Labor Migration as an Alternative Pathway for Refugees

Despite the growing scale of forced displacement, it is increasingly clear that traditional durable solutions are only working for a limited number of refugees across the globe. The realization of durable solutions for refugees remains bleak: repatriation is often not possible due to persistent insecurity and weak governance; host countries continue to resist or restrict opportunities for local integration; and resettlement slots remain limited to less than 1% of the global refugee population. In recent years, academics have argued that continued emphasis on these three solutions “fails to recognize a fundamental need to move away from understanding all solutions simply in terms of ‘fixing’ people in places.”[1] As conflicts drag on, humanitarian aid dwindles and refugees are left with no choice but to risk their lives for the sake of onward journey, it is imperative that the international community develop alternative pathways and solutions. Labor migration is one such pathway that can be leveraged to support and empower refugees as part of a more comprehensive approach to forced displacement.

Matching skilled refugees with international employment is not a new concept. In the early years of the international refugee regime, refugee flows were largely managed by facilitating access to existing labor migration channels via Nansen Passports and a labor market exchange run by the International Labor Organization. However, these channels disappeared with the economic downturn of the 1930s and the rise of nationalism.[2] Since then, the concept of labor migration as an alternative pathway for refugees has largely been pursued as an academic and normative endeavor. UNHCR has been increasingly interested in the topic in recent years, having hosted an international workshop in 2012 as well as a high-level meeting in March 2016 to explore labor mobility’s potential for refugees.[3] While firm commitments have yet to be made, there has been some progress on the normative front. In July, the International Labor Organization published a set of guiding principles on labor market access for refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, which firmly rooted member state responsibility in facilitating labor mobility as a pathway for admission and responsibility-sharing.[4] And, during the UN summit on refugees and migrants in September, countries around the world adopted the New York Declaration in which they agreed – at least in principle – to expand the number of legal pathways to refugees, including through labor migration.

While moving from rhetoric to practice has been slow, there are promising signs of progress towards more innovative approaches that seek to leverage the development potential of migration and the comparative advantage of non-traditional actors, including the private sector. Talent Beyond Boundaries, for example, is a nonprofit that is actively working to connect the refugee talent pool with private sector employers. However, such efforts have yet to reach wide-scale potential given the systemic barriers that refugees continue to face in accessing labor migration opportunities.

What would labor migration for refugees look like in practice? First, it involves identifying a demand for labor among potential employers and building mechanisms to match those opportunities with refugee candidates.[5] It also requires a strong legal framework within host countries, particularly on labor rights and refugee protection, as well as the active collaboration of multiple partners – from visa officers in government agencies to humanitarian aid workers to private sector employers.  Alternative pathways, like traditional solutions, are ultimately about facilitating refugee access to rights and solutions. At the same time, it is important to consider how labor migration can facilitate solutions – whether transitional or durable – without undermining protection principles.

The development potential of refugee labor migration

Developing labor migration pathways for refugees can have positive impacts for economic and social development at both the micro and macro level. At the individual level, providing opportunities for refugees to gain employment internationally not only reduces their dependence on aid and enables them to provide for themselves and their families; it also allows them to gain new skills that can enhance their careers and prospects for longer-term solutions. Even when migration is temporary, remittances from refugees who have moved on to third countries can boost local economies in first-asylum countries and countries of origin where friends and family have stayed behind.[6] The development of human capital and skills among refugee populations can also contribute to post-conflict economic recovery in origin countries when repatriation becomes possible.

Refugee labor migration can also help respond to demographic trends and labor shortages in host countries. A 2015 survey of over 41,000 hiring managers across 42 countries found that nearly 40 percent of employers worldwide struggle to fill jobs, particularly in engineering, accounting, computer programming, healthcare and other skilled trades.[7] Because employers often look to bring in foreign workers to fill skills gaps, there is significant potential to benefit from the untapped refugee talent pool. Aggregate registration data of the Syrian refugee population, for example, shows that many of them are educated and highly skilled workers; yet, they continue to face legal barriers to work in countries where they have sought refuge.[8]

The self-sufficiency gained from employment can transform refugees from financial burdens, dependent on humanitarian or government assistance, to taxpaying drivers of growth and job creation. Humanitarian assistance can then be better targeted towards more vulnerable groups. Communities in receiving countries can also gain skilled workers who enhance the local workforce and boost local development.[9]

Barriers and potential solutions to accessing labor migration

There are several operational and legal obstacles that block labor migration as a viable pathway for refugees; yet, practical solutions exist to address them. First, many national immigration systems effectively exclude refugees due to administrative barriers and high entry standards, such as minimum salary or education requirements. Some governments, such as the U.S. and Canada, place caps on the number of work visas they will issue in a given year, creating significant backlogs in visa processing that can take years. Costs of visa applications and other fees are also prohibitive factors. In order to address these barriers, governments can create exemptions to visa caps, waive administrative fees and reduce minimum requirements for refugee applicants, especially if they are able to fill labor shortages.[10]

Second, refugees typically lack documentation of status and travel documents, including passports and other proof of identity or nationality. In theory, refugees are entitled to use Convention Travel Documents[11] (CTDs); however, in practice CTDs can be difficult to obtain and are generally perceived as more problematic than national passports for international travel.[12] Thus, improving the CTD system can help to facilitate labor migration by easing the process to apply and ensuring standardized government issuance and acceptance of such documents. Alternatively, governments in first-asylum and receiving countries could issue their own travel documents.

