Global Refugee Work Rights Report

Thomas Ginn, Reva Resstack, Helen Dempster, Emily Arnold-Fernández, Sarah Miller, Martha Guerrero Ble, Bahati Kanyamanza

Center for Global Development (CGD), Asylum Access, and Refugees International (2022)


This report assesses refugees’ work rights both in law (de jure) and in practice (de facto) across 51 countries, which together hosted 87 percent of the world’s refugees at the end of 2021. The report also analyses additional factors that are critical to refugees’ work rights and economic inclusion, such as access to services and documentation.

The authors define work rights as encompassing: (1) the right to work, that is, the right to access wage-earning employment or self-employment; (2) freedom of movement, that is, the right to be able to choose where to live and travel; and (3) rights at work, which refer to protections that ensure work is safe, fair, and decent, such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, workplace safety and worker wellbeing, prompt payment, and the right to organize (to form or participate in a union or collective bargaining efforts).

The analysis of de jure work rights was based on a review of national, regional, and international laws that mandate work conditions in host countries for refugees and asylum-seekers. Countries were rated on a scale from 1 (national policies prohibit refugees from working) to 5 (fully functioning national policies support refugees’ right to work without restrictions and extend labor protections to refugees).

The analysis of de facto work rights was based on a survey conducted between March and December 2021 of practitioners working in international and local NGOs, refugee-led organizations, NGO networks, and multilateral institutions. Questions were asked about: (a) rights to wage employment, encompassing access to and enforcement of work permits; (b) rights to self-employment, encompassing access to and enforcement of business permits; (c) freedom of movement, including freedom to travel domestically and to one’s residence; and (d) rights at work, specifically recourse for workplace violations through government institutions.

Rights were assessed relative to host-country citizens to isolate the discrimination faced by refugees, and the analysis focused on practices within the direct control of governments and specific to refugees, as distinct from labor market outcomes such as employment or wages, which do not necessarily result from government restrictions. Countries were rated on a scale from 1 (refugees cannot access lawful employment due to practical barriers and/or significant discrimination from government officials, and they have little access to justice) to 5 (refugees can access their right to work in practice, face little discrimination from government officials, and have access to recourse for labor rights violations).

The sample includes countries in all regions and income levels. 13 countries are in Europe, 12 in Africa, 11 in Latin America and the Caribbean, five in the Middle East, three in South Asia, and three in Southeast Asia. Seventeen countries are classified as high-income by the World Bank, 20 are upper-middle-income, six are lower-middle-income, and eight are low-income countries.

Main findings:

  • More than half of the world’s refugees live in countries that generally respect refugees’ work rights by law. Nine of 51 countries (hosting 12 percent of refugees) scored 5, assessed as having a fully functioning national policy that supports refugees’ right to work without restrictions, and 21 countries (hosting 50 percent of refugees) scored 4. Income levels do not correlate with de jure scores; on average, low-income countries had the highest de jure scores and middle-income countries had the lowest de jure
  • On average, de facto scores are lower than de jure More than 60 percent of refugees live in countries with adequate de jure work rights, however many of these laws are not fully implemented. More than 55 percent of refugees (16 million people) live in countries that restrict refugees’ work rights in practice. This includes 19 percent living in countries that severely restrict work rights in practice. In contrast to de jure scores, de facto scores are correlated with income level; high-income countries have the highest average scores.
  • While de jure rights do not necessarily equate to de facto work rights, they are a necessary starting point. De jure and de facto scores are strongly correlated. Of 19 countries that have adequate de facto work rights, only three do not have adequate de jure work rights.
  • High-income countries tend to provide the most expansive de facto work rights. However, in practice these rights are substantially constrained by limiting territorial access of would-be asylum seekers, limiting access to refugee status, and restricting work rights of asylum seekers. Other countries that offer strong de jure work rights frequently don’t issue the requisite work or business permits to refugees or impose other administrative or enforcement barriers.
  • The size of the refugee population in a country suggests little about refugees’ rights in law or in practice. Size of the refugee population is not correlated with either the de jure or de facto work rights scores.
  • Democracies are equally likely to provide work rights by law as autocracies, however there is a significant correlation between work rights being upheld in practice and the political system of the host country. A country’s political system (a spectrum ranging from autocratic to democratic) is not correlated with de jure scores but is correlated with de facto scores; more democratic countries are more likely to have higher de facto
  • Overall, there haven’t been significant changes in work rights over the last five years. Approximately 28 percent of the refugee population lives in a country where access to wage employment has improved in practice, while 29 percent lives in a country where it has worsened.
  • At least 60 percent of refugees live in countries that are deemed to provide adequate access to primary and secondary education (these countries achieve a score of 4 or 5 in the scale system developed in the report). Barriers to tertiary education remain significant; at least 68 percent of refugees live in countries with significant barriers to tertiary education relative to hosts.
  • At least 58 percent of refugees face significant barriers to accessing healthcare relative to nationals, often due to higher fees. Refugees in low-income countries are more likely to face barriers to healthcare relative to citizens than those in middle- and high-income countries.
  • Refugees face significant barriers to acquiring documentation and certifying their academic and professional credentials. Only a quarter of refugees can easily acquire documentation and only 11 percent can easily certify academic and professional credentials from their country of origin.
  • Only 2 percent of refugees live in countries with adequate access to formal financial services. At least 84 percent of refugees live in countries that impose significant barriers to financial services in practice.

The authors conclude with several recommendations for refugee-hosting governments and donors to reduce impediments to refugees’ work rights.

They call on refugee-hosting governments to: (1) ensure domestic laws give work rights to refugees to uphold these rights in practice; and (2) grant work rights automatically with refugee status and integrate them in identity documentation, to eliminate the need for a separate work permit; and (3) enforce refugees’ rights at work and support legal aid for refugees who experience workplace violations.

For donors, the authors recommend creating incentives for host governments to expand refugees’ work rights, by linking funding to policies and implementation of refugees’ rights and strengthening accountability mechanisms for Global Refugee Forum (GRF) pledges. Donors are also called on to support local organizations advocating for refugees’ work rights, and to provide support to host communities, which may be negatively affected by the entry of refugees into the labor market.