The Global Compact on Refugees recommends that high-income countries take in some refugees as labor migrants. Researcher Martin Ruhs explores how that might work.
MOST HIGH-INCOME COUNTRIES make a strict distinction in their immigration policies between refugees and those deemed to be labor migrants. While refugees are typically admitted on humanitarian grounds – albeit with debates in many countries about who qualifies and what degree of protection they are entitled to receive – labor migrants are usually admitted with the explicit aim of benefiting the economy and society. The Global Compact on Refugees, a new nonbinding United Nations framework for improved global governance and more equitable sharing of responsibility, recommends that high-income countries take in some refugees as labor migrants. Is this a good idea? Could it work?
In principle, there are three broad policy approaches for using labor immigration pathways to admit refugees to high-income countries. One aims to help refugees gain access to existing labor immigration programs without making any policy adjustments for “refugee-workers.” Another aims to create incentives for employers to recruit refugee-workers within the broad parameters of existing labor immigration policies. A third approach seeks to establish new labor immigration programs exclusively for refugee-workers. All of these approaches face significant obstacles and challenges in practice.
Most labor immigration programs enacted by high-income countries apply to migrants from any country. Employers are already able to recruit refugee-workers through these existing programs. In practice, they will do so only if refugees are the most skilled and suitable candidates for the job. Factors that weigh on this judgment, along with candidates’ skills and work experience, include the costs associated with recruitment and any training that may be necessary. Under almost all such programs, it is the employer rather than the migrant worker who applies for the work permit, so considering employers’ needs is of central importance.
Refugee-workers would be competing with migrant workers from around the world. In this competition, refugees who have escaped conflicts will be at a distinct disadvantage. They will lack information about the labor immigration programs of high-income countries, and employers and recruitment agencies are unlikely to be informed about potential refugee-workers. Forced migrants who have escaped from conflict zones are much less likely to be able to meet requirements for papers such as travel documents, proof of identity and skills certifications. Furthermore, for many (but not all) displaced people, the costs of legal migration may be prohibitive, yet they are still lower than the costs and risks associated with paying smugglers to guide them through illegal border crossings.
Even if some of these hurdles could be reduced or even eliminated, employers may still prefer to recruit migrant workers rather than refugees. The small number of refugees who would benefit are likely to be the most highly skilled and those with the most financial resources, since the current labor immigration policies of high-income countries are much more open to admitting higher-skilled migrants.
A second policy option is to go beyond the provision of better information and links between employers and refugees by taking measures that are explicitly aimed at generating employer demand for refugee-workers, within the broad parameters of existing labor immigration policies. Such policies could be modified to encourage the recruitment of refugee-workers in addition to migrant workers, which could increase the total intake of migrants. Alternatively, more refugee-workers could be admitted in lieu of some migrant workers, keeping overall numbers flat.
The labor-market test requirement, whereby employers must advertise a job locally before recruiting a migrant to fill it, is an example of a demand-side restriction that could be relaxed to encourage employer demand for refugee-workers. One option would be to waive the requirement for refugees. A second would be to reduce the mandatory advertising period. Either change would give employers faster access to refugee-workers. Another measure that might have a similar effect would be to lower the administrative fees employers must pay when applying for a work permit for a migrant worker. In many countries, these fees are considerable, making them one of the factors that discourage employers from recruiting migrants
Overall, this second policy option would likely result in larger numbers of refugees being admitted as workers to high-income countries. Its feasibility would depend on public acceptance of the humanitarian dimensions of the policy, to justify and maintain support for the relaxation of some restrictions specifically for refugee-workers. Policymakers would need to highlight the positive economic contribution that refugees can make to the host country, while emphasizing the special regulatory requirements of this type of “mixed motives migration.” Realistically, under any of the policies outlined above, the number of refugee-workers would need to be capped in order to address likely concerns about uncontrolled immigration of refugees allowed to enter under laxer regulations than those applied to other migrant workers.
The third and most ambitious option for creating a legal work-based pathway to high-income countries for refugees would be to establish new temporary labor migration programs (TMPs) specifically for displaced people who are currently in first countries of asylum in conflict regions. To be politically and economically acceptable, the numbers admitted through a new TMP for refugees would almost certainly need to be capped or at least tightly regulated.
To avoid undercutting prevailing employment conditions in the host country, refugee-workers would need to be given the same employment rights as domestic workers, or at least very similar ones. An important exception is the right to free choice of employment. This would need to be restricted to enable host countries to use migrants to address shortages in specific occupations or sectors.
Most temporary labor migration programs, especially those for lower-skilled workers, restrict migrants’ rights to family reunion in one way or another. But it is difficult to see how admitting refugee-workers without granting them the right to bring at least some family members would provide the minimum degree of effective protection that most refugee families seek. In my view, at least some right to reunion (if only for core family members) would have to be an integral part of the policy. If this right does not already exist under an existing labor immigration program, a policy adjustment could be made for refugee-workers.
Two fundamentals – which apply to all of the three approaches – relate to the right to claim asylum and the return of refugee-workers whose temporary work permits have expired. Most advocates of alternative pathways for refugees emphasize the importance of retaining their right to protection. But it is clear that the prospect of refugees using these alternative pathways to claim asylum would, in all likelihood, be a major disincentive for high-income countries to offer such pathways in the first place. They would surely want to avoid a situation in which refugees use a temporary labor immigration route to enter legally and then immediately (or after a brief interval) invoke their right to asylum to stay.
If the goal of the labor migration pathway is to provide strictly temporary admission and protection, how will refugees be returned to countries of first asylum? Successfully negotiating readmission agreements with first countries of asylum would be a major challenge. Most first countries of asylum are low- and lower-middle-income countries themselves. It is likely that they will accept readmission agreements that involve the return of refugees only in exchange for greater opportunities for their own nationals to gain admission to higher-income countries as workers, students or family migrants.
In light of these constraints and obstacles, labor migration to high-income countries is unlikely to become a major alternative pathway for large numbers of refugees. This is not to say, however, that some of the obstacles cannot be overcome through innovative policy designs that might benefit a limited number of refugees. There are important initiatives that have been able to place small numbers of refugees from first countries of asylum in jobs in high-income countries. However, given the obstacles discussed above, it is difficult to see how such initiatives could be scaled up significantly, and how international labor migration could become a major option for large numbers of refugees.
There are also considerable dangers of instrumentalizing refugees, in the sense of creating new policies that make the admission of refugees to high-income countries dependent, at least partially, on their perceived economic usefulness. For most refugees in first countries of asylum, the main legal pathway to protection in high-income countries should be resettlement. The key political challenge remains how to convince rich countries to radically increase the resettlement of refugees from overburdened lower-income countries.