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.
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.
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.”
For many refugees residing in the urban regions of Kenya, business cannot be run as usual. As the High Court case of Kituo Cha Sheria v. Attorney General remains underway, members from the urban refugee community in Nairobi reported to Asylum Access that they fear participating in society as usual while their right to work and move freely outside refugee camps hang in the balance.
As previously reported by Asylum Access, the Kenyan government issued a directive in late 2012 and again in early 2013 to force all urban refugees to relocate to the already overcrowded refugee camps of Dadaab and Kakuma. Reports from human rights organizations emerged soon after the directive’s announcement, stating that as a result of the policies, refugees in Kenya’s urban centers, particularly those in Somali enclaves, had been subjected to a wide range of abuses, including police harassment, violence, discrimination, bribery and arbitrary detention. Local NGO Kituo Cha Sheria challenged the policies before the High Court, and on 23 January, the Court issued provisional orders to halt the implementation of the policy.
Christian Pangilinan is the Georgetown Fellow and a Volunteer Legal Advocate at Asylum Access Tanzania. This post draws from a paper he presented at the African Conference on International Law on October 5, 2012 on the “Potential of the African Court on Creating a Binding Regional Framework for Refugee Protection.”
By Christian Pangilinan
As Marina Sharpe explained earlier on this blog, refugees in Africa are entitled to social and economic rights under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. These include a right to wage-earning employment that is equal to that of other foreign nationals lawfully resident in a country, a right to engage in agriculture and industry on terms no less favorable than resident aliens, as well as various welfare rights.
Although the 1969 OAU Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa did not expressly guarantee these rights, the 1969 Convention does identify itself as the regional complement of the 1951 Convention and its acknowledgment that the 1951 Convention as the “basic and universal instrument relating to the status of refugees” (Sharpe presents two other arguments in her blog post).