Today, in commemoration of U.S. Labor Day, Asylum Access and the Refugee Work Rights Coalition release the publication, Global Refugee Work Rights Report 2014: Taking the Movement from Theory to Practice.
The report examines the laws, policies and practices for refugee work rights in 15 countries around the globe (affecting a total of 30% of the world’s refugee population). Our findings reveal that almost half of the 15 countries examined in the report have a complete legal bar to refugee employment, and in the countries where some legal right to work exists, significant de-facto barriers to employment, like strict encampment, exorbitant permit fees or widespread discrimination, undermine refugees’ ability to access lawful employment.
In simple terms, refugees’ work rights are respected as the exception, not the rule.
The publication also calls upon stakeholders – governments, UN agencies, civil society, refugee and local communities – to take concrete steps to bring national employment laws and policies around the world into line with international human rights and refugee law standards. In doing so, the report (i) provides a breakdown of the right to work under international law, which may be used by advocates to inform policy makers of their legal commitments; (ii) an explanation of the economic arguments in favor of granting refugees’ work rights, which may be used to supplement legal arguments; and (iii) concrete recommendations for achieving legal reform, and administrative and judicial support for work rights domestically.
In 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.
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.
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.”
Asylum Access has been closely following a landmark case before the High Court of Kenya that will make a determination regarding the fundamental rights of all urban refugees in the country.
The case, which is scheduled to commence mid-March, will determine the validity of a policy recently issued by the Kenyan Government requiring all urban refugees to move from urban residences to overcrowded refugee camps. The policy is said to violate both Kenya’s Constitution and International Law, interfering with a refugee’s fundamental right to freedom of movement, work, education and family. In short, the directive, unless invalidated by the High Court, will stifle a refugee’s chance to live a normal life and be self-sufficient.