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Finding the Missing Piece of Refugee and Asylum Policy

Simply put, without the right to work and to earn a living, the idea of asylum as a "safe haven" is not complete.
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Under the 1951 convention relating to the Status of Refugees, refugees have a number of rights including "access to national courts, the right to employment and education and a host of other social, economic and civil rights on par with nationals of the host country." It is surprising, then, that today many countries deny or severely restrict refugees' right to work.

According to the United Nationals High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ethiopia has become Africa's largest refugee-hosting country as a result of the crisis in South Sudan; as of late July, the country has sheltered 629,718 refugees. Despite its generosity in accepting such a large flow of refugees, Ethiopia's economic integration policies are a questionable attempt to protect the domestic labor market at best and an outright violation of human rights at worst.

As a signatory of the 1951 convention, Ethiopia should offer the refugees it hosts access to all the rights outlined in the convention. However, in Ethiopia many articles of the convention are "recognized as recommendations and not as legally binding obligations." Reflecting its more general policy of not allowing foreigners to work unless there are no qualified nationals available, Ethiopia does not implement article 17 of the convention, which deals with wage-earning employment and "rarely issues permits to refugees." Refugees in Ethiopia are thus reduced to working illegally and to working "piecemeal jobs" to earn their livelihood.

Under such conditions, refugees are much more vulnerable to exploitation, are dependent on humanitarian aid to meet their most basic needs and are forced to exchange food rations for other essentials like medicine. Women and young girls are especially vulnerable, as they are often sent off to work as domestic servants, where they may face sexual and verbal abuse but have no legal protection or any other kind of support. This is especially ironic, considering that an asylum country is supposed to provide refugees with safety.

Furthermore, these outcomes are not ideal for refugees or for humanitarian agencies in Ethiopia: agencies are unable to supply enough resources, but refugees are also unable break free from subpar living conditions because of existing laws. Though Ethiopia faces larger poverty and nutrition problems, this refugee-aid model needs to be rethought to allow for the economic self-sufficiency of refugees.

Ethiopia is not the only country in the world with restrictive employment laws for refugees. In Lebanon, for example, Palestinian refugees are denied the right to work in more than 70 professions and are denied the right to register property. In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are "barred from employment" and have not even been allowed to register as refugees since mid-1992. This means that in addition to not being able to earn a living, "they receive little to no assistance as UNHCR is only allowed to assist those who are documented."

Uganda provides a great counterexample to the situations in Ethiopia, Lebanon and Bangladesh and is a useful model to study. In a recent study by the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre entitled "Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions," a team of researchers made discoveries that challenged traditional stereotypes about refugees and their roles in local economies. Most notably, researchers found that "refugees [in Uganda] are part of complex and vibrant economic systems. They are often entrepreneurial and, if given the opportunity can help themselves and their communities, as well as contributing to the host economy." Though in many parts of the world, like Ethiopia, refugees would not be allowed to start their own businesses, Uganda has for decades had a generous policy, providing refugees with "agricultural land and other opportunities to become productive members of society." This policy has also "allowed refugees to earn money and support themselves instead of being a burden on international aid." An unconventional example of the kind of businesses refugees create is Mohammed Osman Ali's arcade at a refugee camp, where he rents PlayStations to Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somalian refugees.

It is difficult to make general prescriptions for the economic integration of refugees into their host country because context and individual situations play such a large role. Though Uganda's policies have been a success in Uganda, they may not be the best solution for other countries. Still, it is essential to experiment with policies that encourage entrepreneurship, allow refugees to apply skills that they bring with them from their country of origin and encourage interactions between refugees and the host society. Without integration into the host country, refugees often face social and economic exclusion, forcing them to navigate complicated systems and bureaucracies alone and often leaving them dependent on the state and on humanitarian aid. Simply put, without the right to work and to earn a living, the idea of asylum as a "safe haven" is not complete.

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