Refugees restricted from working in at least 32 host countries: Report

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Over 50 percent of the world’s documented refugees live in countries with substantial barriers to access work permits or set up their own business, undermining their right to work which is backed by international law, a new report found.

Released on Thursday by international organizations the Center for Global Development, Refugees and Asylum Access, the study examines refugees’ work rights in law and in practice across 51 different countries that collectively host around 87 percent of the world’s refugee population.


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A refugee’s right to work is protected by international law, yet 25 percent live in countries with inadequate legal protection, the study found, adding that at least 55 percent of refugees live in countries where their right to work is significantly restricted in practice.

These restrictions range from the inability to obtain work permits to harassment from government officials, restrictions on leaving refugee camps, and the lack of access to business permits.

This is particularly concerning because work rights enable refugees to integrate within their host countries more effectively and help reduce the economic burden on the economies of the host countries as well as the international community.

“In many countries, laws protect refugees’ right to work. But we found a significant gap in practice. Most of the world’s refugees live in countries where, in some cases despite what the law says, it’s difficult for them to get a job or start a business to support their families,” Dr. Thomas Ginn, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.

All 51 countries which were studied impose at least some administrative barriers in practice to refugees’ right to work that native-born nationals and workers do not face, even when the law promises equal protection.

“Letting refugees work is the right thing to do, but it also has huge economic benefits. Refugees are more likely to support themselves and benefit their host countries’ economies when their rights are protected. Ignoring the law and throwing up administrative barriers instead is just squandering the potential of people who want to work and contribute,” said Dr. Sarah Miller, a Senior Fellow at Refugees International and an author of the study.

“Legal protection is a start, but it’s not enough to just have laws on the books. Political leaders need to ensure that refugees have real opportunities to start a business or get a job, without countless administrative barriers being thrown up in front of them,” said study author Bahati Kanyamanza, the Associate Director of Partnerships at Asylum Access and a refugee himself for more than twenty years.

Kanyamanza called on international bodies such as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees to do more to encourage and incentivize host countries to make some changes to their policies to make them more inclusive.

“One of the most powerful ways to reduce poverty is to just let refugees work. Let’s not squander it,” Kanyamanza added.

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