The Current Situation
Refugee camps were formally established by the UN as a temporary solution to provide food and shelter to the many people displaced after the Second World War, with the expectation that, in time, refugees would return home or move to a new home in a third country.
Unfortunately, many refugees now live in camps for decades. As long-term conflicts persist, the countries hosting the refugees in camps are unwilling to let them become part of the general population. And less than 1% of refugees are resettled into third countries, such as the U.S., Canada, or states within Europe (citation).
Restricting refugees’ access to work is in many cases a violation of the country’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Even highly-skilled and well-educated refugees typically are not able to work, travel outside the camp, cultivate food, or pursue an education. In short, very capable people find themselves with limited agency over their lives and futures.
Restricting refugees’ access to work is in many cases a violation of the country’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The convention requires that people who have registered with the host government and applied for asylum have the right to self-employment in that country. If their asylum application is accepted, they have the immediate right to be employed on the same terms as any other foreign national.
Nevertheless, because there is no effective means of enforcing the convention, countries hosting refugees frequently limit refugee access to employment. The result has been generations of refugees and refugee children growing up without work options or the chance to develop their talents and skills.
Refugees have proven to be incredibly dynamic and creative when given the opportunity – creating businesses and jobs, providing local goods and services, boosting exports, and increasing the overall income of the host country.
Many refugees, both inside and outside camps, have started their own businesses even when the country’s laws make it virtually impossible to turn a profit, simply because they are eager to use and develop their skills.
Many refugees work informally (meaning, the government will not issue them a license or permit) either for themselves or for informal employers. Ironically, it is this type of informality which has negative consequences on the availability of jobs for host-country nationals.
Many refugees have started their own businesses even when the country’s laws make it virtually impossible to turn a profit, simply because they are eager to use and develop their skills.
The skills, talent, education, and work ethic that such refugees possess are not only assets to themselves and their families, but also potential assets to their host countries, their home countries, and the international employers and investors who would happily employ them.
In recent years, very positive developments have resulted in greater freedom for refugees:
The government of Turkey independently developed a refugee camp program that provides more opportunities and better living conditions for refugees, including electricity, shipping containers (instead of tents) as homes, and economic activity, including three grocery stores and a few small businesses.
In the Zaatari camp in Jordan, refugees have developed an improvised city of 83,000 people, including electricity, markets, boulevards, and education for children.
Moreover in 2014 the UNHCR announced that it would be shifting away from promoting refugee camps. In its 2014 Policy on Alternatives to Camps, it explained:
“From the perspective of refugees, alternatives to camps means being able to exercise rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices regarding their lives and have the possibility to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of communities.”
UNHCR stated that instead of camps, it would search for more durable solutions, such as methods of integrating people into the local population. While the announcement is a major, commendable step forward, convincing host governments to participate effectively in integration efforts will be very challenging politically and could take generations to achieve.
That means generations of refugees will continue to be born into refugee camps and raised with few opportunities to discover or develop their capabilities or contribute to society in a meaningful way.
To solve this problem, we need a practical, achievable, near-term solution based on political realities.
Refugee Cities believes this solution exists and is waiting to be unleashed.