Geneva — The UN refugee agency and the International Labour Organization (ILO) recently organized a workshop in Geneva on labour mobility for refugees*. The purpose was to explore possibilities for refugees to access existing labour migration programmes and to ensure that they have the same opportunities as any qualified migrant. The workshop was supported by this year's Chair-in-Office of the Global Forum for Migration and Development, Ali Mansoor, an economist from Mauritius who came up with the concept. The GFMD forum gathers governments in an informal way to discuss issues relevant to migration and how it could best be used to contribute to economic and social development. UNHCR's communications officer Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba spoke with Ali Mansoor about the initiative and how it could be put in practice.
How did the idea of a specific labour migration project for refugees come about?
We tried to use our chairmanship to explore how migration and development policies can best improve the welfare of individuals. We call them migrants but they are people first. Refugees are also people on the move, so we need to include them. They are people who through bad circumstances are kept in limbo, sometimes for many years. They are neither able to achieve their potential, nor contribute to the societies where they are, although they would like to and could be productive. From a human and economic point of view it's a huge waste so naturally we thought: What could we do differently?
Why did you think that such a project would be needed?
There are emerging markets which need labour and they'll need even more labour as they continue to emerge. As economists we wanted to see how to make these emerging markets work and how this demand for labour can be used to improve the welfare of refugees.
How will it work?
I think that multiple solutions are needed. On the one hand, we need to build the scheme based on what countries are willing to do. Given the nature of policy making it will take some time before we come up with precise answers. However, there are some countries which have permanent immigration and a larger number that are keener on temporary labour. One suggestion that I have made is to encourage emerging economies to offer a temporary labour migration programme for refugees to prepare them for more permanent solutions elsewhere. If we could get an agreement that those that are willing to take permanent labour could work with those that need temporary labour, then maybe we can find a win-win situation.
On the other hand, it has to be demand- driven by employers. The notion would be to let employers have a certain quota, where people from refugee camps who they think would meet their needs can be processed on an expedited basis.
Do you have indications that governments will be willing to support your idea?
We have a variety of situations across the world. There are governments who are more welcoming and governments which find it harder to start something new. Countries interested in trying this out can show whether this idea works. Countries which are more reluctant may then decide to participate if the scheme works well. The key however is not to get all countries to sign on. It is to get at least a few who are willing to try. If people worry that refugees will become a burden these fears will be overcome if those who come are productively employed.
How about the risk of compromising refugee status if they are migrant workers?
I don't see why it should be impossible to design systems where people can still be given the protection they need while changing from being a dweller of a refugee camp to somebody living a normal life in a normal house with a normal job. The transition from one to the other doesn't necessarily mean that you have to give up the protection you have.
One of your other projects is to enhance mobility within Africa; do you see refugees fitting into that as well?
The reality is that there is a huge demand for labour within Africa for Africans from neighbouring countries. The largest proportions of Africans who are outside of their country are actually in another African country. All we need to do is recognize this and provide a framework. Several African governments have expressed an interest to explore this together but they will need financial support. Within this framework, hopefully there is also space for refugees to be productively employed in another country rather than be unproductively stuck in camps.
If we are talking about temporary employment what happens afterwards for the refugees?
A temporary labour migration scheme hosted by an emerging economy could be a contribution by preparing people better and improving their skills before they go to a permanent immigration country. This may make it more attractive for countries to take in refugees on a permanent basis and they may be able to expand the number of places. But we also need to look at how this idea could work in practice. Emerging markets willing to participate will need some sort of a workable guarantee that refugees will leave after the end of the temporary labour migration scheme, for example through another country offering permanent settlement.
If conditions which led people to leave home have changed, they could also go back home. The temporary labour migration programme would have enabled them to build up skills and savings, which they can use to rebuild their country and their lives back home.