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Refugees as entrepreneurs, but where are work permits?

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

Earlier this week, a sum of $10 billion was pledged at a donors’ conference in London to ease the plight of Syrian refugees affected by the ongoing conflict. Although this was necessary in the short term, it must be recognized that the most sustainable framework to ensure the dignity of Syrian refugees is granting them the right to full employment.

As host governments have resisted work permits to those fleeing conflict zones, a large number of refugees have taken matters into their own hands and have decided to showcase their entrepreneurial spirit. Some have taken to Skype to teach Arabic through a platform called NaTakallam. Some refugees based in Lebanon, for instance, earn as much as $15 per hour by teaching Arabic.

If refugees are given the opportunity to settle in and assimilate culturally, they will eventually pay back to the society

Yara al-Wazir

Ironically, the situation that has left refugees in the situation that they find themselves in has also attracted foreigners to learn the language. Unfortunately, Damascus and Cairo, the cities that once hosted hundreds of Arabic language students may no longer be seen as safe and secure.

Therefore, this platform is doing an exceptional job of spreading the learning of the Arabic language while maintaining the livelihoods of refugees. In other locations, refugees are taking to the age-old tradition of pastry making and bringing Syrian food to their communities and restaurants and craftsmen are attempting to recreate “historic jewels”.

All this is fine but can only be the stepping-stone to change in approach. This entrepreneurial spirit is excellent in helping refugees earn a living and, more importantly, becoming self-sufficient. By taking to this, they are demonstrating their ability to contribute back into the countries that host them.

Entrepreneurial tendencies

It is not surprising that desperate times have created a determination. Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) suggests that refugees report the highest proportion of their incomes from their personal unincorporated businesses. For host governments, this is the prime example of refugees being an opportunity rather than a challenge. If refugees are given the opportunity to settle in and assimilate culturally, they will eventually pay back to the society.

In Europe and the rest of the Western world, declaring income is automatically followed by tax payment, which means an increase in flow of funds to the government. As refugees make for the best entrepreneurs, it is in the host government’s interest to finance refugees’ businesses and help them.

Right to work

Many refugees are turning to entrepreneurship to generate income but this is not always stable, especially in the early stages. Refugees must still be granted the legal right to work.

Research by the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that the major hurdle to obtaining a work permit is the cost of application. Additionally, an application does not guarantee that a permit will be issued. For instance, of the 18 percent of Syrian refugees outside Zaatari camp in Jordan who applied for the work permit, only 40 percent were actually granted these permits.

While the UNHCR’s 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees directly addresses the need to grant refugees the right to full employment, this is not enforced in practice. The difficulties and hurdles associated with obtaining a legal work permit push refugees into the black market of jobs. This makes them vulnerable to overwork and underpayment. It also means they don’t have a stable income.

Without a self-sufficient stable income to rely on, refugees are turning to the states for hand-outs, further straining government and public funds. Although much of this money comes in the form of international aid, relying on public funds is unsustainable in the long run and refugees must be given the opportunity to fund their own livelihoods.
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Yara al-Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.