International Employment: An Alternative Pathway for Refugees

Before they were refugees, they were doctors, lawyers, and professors. They were accountants, mechanics, and IT workers. Now they struggle to obtain work permits and secure employment.

Millions of refugees, even those who have professional skills and years of work experience, are not allowed to work legally in their host countries. Their skills go unused while they are forced to rely on humanitarian aide.

"My father is a medical doctor," explained one Syrian lawyer now living in Lebanon. "Now he's sitting idle. And he's not the only one. Where I live, there's a judge, a pharmacist. Now we're living in what used to be a chicken factory." The talent being wasted in Jordan and Lebanon could instead be used to help strengthen economies around the world where local skill gaps stymie development. A recent survey by the Manpower Group of 41,700 hiring managers in 42 countries found that 38 percent of employers around the world have trouble filling positions. For instance, engineers, medical professionals, and other skilled employees remain in high demand in developing countries across Central Asia, South America, and Africa. These labor market shortages and surpluses are costly; a 2014 Boston Consulting Group study cited a $10 trillion loss in world GDP by 2030 from labor imbalances.

Many countries readily make labor visas and eventual permanent residency available to skilled workers. Creating an on-ramp to move talented refugees into this labor mobility pathway offers obvious benefits to refugee families, destination countries and the private sector alike. Destination countries and private sector employers can benefit from refugee skills and experience. Refugees, in return, can gain a pathway to stable employment and control over their future. Labor mobility, while a popular topic in academia, has not been used as a tool for refugee assistance since the period following World War I. Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) believes that labor migration can once again serve this role, helping refugees re-enter the workforce. As world leaders meet in New York tomorrow for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, TBB offers an innovative solution based on labor mobility and private sector engagement. Talent Beyond Boundaries is undertaking a pilot project in Jordan and Lebanon to link refugees with global employment. As a first step, TBB is working with a large team of partners on the ground to encourage refugees to register their work experience, education, and skills in a first-of-its-kind online Talent Catalog. TBB then will connect corporate partners with qualified candidates for open positions. This system empowers refugees by increasing their self-reliance and promoting a shift in perception to one that recognizes refugees as assets rather than a burden.

The Syrian lawyer who volunteers with TBB explained it this way: "I like this project because it doesn't put us in a box, label us a parasite. It reminds people that we're not here just to live off of other people's work. It's taking us for what we do best, what we can add to society. When refugees have freedom to work, when he feels he is making a difference with his talents, his skills -- this is somewhere he will feel that he belongs... If you go on a work visa, it tells you, you're a doctor. You're a teacher. You have value. Your skills are needed. " TBB's project also allows the private sector to expand its role in responding to refugee crises. Through private sector hiring initiatives, countries that have not yet been involved in responding to the refugee crisis will have a new opportunity and benefit. We have been participating in the Global Forum on Migration and Development's (GFMD) Business Mechanism and applaud the efforts of groups like this which are working to enhance opportunities for workers and companies in a way that contributes to economic development.

Labor mobility expansion for refugees comes with significant challenges. Refugees may no longer possess proper documentation of their academic records and professional certifications. They may also lack travel documents that are part of routine work visa applications. TBB is committed to working with the UN Refugee Agency, governments, and international organizations to find solutions to these barriers. With more than 65 million people displaced from their homes worldwide, it is imperative that our collaboration yields a new, legal pathway for refugee employment.

Talent Beyond Boundaries will be in New York this week sharing our vision for a global employment solution, and Founder Bruce Cohen will be speaking at the Concordia Summit Private Sector Forum on Migration and Refugees on innovative approaches for skills matching. To learn more and to follow our progress, we encourage you to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.


This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of two critical conferences at the UN on the Refugee and Migrant crisis: the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants (Sept. 19th, a UN conference) and the Leaders Summit on Refugees (Sept. 20th, hosted by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, at the UN). To see all the posts in the series, visit here. To follow the conversation on Twitter, see #UN4RefugeesMigrants.