The post-World War II refugee regime built a firewall between refugees and economic migrants. For many years, the UNHCR and the refugee advocacy community expressed strong opposition to any effort to breach that wall and approach refugees as mobile workers.
In the past few years, however, in the face of the inadequacy of traditional humanitarian protections to address the global refugee crisis, refugee labor has gained prominence as a solution. The new password to conversations about refugee policy is “self-reliance.”
For most refugees, self-reliance is merely a description of reality, if more of necessity than by aspiration. The majority live in urban areas outside the UNHCR umbrella, and many labor in the informal economy, essentially as undocumented migrants. Under those circumstances, interventions that truly open doors to making a good living and building a meaningful life would be welcome.
What self-reliance means to international organizations and policymakers is much more complex. For a while now, refugees have been encouraged to take up farming for their own consumption and for sale in local markets. Many refugees are self-employed, albeit usually off the books. In the past two years, though, the discussion has turned toward international trade. The Zero Draft of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) is clear on the need to integrate refugee labor into the global economy.
The draft notes the importance of employing refugees, “where practicable,” in global value chains, which in practice means producing goods for export. If work cannot be found where refugees are, the GCR ratifies the proposal that temporary labor migration should be part of a “fourth durable solution” for refugees where resettlement, repatriation or integration are unavailable. This might mean a visa to Qatar, perhaps to work in construction.
Putting refugees to work is the latest silver bullet. Until the recent crisis, official refugee employment initiatives were largely limited to Crafting (small-scale efforts to sell products made by refugees) and Creaming (options for highly skilled refugees).
The Jordan Compact, through which the Jordanian government has agreed to place 200,000 Syrians in garment manufacture for export or to grant them work permits in exchange for significant amounts in aid and concessionary loans, is the paradigm example of the change in approach. The World Bank, the IMF and the E.U. and U.S. governments are strong supporters of the Jordan Compact, which promises to keep Syrians in the Middle East while increasing the footprint of global supply chains. Similar agreements are in the works in Ethiopia, Turkey and elsewhere.
Despite this new merging of refugees and labor migrants in policy, the processes of negotiating the GCR and its parallel agreement, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), are proceeding largely in isolation. The lack of overlap leaves a gap through which major concerns have fallen. Is it consistent with humanitarian ideals to treat refugees like one more fungible part of the world’s mobile low-wage workforce, best served by a seat in a garment factory or a ticket to the Gulf as a guest worker?
Furthermore, is it wise for the international community to pursue a refugee policy that takes aim at jobs already held by low-wage labor migrants? Displacement of other precarious workers hardly seems like a desirable solution to the refugee crisis, and yet in practice, the Jordan Compact has created few if any new jobs, and instead will redistribute some positions held by migrant Bangladeshis and Egyptians to Syrian refugees.
At a minimum, whatever type of work the refugee compact and the “self-reliance” paradigm encourages, the compact must also endorse provisions to ensure that refugees are not exploited when they grow maize, stitch sweatshirts or scaffold a building. A person who works is a worker, whatever label she was given when she crossed borders. As the ILO frequently reminds us, all workers have a right to the protections necessary for decent work. And yet the GCR says almost nothing about labor rights, nor about ensuring equal treatment so refugees are not used to undercut workers already in the labor market.
The design of programs to employ refugees will need to draw on the lessons migrant workers and their advocates have learned the hard way, through decades of experience with the realities of farm labor, export production and guest worker programs. Jobs at the bottom of global brands’ supply chains are often brutal. The hours can be punishingly long, wages low and safety an afterthought. Guest workers, meanwhile, almost always bear visas that tie them to a single employer. Debt incurred during recruitment makes it hard to report abuses later.
For its part, the Global Compact on Migration could do more to guarantee core labor standards established by the ILO. But it already has some key insights to offer on how to lessen the risk of abuse. Two of the draft migration compact objectives (No. 5 and No. 6) address fair recruitment and the importance of decent work.
The Global Compact on Refugees should follow suit. Later drafts of the refugee compact should cross-reference all decent work and fair recruitment provisions in the GCM, emphasizing that whenever refugees are to be treated as laborers, they must be entitled to social protections and full workplace rights, including mobility between employers and freedom of association.
Such cross-referencing would provide a foothold for future discussion of recruitment and working conditions in programs that seek to place refugees in low-wage jobs. And it would help break down the isolation of these two global compacts from each other, reinforcing the point that there is not a firewall between refugees and other migrants in reality, and there should not be one in policy.
Whether we can expect refugees to achieve self-reliance, given everything they have been through and all the obstacles in their way, is an open question. But in the name of that goal, it is unacceptable to put refugees in a situation where we already know, by looking into the migrant silo, that they will face exploitation from a position of heightened vulnerability. It is only right for the GCR, and all efforts to reposition refugees as workers, to be explicit about the workplace standards that such programs must include to keep the silver bullet from turning into lead.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.