Labor Market Access for Refugees and Forced Migrants: Lessons Learned from the Global Refugee Forum

This week at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) in Geneva, Refugees International and the Center for Global Development co-hosted a spotlight session on how innovative programming and financing can help expand labor market access for refugees and forced migrants. The event comes at a critical time when most developing host nations are limiting refugee and forced migrant participation in the labor market. Yet, when sound policies are in place, refugees and forced migrants can be significant economic contributors to their local economies. Host countries should seize this opportunity. 

The event, moderated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and co-organized with the Islamic Development Bank, and the governments of Colombia, Norway, and Morocco, highlighted the importance of labor market access to increase inclusion and integration, reduce aid-dependency, and promote overall development. 

Here are four main takeaways:

1) Expanding labor market access promotes safety and sustainability

As the number of refugees and forced migrants increases globally, the gap between humanitarian needs and assistance is widening. Restrictions that prevent refugees and forced migrants from accessing decent work can increase aid-dependency, push displaced people into informal markets, and increase negative coping mechanisms like child marriage and child labor, which makes people even more vulnerable.

“The benefits include higher rates of employment and income for refugees, reducing their and their family’s vulnerability. There are also benefits for the host communities [including] more productive businesses, and increased fiscal stimulus, among others” said Cindy Huang, vice president of strategic outreach at Refugees International.

“Make sure that refugees are not a burden but an opportunity. Not only at the government but also at the community level,” explained Amadou Thierno Diallo, global practices acting director-general at the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB).

2) Regularization is a necessary step

When refugees and forced migrants work formally, their skills and education contribute to the productivity of their host country. Access to formal and dignified jobs give refugees and forced migrants increased purchasing power, which can grow local economies and contribute to the overall development of their host nations. However, regularization is an important step. 

The government of Colombia acknowledges the potential of Venezuelan migrants to contribute to its economic development. Thus, they have focused their response on regularization and integration through a special visa that also allows Venezuelans to work.

“We have regularized more than 700,000 Venezuelans in Colombia. We made a resolute decision to integrate migrants for three reasons: solidarity, reciprocity, and most importantly because it is an opportunity for Colombia. The Venezuelan population is younger, which gives us a demographic bonus and increases our GDP” said Felipe Munoz, advisor to the president of Colombia for the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

Similarly, Morocco has moved away from a solely security-focused approach toward migrants and refugees and is now integrating a humanitarian and development perspective to their response. Their first step: opening pathways to regularization.

“Since 2013, we have promoted regularization and labor integration in Morocco. Regularization was an important part of our social inclusion strategy, in which we allow refugees and migrants to work,” said Ahmed Skim, director of migration affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Morocco.

3) Local communities must be involved

The creation and implementation of programs and policies targeted to expand the labor market for refugees and forced migrants should include the local host community in all stages of the process. This will enable better inclusion of refugees into host communities and reduce tensions.

In Colombia, the government’s strategy to transform the crisis into an opportunity acknowledges the importance of including the local population into the Venezuelan response.

“We recently created a tax incentive in the border areas to generate incentives for the private sector to invest in those areas, with the objective to increase jobs for Venezuelans but also for the host community,” Munoz told the audience.

In Norway, integration programs are directly related to employment rates. Norway implements a localized integration approach, where municipalities are autonomous to create and implement integration programs for refugees. In those municipalities with the best-performing integration programs, the rate of employment for refugees doubles. 

“The perceptions of the host communities are dependent on our integration policies. If we do not succeed in our integration program, then refugees will be dependent on the welfare system, and the perception would change,” Tom Erlend Skaug, explained state secretary, Ministry of Education and Research at the government of Norway.

4) Women should be at the center of investments and programs to expand labor market access

Women represent almost half of the refugee population worldwide. However, displaced women are more susceptible to economic marginalization and exclusion from labor markets. This limits their potential and has negative repercussions at the household level. Ensuring the inclusion of displaced women is essential to fully benefit from expanding labor market access for refugees. Special attention must be paid to facilitate their inclusion and to protect them from exploitation and abuse. 

“We need to pay closer attention to aspects like transportation needs and childcare access,” mentioned Huang. 

Additionally, Barri Shorey, senior director of economic programs at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) made an important argument that “strong social networks” are critical to women having meaningful access to the labor market. Through social networks, displaced women learn more about “different social norms” and receive more support as they navigate the workplace in a new country. 

Leaving Geneva: Turning Words into Action

By the end of the conversation, the spotlight session set the stage for further discussions on the nexus between the fields of development and humanitarian response. As governments, international organizations, companies, NGOs, and advocates for refugees leave Geneva this week, they must now turn these words into continued action, policy change, and increased funding. The first step is to acknowledge the reality and promise of refugees’ contributions to their host country’s development.

The Spotlight session and this blog are part of the Expanding Labor Market Access (LMA) for Refugees and Forced Migrants initiative, run by the Center for Global Development and Refugees International. The initiative generates evidence on the economic, social, and protection effects of granting LMA; develops recommendations to maximize its benefits; and supports efforts to mobilize the private sector to make the business case.