sanitation as well as community outreach. The report acknowledges that at present, there are no formal guidelines on the processes and criteria for recruitment, retention or remuneration of these workers. This has resulted in simmering discontent, leading to high turnover as well as deterioration and disruption of services, including through strikes.

In a series of recommendations to address the situation, the report endorses the recognition and promotion of refugees’ right to work. It calls for transparency in the recruitment processes along with equitable access for all communities to work opportunities. It emphasizes on the need to contextualize the rules through assessing local labor market conditions as well as the dynamics with the host community. It recommends long-term skill building and provision of fair compensation not only within UNHCR but also harmonization across other humanitarian partner organizations.

UNHCR, in the recent past, has greatly increased its focus on the economic empowerment of refugees through the introduction of the Urban Refugee Policy, Alternative to Camps and most recently, the Global Strategy for Livelihoods, which prioritizes the right to work in a big way. Ensuring a secure and dignified work life for refugee workers within UNHCR is an imperative to uphold this progressive trend.

Clarifying the incentive structure will also be crucial in the context of the Alternatives to Camps policy. When refugees are in urban areas and no longer in encampments, it will be important to match their wages with those available for similar positions in the local labor market, in order to minimize discontent and perceptions of exploitation.

Overall, this initiative by UNHCR’s PDES in acknowledging the problems on the ground and outlining competing view points within the organization is a notable step in the right direction. Strengthening checks and balances of this kind is likely to enhance operational effectiveness significantly.

Revamping the working environment of its own refugee workers will also lend a great deal of credibility to UNHCR’s advocacy efforts on work rights.

Divya Varma is the Advocacy Fellow at Asylum Access. She is a Fulbright scholar from India and received her Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She previously worked on migration and labor issues in India.

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