Third, labor migration for refugees raises valid protection concerns over the risk of refoulement due to the lack of country of return if work visas expire or are revoked. However, refugees should be able to benefit from legal migration pathways while retaining their refugee status. Addressing this challenge may require bilateral cooperation between receiving and first-asylum countries and could involve the transferability of refugee status and protection. Such cooperation could also explore the willingness of first-asylum countries to take back unsuccessful or temporary migrants, and of receiving countries to provide avenues for permanent residence or naturalization.[13]

Fourth, skilled labor migration depends on recognized qualifications and skills verification, which can be challenging when refugees have limited or no documentation or because their credentials and experience were obtained abroad. This is particularly challenging in regulated professions, such as healthcare, but in general employers may not understand the specific skills that a foreign qualification represents, or they may simply have a bias against it. These gaps could be minimized through expanded processes to assess and verify skills of refugees. For example, employers could hire workers on the basis of a standardized skills or aptitude test in lieu of documentation. Other innovative approaches have also been proposed, such as developing ‘refugee skills passports’[14] or ‘reconstructing’ work and education experience based on limited documentation and testimony.[15]

Lastly, refugees often lack information about opportunities that may be relevant to them. One solution that has been proposed is to establish migration resource centers in refugee-hosting countries to help address information gaps. Services could include connecting refugees to job portals, career counseling and providing information about financial services that could help cover the costs of migration. These resource centers could be operationalized by international organizations, such as the International Organization of Migration, the International Labor Organization or non-governmental organizations. [16]

Looking ahead

Barriers for refugees to access labor migration channels vary widely depending on context. But regardless, it is clear that making labor migration work as a solution for refugees will require the support and collaboration of several actors, including private sector employers, NGOs, humanitarian agencies and government authorities – each with their own specific role to play. This has generally been slow to materialize in practice due to political and institutional constraints that have prevented key actors from seeking or engaging in solutions to systemic barriers. Too often, governments are constrained by lack of political will and, in the context of rising populism, broad anti-immigration sentiment will make it even more challenging. At the same time, humanitarian organizations are hardwired to think in terms of resettlement on the basis of vulnerability and are generally skeptical of schemes that treat refugees as migrants.[17] Ultimately, the primary challenge will be to bring in all of these actors to play their part, which can be possible if the benefits are made clear to them.

While states play a critical role in facilitating migration, non-state actors may be best placed to make labor migration a viable pathway for refugees given the political constraints. This includes organizations like Talent Beyond Boundaries, which is developing a model to make refugee candidates available to employers. At the global level, this will require changes to some immigration systems and considerable investment in building partnerships and information networks, which will take time, but it need not involve the development of wholly new programs specifically for skilled refugees. There are opportunities to work with or adapt existing programs to make these channels more accessible to refugees, such as Canada’s skilled immigration pathway. While labor migration does not offer a panacea for all refugee protection needs, it can serve as a practical response to help ameliorate the increasingly complex and intractable nature of forced displacement, while also addressing labor market needs and providing meaningful opportunities for refugees to lead more stable lives.


[1] Long, Katy. “Rethinking ‘Durable’ Solutions,” The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, June 2014.

[2] Long, Katy.From Refugee to Migrant? Labour Mobility’s Protection Potential.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, May 2015.

[3] Summary conclusions from the UNHCR/International Labor Office workshop on Labor Mobility for Refugees, Geneva, September 11-12, 2012. and Summary of key outcomes, High Level Meeting on global responsibility sharing through pathways for admission of Syrian refugees, Geneva, 30 March 2016. <;

[4] International Labour Organization, Guiding principles on the access of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons to the labour market. Tripartite Technical Meeting on the Access of Refugees and other Forcibly Displaced Persons to the Labour Market, Geneva, July 2016.

[5] Collett, Elizabeth, Paul Clewett and Susan Fratzke. “No Way Out? Making Additional Migration Channels Work for Refugees.” Brussels: Migration Policy Institute Europe, March 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Manpower Group, 2015 Talent Shortage Survey. Milwaukee: Manpower Group, 2015.

[8] Talent Beyond Boundaries,

[9] Talent Beyond Boundaries,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Convention Travel Documents are essentially ‘refugee passports’ issued by a host country.

[12] Long, Katy and Sarah Rosengaertner. Protection Through Mobility: Opening Labor and Study Migration Channels to Refugees. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, October 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Loo, Bryce. Recognizing Refugee Qualifications: Practical Tips for Credential Assessment. World Education Services, May 2016.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Comments from Katy Long, Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and independent consultant on migration and refugee issues.

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