Labour mobility schemes for displaced people (including refugees) can provide an additional and complementary way to safely enter or stay in another country, through regularised access to employment.
What are labour mobility schemes?
Labour mobility schemes can enable displaced people to safely enter or remain in another country because they are legally authorised to take up employment there. In this way, a refugee is able to access a temporary or durable solution to their displacement by using an ordinary migration process, which, depending on the circumstances, may offer greater opportunities for self-reliance and effective protection than remaining in their own country or in the country where they first sought asylum. A labour mobility scheme may also provide a migration pathway for the applicant’s immediate family members.
In order to take into account the circumstances of displacement, labour mobility schemes may permit adjustments to the normal documentary requirements or costs of the application process or the terms of entry and stay. This is because displaced people may have difficulty accessing evidence of their qualifications or proof of work experience, or have limited access to their savings. Schemes may also involve non-government organisations to help refugees connect with prospective employers abroad.
Labour mobility schemes are a type of ‘complementary pathway’ to protection because they can provide an additional way for displaced people to safely cross international borders, ‘complementing’ national asylum procedures and programs for third-country resettlement. In 2018, as part of the Global Compact on Refugees, the world’s governments agreed on the importance of expanding complementary pathways and exploring ways to support refugee labour mobility. The expansion of safe, orderly and regular migration pathways for people in situations of vulnerability is also an objective of the Global Compact for Migration, adopted by 152 countries in 2018.
Examples of labour mobility schemes
Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP) was created in 2018 to test whether skilled refugees could access existing economic immigration pathways to that country, and to identify and resolve immigration barriers. In administering the EMPP, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada partnered with UNHCR, five Canadian provinces and territories, and not-for-profit labour mobility organisations Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) and RefugePoint. Under the EMPP, employers recruit talented people from within displaced populations working with TBB and RefugePoint, and civil society and government partners then facilitate visa applications. All candidates are required to meet the standard requirements of Canada’s visa programs, but some financial and administrative barriers are overcome through creative alternatives, such as the use of expired passports to prove identity if valid passports cannot be obtained. The EMPP has provided successful candidates with access to permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship. In June 2020, Canada announced an extension of the EMPP pilot, with 500 places over two years for refugee principal applicants plus their immediate family members.
A labour mobility scheme for displaced people has recently been piloted in Australia, using the existing Temporary Skills Shortage Visa and Special Humanitarian Program. Beginning in 2018, and with the support of Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, partner organisations Talent Beyond Boundaries and Refugee Talent have worked with a diverse range of employers, such as Accenture, Iress, John Holland, Harvey Beef and Maurice Blackburn, to recruit skilled workers. These refugees have taken up a variety of roles across Australia, including as mechanical and software engineers, butchers and lawyers.
On 7 February 2020, Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge announced that: ‘The Government is also rolling out a two-year Skilled Refugee Pilot to offer skilled employment in Australia to up to 100 skilled refugees, including in regional areas.’ Negotiations are underway between the Department of Home Affairs and Talent Beyond Boundaries to determine how this pilot will be implemented, ensuring that labour mobility complements (and does not replace) existing pathways for refugees.
What are the benefits and challenges of labour mobility schemes?
When designed in a way that safeguards people’s protection needs, labour mobility schemes can have distinct benefits for refugees, the communities that host them, and the system of international refugee protection as a whole.
For people who have been displaced, work rights and employment in another country can provide greater agency and control over their own destiny. UNHCR has noted that regularised access to employment in another country can help provide refugees with the opportunity to capitalise on their skills and potential, and improve their own (and their family’s) long-term integration prospects and standard of living. Such schemes can also benefit those who stay behind by easing pressure within countries that are hosting large numbers of displaced people, and because often refugees send remittances back to family members.
For countries that receive refugees, and for employers, labour mobility schemes can help to address labour or skills shortages and other economic or demographic needs. In turn, UNHCR notes that schemes may also ‘build public support for refugees’ within these countries ‘by demonstrating the positive contribution that refugees can bring to receiving societies’. By highlighting refugees’ potential, skills and agency, labour mobility schemes can encourage employers to consider refugees in their recruitment efforts.
UNHCR has encouraged receiving countries and other stakeholders to make it easier for refugees to access labour mobility schemes by removing practical, legal and administrative obstacles. As Canada’s EMPP showed, potential applicants may simply not know about their migration options. Another key challenge is that highly skilled people who are displaced may not be ‘visible’ to potential employers. To address this challenge, Talent Beyond Boundaries created a ‘Talent Catalog’, a database featuring the skills profiles of more than 20,000 displaced people in Jordan and Lebanon across 200 occupations. The Talent Catalog helps to communicate the talents of prospective employees to employers in destination countries.
Other challenges include ensuring that refugees participating in a labour mobility scheme enjoy appropriate protection at work, and to this end the International Labour Organization has set out guiding principles that are informed by international human rights law and international labour standards.
Dr Claire Higgins (Senior Research Fellow, Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law)
with Marina Brizar (Director, UK Office, Talent Beyond Boundaries)