Where refugees have the right to work, they become assets – and we have the research to prove it


Dear JDC Newsletter subscriber,

What do Colombia and Uganda have in common?

They grant refugees some of the broadest rights to work in the world.

When we consider that most refugees have been displaced for at least five years, employment and income is a high priority. But to earn an income, they must be able to access the labor market and many countries restrict the right of forcibly displaced people to work.

At least thirty countries permit refugees to work, according to the author of this month’s Digest, Thomas Ginn, who conducted widespread research on the topic. Ginn, and a number of refugee researchers and advocates, co-authored a study which found that Latin America has the strongest de jure work rights. Yet policy is one thing, and practice is another. The Refugee Work Rights Report found that at least 55% of refugees live in countries where, even if the legal right to work exists, they still face barriers to accessing the labor market.

An important factor that drives policy change, and a characteristic that Uganda and Colombia share, is the presence of conflict in a neighboring country. The European Commission proved this point when war broke out in Ukraine, by granting of temporary protection visas to Ukrainians. When governments maintain restrictive labor market access policies, it is often because policymakers perceive that extending refugees’ right to work will lower employment rates and wages of host workers.

One of the World Bank’s senior economists, Paolo Verme, who is a leading researcher on displacement, has found that, despite widely held perceptions that refugees or migrants will ‘take away jobs’the effect of large populations shocks on the labor market, wages and employment is largely positive or neutral. In fact, with a large amount of people and money occupying the same geographic space the effect of a population shock is economically expansive.

I write this Newsletter from Colombia where, according to UNHCR, an estimated two million people from Venezuela will need protection this year. Last week, I visited Cucuta, a city that lies on the Colombian side of the border and met Gabrielkis Villamarín. Gabrielkis is 20 and fled Venezuela four years ago. Since then, she has graduated from high school, studied graphic design, completed an internship and found a job. None of these things would have been possible without the temporary protection permit (PPT) that the Colombian government granted her. The Government’s decision to do this was based on research, which found that the entrance of Venezuelans into the labor market had little or no effect on native Colombians. Her story was one of hope.

The situation in Colombia illustrates two important points. First, the same lessons can be applied to different displacement contexts if they are based on solid data. Second, that these lessons (or evidence) can make good policy. But to achieve this we need partnerships – partnerships between researchers and policymakers, partnerships between development and humanitarian organizations and partnerships between researchers and the forcibly displaced and their host populations.

We hope you find the Newsletter and Quarterly Digest helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any comments, questions or suggestions, either to myself ([email protected]) or Melany Markham ([email protected])

Yours sincerely,

Björn Gillsäter

Head of the Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement