Are Refugees Located Near Urban Job Opportunities? An Analysis of Overlap Between Refugees and Major Urban Areas in Developing Countries, and Implications for Employment Opportunities and MNC Engagement

Cindy Huang and Jimmy Graham

Center for Global Development Brief, June 18, 2018


Multinational corporations (MNCs) are increasingly seeking social impact alongside profit, and are emerging as important partners in the push to expand refugee employment and entrepreneurship. When refugees are located in urban areas, where economic activity and MNCs tend to cluster, they have a much greater likelihood of being in close proximity to potential employers. The authors created an interactive tool to map the locations of working-age refugees, and analyzed the extent to which refugees overlap with major urban areas in 31 of the 37 developing countries hosting at least 25,000 refugees. This tool demonstrates where MNCs, regional and local businesses, and other actors are best positioned to expand economic opportunities for refugees. They also consider the number of OECD MNCs, and the number of people employed directly by these MNCs in each country. The authors find:

  • Substantial overlap between refugees and urban economic opportunities in the 31 developing countries in their sample: 2 million working-age refugees are living in major urban centers with at least 300,000 people, including 0.9 million working-age refugees living in the most populous urban area in the host country.
  • In addition to the fact that the majority of refugees are in urban areas, there are also substantial proportions of refugees in major and largest urban areas. Based on a sample of 23 countries with the best data, 62 percent of working-age refugees are in urban areas (close to the global 60 percent figure). Among these urban working-age refugees, 62 percent are in major urban areas with at least 300,000 people (2 million people), and about 24 percent of them are in the largest urban area in the host country (0.8 million people).
  • There is substantial variation across these 23 countries: 6 countries have at least 50,000 refugees in or around major urban areas (Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Malaysia); 3 countries have between 25,000 and 50,000 refugees in or around major urban areas (Sudan, Uganda, Kenya); and 5 countries have between 7,000 and 5,000 refugees in or around major urban areas (Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Cameroon, Republic of Congo).
  • Countries with significant overlaps of refugees and major urban areas are located in a variety of regions, and most of the countries with substantial overlap have a significant MNC presence.

While proximity is not a major barrier to expanding employment for refugees in many contexts, there are other significant obstacles, including: lack of legal right to work in most developing countries; vulnerability of refugees working in the informal sector to exploitation and deportation; and, even where refugees are allowed to work, de facto barriers like discrimination affect their ability to access the labor market. Other challenges include skill mismatches between refugees and employers’ needs and a lack of equal labor protections. The authors note that regardless of how much MNCs prioritize refugee hiring, the overall proportion that they hire may be substantial but minor; MNCs can create impact by including refugees in their supply chains, and by influencing other local, regional, and global businesses to engage refugees.