New Study: Refugees Restricted from Working in At Least 32 Countries, Limiting their Ability to Support Themselves and Contribute to Host Country

55% of refugees live in countries where access, work permits, and other barriers limit them from holding jobs or starting businesses

WASHINGTON – Refugees’ right to work has been repeatedly affirmed in international law, yet in practice the majority of the world’s refugees live in countries that substantially restrict those rights, according to a new study released today by the Center for Global Development, Refugees International, and Asylum Access. The ability to work enables refugees to support themselves and contribute to their host country, but the study finds that laws, administrative barriers, and discrimination combine to prevent full economic inclusion in all of the 51 refugee-hosting countries studied. 

The study examines refugees’ work rights in law and in practice across 51 countries that collectively host 87% of the world’s refugee population, including all of the top 22 refugee-hosting countries. The researchers analyzed legal documents, country-level reports, and news articles, and surveyed hundreds of organizations that work with refugees to build a comprehensive picture of where and how refugees’ rights are being restricted.

“In many countries, laws protect refugees’ right to work. But we found a significant gap in practice. Most of the world’s refugees live in countries where, in some cases despite what the law says, it’s difficult for them to get a job or start a business to support their families,” said Dr. Thomas Ginn, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development and one of the authors of the study.

Researchers point to work rights as critically important. They enable refugees to integrate while reducing the economic burden on hosting countries and the international community. Studies have found that refugees complement native workers rather than competing, often enabling native workers to upskill and growing the economy as a whole.

“Letting refugees work is the right thing to do, but it also has huge economic benefits. Refugees are more likely to support themselves and benefit their host countries’ economies when their rights are protected. Ignoring the law and throwing up administrative barriers instead is just squandering the potential of people who want to work and contribute,” said Dr. Sarah Miller, a Senior Fellow at Refugees International and an author of the study.

The study finds that: 

  • A refugee’s right to work is protected by international law, yet at least 25% of refugees live in countries with inadequate legal protections. 
  • All of the 51 countries studied impose at least some administrative barriers in practice to refugees’ right to work that native-born workers do not face, even when the law promises equal protection. 
  • At least 55% of refugees live in countries where their right to work is significantly restricted in practice by administrative barriers. These barriers include everything from the inability to get work or business permits and harassment from government officials, to restrictions on leaving refugee camps.  
  • Many countries, especially high-income ones, have strong laws protecting refugee work rights but also limit who has legal status as a refugee. Asylum seekers, for instance, are prohibited from working in many countries and moving freely in some.

“Legal protection is a start, but it’s not enough to just have laws on the books. Political leaders need to ensure that refugees have real opportunities to start a business or get a job, without countless administrative barriers being thrown up in front of them. And international actors like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should do more to encourage and incentivize hosting countries to change their policies,” said study author Bahati Kanyamanza, the Associate Director of Partnerships at Asylum Access and a refugee himself for more than twenty years.

“One of the most powerful ways to reduce poverty is to just let refugees work. Let’s not squander it,” said Kanyamanza.

The full study, including scorecards for the 51 refugee-hosting countries, is available at 

About Asylum Access 

Asylum Access supports forcibly displaced individuals and communities as they reclaim their rights, agency, and power. We advocate for a response to forced displacement that honors refugees’ freedom, dignity, and autonomy, while also strengthening the communities that welcome them.

About the Center for Global Development  

CGD works to reduce global poverty and improve lives through innovative economic research that drives better policy and practice by the world’s top decision makers. 

About Refugees International 

Refugees International advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises around the world. We do not accept any government or UN funding, ensuring the independence and credibility of our work. 


Cover photo: Coding school helps women refugees hone tech skills in Germany, March 24, 2018. Photo Credit: UNHCR.