Refugees can rebuild their lives and contribute to the economy if given the right to work – this was the central message delivered by business leaders and relief experts to a packed house of dignitaries and civil society leaders at the event “Refugees at Work From the Middle East to Latin America” on September 20 in New York City. Organized by Asylum Access, the International Rescue Committee, Oliver Wyman, and Action Corps, the event took place during the week of the UN General Assembly to call for economic empowerment for refugees as an urgently needed step toward solving the refugee crisis in the Middle East and worldwide.
Scott McDonald, the CEO of Oliver Wyman, opened the event stating that “If you’re going to bring refugees into the country then you have to give them a platform for opportunity and success. The single most important thing you can do is actually provide them jobs.” He noted that despite logistical barriers and initial criticism from his peers, Oliver Wyman has persisted in hiring refugees and encouraging other businesses to follow suit.
Other speakers included Alex Aleinikoff, Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School, formerly the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees; Grainne O’Hara, Deputy Director of the UNHCR New York Office; Karina Sarmiento, Asylum Access Latin America Regional Director; Niels Harild, Independent Policy Consultant, formerly Manager of the Global Program on Forced Displacement, The World Bank Group. It was moderated by Sarah Case, Director of Policy and Planning at the IRC, with concluding comments by Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Executive Director of Asylum Access.
Access to lawful employment for the world’s 22 million refugees is impeded by legal restrictions in most countries, resulting in refugees having to work in the informal sector and experience exploitation. However, panelists noted that a growing body of evidence shows significant economic benefit to host countries from providing refugees access to lawful work. Sarmiento told the story of Javier, a refugee living in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, who sold baked goods out of his window. He said “I want to employ more refugees and expand my business.” Ecuador allows refugees the legal right to work, so Asylum Access helped him obtain a business license and he was able to pursue his dream. He now runs a major bakery that employs many refugees and nationals.
Speakers focused attention on the Middle East, noting the tremendous challenge posed by a high concentration of refugees, notably from Syria, but also expressed some optimism in early attempts to improve hiring and economic opportunity. In closing the event, Arnold-Fernandez echoed that humanitarian aid alone insufficiently addresses refugees’ needs. Her synthesis included recommendations such as creating a functioning work permit system, letting refugees work in any profession rather than limiting them to a few professions or narrow range of skills, letting refugees work wherever markets are rather than limiting them to a few regions, and if refugees are already working informally, formalizing their employment rather than trying to make them move to new sectors.
To watch the event recording please visit http://www.facebook.com/asylumaccess