Refugees’ Right to Work and Access to Labour Markets: Constraints, Challenges and Ways Forward

Roger Zetter and Héloïse Ruaudel

Forced Migration Review 58, June 2018, pp. 4-7.


While the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) provides for a refugee’s right to work, most countries are reluctant to give refugees access to the labor market and impose restrictions on legal entitlements to work. Restrictive approaches are common in countries with limited labor market capacity, weaker economies, and less resilience to economic shocks. There is significant variation in refugees’ right to work across countries, regardless of whether countries are signatories to the 1951 Convention, reflecting not only a country’s legal and policy frameworks but also its compliance and enforcement mechanisms. There are also indirect barriers on the right to work, such as: (a) costly and burdensome procedures to obtain work and/or residence permits; (b) requirements to have a job offer before a refugee can get a work permit; (c) limits on entrepreneurship or accumulating capital; and (d) poor access to immigration offices and/or slow refugee status determination procedures. Consequently many refugees work informally, entailing significant risks and disadvantages especially for women, youth and children. Refugees are rarely able to accumulate sufficient capital or skills either to finance their own legitimate pathway to self-reliance (and possible integration) or to support their return and reintegration to their home country. Governments, international organizations and NGOs are beginning to tackle some of these constraints, e.g. by easing processes for obtaining work permits, providing incentives for refugees to find employment, recognizing qualifications, and improving skills training. The authors recommend:

  • Governments should pursue labor market policies that lead to more sustainable livelihoods and better economic conditions for refugees and host communities.
  • Governments, employers, trade unions and civil society should promote equality of rights and counter negative stereotypes of refugees, including raising awareness of refugees’ workplace rights.
  • Improved training, education and language/skills development for refugees.
  • International funding and underwriting of labor market developments and job promotion should be buttressed by support for legislation, policies and standards for decent work.