UNHCR interview

Why refugees need jobs, just like everyone else

20 June 2023
Interview with Dominique Hyde, Director of External Relations, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

In 2022, UNHCR, the UN Agency for Refugees, announced that the world had surpassed the 100 million mark for total forced displacement, meaning that over 1.2% of the global population have been forced to leave their homes. And 2023 has not seen an improvement with the conflict in Sudan, pushing the total to 110 million. Among these people were over 35 million refugees.


Trade Forum talked with Dominique Hyde, UNHCR’s Director of External Relations, about how to best include and integrate refugees and the forcibly displaced economically.


UNHCR interview
UNHCR Director of External Relations Dominique Hyde visits South Sudanese refugees in 2022.
© UNHCR/Guerchom Ndebo

Q: Given the new record numbers UNHCR cited, could you tell us more about the impact of COVID-19, conflict, cost of living and climate change on refugees and their host communities?

These things affect people everywhere. But that impact is magnified immeasurably for refugees when they are excluded from efforts to address or mitigate them. This was shown powerfully during the COVID-19 pandemic when including refugees in national public health responses was understood in many places not as an act of charity but as a critical part of efforts to protect the health and safety of all.

Similar dynamics and inextricable linkages apply to economic and climate-related phenomena that can act as ‘risk multipliers’, both in the places refugees flee and places they find protection, if not approached with full inclusion of refugees in mind.

Refugees and those communities that host them have shared priorities and concerns in many important areas. This is why UNHCR advocates a forward-looking ‘whole of society’ response to refugees – an approach that views refugees not as outsiders but as integral members of the communities where they live.

We must encourage the contributions refugees want to and can make toward the communities that welcome them. We continue to see across Europe, for instance, a solidarity with refugees from Ukraine that is not just saving lives and strengthening host communities but that is also an example for the world of the kinds of humane and effective responses to refugees that work for all.

UNHCR interview
Syrian refugee turns trash into treasure in Jordan.
© UNHCR/Shawkat Alharfoush

Q: In this context, which solutions have worked so far in integrating refugees better economically?

The first step lies in shifting the mindset. When refugees participate actively in the daily economic life of the communities where they live, everyone benefits. We see proof of this every day, from Niger to Kenya or Colombia, where refugee and host communities often live, work and develop side by side.

In southern Ethiopia, for example, there are refugee settlements that now generate their own electricity, grow their own food and run their own restaurants.

Similar solutions for economic integration or self-sufficiency are also bearing fruit in other parts of the world where refugees reside, due to the drive and the skills that refugees possess, combined with commitments and synergies of governments, the private sector and civil society.

This kind of new thinking about meaningful solutions helps refugee populations become more self-sustaining and can stimulate markets at a microeconomic level through production and trade of goods and services that hold genuine value for anyone living the community -- refugee or not.

UNHCR interview
Refugees build new lives in Eswatini by attending sewing classes to make and sell clothes as part of a livelihood programme.
© UNHCR/Laura Padoan

Q: What about access to markets and global value chains?

There are no objective economic data supporting the idea that refugees are best kept away from markets, at any level. On the contrary, there is now growing evidence demonstrating that refugee access to, and active participation in, markets at local, regional and even national levels creates value and boosts the performance of any economy, no matter how small or large.

We have seen examples through joint projects with development bodies like the IFC, but also importantly with companies like Vodafone, Ikea Foundation, Fast Retailing and others. To make this happen on a wider scale, however, the world needs to stop seeing refugees as ‘others’ -- a group to be ‘dealt with’ or confined to the margins of society, and instead understand that they are, or at least could be, integral members of the communities in which they live.

 Apart from the circumstances of their forced displacement, refugees are in no way different to anyone. They are a valuable part of the very fabric of society, with the aspiration and the ability to strengthen societies.

An important initiative in helping decision makers grasp and plan around this reality was the establishment in 2019 of the Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement between UNHCR and the World Bank. The center marries UNHCR’S deep, first-hand experience with refugees around the world over seven decades with the World Bank’s renown expertise in development-oriented data collection to show, in granular, timely and practical terms, who and where refugees are and the meaningful role that they can play in global value chains.

UNHCR interview
A member of Nyota Farsamo collective weaving a basket at their center. Founded in 2018, NYOTA FARSAMO is a Somali-Kenyan artisan collective established by ITC in Dadaab, a town in north-east Kenya turned refugee camp in 1991.
© UNHCR/Charity Nzomo

Q: How will UNHCR address the rising challenges in creating jobs for refugees or displacement-affected communities in the coming years?

The ability to work – to provide for oneself and one’s family – is essential to society, and human dignity. This goes for all people, including those who have been forcibly uprooted from their homes by violence or persecution. This is why UNHCR advocates strongly for refugees, wherever they are, to be allowed to work and why we push governments, NGOs, corporations, philanthropists and all our partners around the world to promote jobs for forcibly displaced people.

Working should also mean paying taxes and that helps build robust state finances and services. Many countries need stronger budgets as they face the challenge of ageing populations and labour shortages.

The increase in refugee numbers over the past decade has only added urgency to the search for labour solutions for refugees that are innovative, practical and bring tangible economic and other benefits to refugees and the communities that host them.

While we employ refugees in our own operations around the world and push our partners to find new ways to promote and sustain livelihoods for refugees, UNHCR has no magic wand to waive to institute policies and job programmes for refugees in host countries and communities. We advocate for those things, trying to bring together employers, governments, investors and refugees to help create the conditions or remove barriers to refugee employment.

As more refugees are forced to flee their homes, the need for responses that include giving them a leg up through work, rather than handouts, has also grown. It’s a solution that works, and -- together with our partners -- we will continue to focus on finding innovative, humane ways to support governments and partners in implementing it.

Since 2015, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the UN Agency for Refugees UNHCR have been joining their efforts in ensuring better economic and employment opportunities for the millions of refugees across the world. UNHCR has assisted in the logistical implementation of ITC’s projects in Refugee Camps in Kenya and Jordan. The collaboration is currently foreseeing for the community-based organization Nyota Farsamo, a Somali-Kenyan artisan collective from Dadaab established by ITC, to join UNHCR’s Made51 initiative.