This report released today examines the rights of refugees to work safely and lawfully in eight countries in Asia. It features country-specific scorecards examining policies and practices in the eight research countries and provides a clear baseline and starting point for engaging with refugee work rights in Asia.

The report is the result of a collaboration between HOST International, Asylum Access and TrustLaw Thomson Reuters Foundation with pro bono legal support from Nokia and law firms throughout Asia, and is a finalist in the Thomson Reuters Foundation TrustLaw Collaboration Award. 

According to UNHCR, as of the middle of 2018, Asia hosted 9.4 million people of concern, including 4.2 million refugees, 2.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 2.2 million stateless people. This report has found that most refugees in Asia do not have protected and respected work rights. Often living in hiding for fear of detention and deportation, refugees in Asia rely on humanitarian aid (food, shelter and medical care) and informal, often exploitative work to survive. While humanitarian aid is critical in emergency settings, it inherently does not provide refugees access to protection and solutions.

As the number of resettlement opportunities available to refugees continues to decrease, and as conflicts and unrest endure, many refugees will remain reliant on humanitarian aid for decades. Today, the average duration of a protracted refugee situation has reached 26 years. This reality can only be transformed if refugees have access to safe and lawful work.

Access to work rights and economic opportunities are crucial to becoming self reliant and securing a sense of dignity. Work rights are also a prerequisite to a refugee meaningfully contributing to – often bolstering – their host community economy. The legal right to work is an effective, long-term strategy to integrate refugees and benefit from their contributions while other permanent solutions continue to be explored. Unfortunately, accessing lawful employment is challenging and often impossible for refugees. Laws in some countries completely bar refugees from work, whether as an employee or as a self-employed entrepreneur. Some countries place restrictions on freedom of movement, thereby prohibiting refugees to move where economic opportunities can be found, or place restrictions on their ability to own property, start a business or open a bank account.

Some countries allow refugees to work in principle but limit the sectors and job categories. Beyond the absence of legal structures, refugees also struggle with the recognition of their skills and diplomas, as well as unconscious biases from host communities. Moreover, out of all 27 South, Southeast and East Asian countries, only seven (China, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Timor Leste, Afghanistan and the Philippines) have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In practice, this means Asia is the region with the fewest international commitments to protect refugees. In light of this reality, refugees often work in the informal sector, which is generally characterised by a lack of protection for non-payment of wages, retrenchment without notice or compensation, unsatisfactory occupational health and safety conditions, an absence of social benefits such as pensions, sick pay and health insurance, and exploitation and abuse.

In Asia in particular, the lack of laws and regulations allowing refugees to work contributes to the already significant informal economy, which accounts for 68.2 percent of the workforce. Interestingly, many parts of Asia are experiencing acute labor shortages. East Asia would have to import 275 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 by the year 2030 to maintain the current share of its population who are of working age. Asian countries hosting refugees and asylum seekers have an opportunity to tap into their pool of informal workers and incorporate them into a structured workforce that could benefit their economies. That opportunity can only be unlocked through the respect and protection of refugee work rights.

The report will be formally launched at The Global Refugee Forum in December 2019.