Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal recently delivered a highly disappointing judgment in GA. v. Director of Immigration, unanimously deciding that refugees may be denied a right to work in the country. The decision, which has received considerable international attention, has been widely criticized by the public as unjust, inhumane and lacking in common sense.
Although Hong Kong’s law currently provides that asylum seekers, recognized refugees and torture claims may be granted “discretionary permission” to work by the Director of Immigration, in practice, this discretion is rarely exercised. As a result, these individuals are forced to reside in often-intolerable living conditions, work illegally and rely on a minimal government-backed allowance. With only approximately one hundred refugees in the territory, there is little weight to the argument that extending the right to work to refugees would have any notable impact upon Hong Kong’s labor market.
Sixty-five years ago today in Paris, France, the United Nations General Assembly adopted one of modern history’s most influential documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), thereby laying the foundation for a global framework of rights which honor freedom, justice and dignity for all human beings.
The effect that the UDHR has had upon the world’s legal systems – national, regional and international – has been profound. Its principles have been absorbed by a range of national constitutions and have laid the basis for a multitude of legally binding human rights treaties. Before the Right to Work was enshrined in many national frameworks and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it was recognized by Article 23 of the UDHR:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
In March 2014, Asylum Access will be attending the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s (CWS) fifty-eighth session to discuss the progress of gender equality and economic empowerment of female refugees with government and UN officials from around the world. In anticipation of its visit, Asylum Access submitted a written statement to the Commission, identifying the major barriers female refugees experience when seeking access to livelihood opportunities, education, health and gender equality.
Our submission specifically reviewed the implementation of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), contending that MDG programs must be inclusive of women and girl refugees to be truly effective. As the 2015 target date for the achievement of the MDGs draws near, the submission called upon governments and UN entities to make certain that female refugees are included in the post 2015 development agenda.
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.
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.
Access to formal employment will soon be a reality for thousands of refugees in east Sudan. Last Thursday, UNHCR announced the government’s decision to issue approximately 30,000 work permits to refugees in Sudan’s Kassala state. For the estimated 80,000 refugees in the region, the provision of work permits means an opportunity to formally contribute to the Sudanese economy and engage in regulated employment.
The change of policy has largely come about through the work of the Transitional Solutions Initiative (TSI), a joint program between UNHCR, UNDP, the World Bank and the Government of Sudan, which has sought to provide a framework for transitioning displacement situations in Sudan to durable solutions. Through the collaboration of the development, refugee and government actors, the TSI project is geared towards increasing refugees’ opportunity for self-sufficiency. Expanding livelihood opportunities has been prioritized as a critical objective to achieve this end.
The program represents a refreshing approach to protracted refugee situations, responding to displacement not just through the provision of humanitarian aid, but rather with a long-term development strategy in mind. The TSI Concept Note states:
“Notwithstanding the political and security dimensions, the perception that displacement challenges can only be addressed by humanitarian means is ill-conceived which has either impeded or delayed in achieving the sustainability of solutions or resulted in protracted displacements finding difficulties to break from the cycle of dependence on humanitarian assistance and to move on with their lives and livelihoods.”
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.
Justice prevailed on Friday as the High Court of Kenya quashed the Government’s encampment directive, ruling in favor of fundamental freedoms and dignity for urban refugees.
The government directive was first announced in December 2012 and again in January 2013 and, if implemented, would have required all refugees residing in urban areas to relocate to Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. In short, the policy would have devastated the lives of urban refugees in Kenya, forcing them to abandon the homes they had resided in for years (some even decades), separate from loved ones and sever all ties to businesses and communities.
The directive was challenged on the basis that it violated fundamental freedoms enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution, the Refugee Act, 1996 and a number of other international human rights instruments. The High Court agreed.
Last month, the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center (HKRAC) published an OpEd entitled “Don’t Starve Refugees of the Fruit of Honest Labour,” highlighting the need for employment among Hong Kong’s refugee population.
The Asia Pacific region is home to one third of the world’s refugee population. Although many of the Asian states within the region are signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its accessory Protocol, a number of these countries remain resistant to its implementation. Efforts made by UNHCR to promote a more favorable environment for the protection of refugees in the region has been widely challenged by States due to lack of proper information about population displacement, inability to offer adequate refugee protection and national security issue.
A 29 year-old Ethiopian refugee named Girma (name changed for anonymity) has been living in Nairobi, Kenya for over five years. Though he graduated from Kenyatta University in Nairobi with a Masters in Economics in 2010, Girma has been facing challenges in his job search. Many young people entering the job market will sympathize with the fact that employment is hard to find.
But Girma’s story is different – he has been facing discrimination in hiring just because he is a refugee.
During our interview, Girma noted that many potential employers both within the private sector and the government are not interested in hiring refugee graduates. In fact, he was explicitly told in a recent interview that the organization simply didn’t offer jobs to refugees. Girma added,
“even though Kenya’s economy is a developing one . . . there should at least be a legitimate ground for refugees to assert their right to work.”