Professor Jennifer Gordon wrote an op-ed in NewsDeeply about refugee policy and the refugee protection system in the United States.
THE POST-WORLD WAR II refugee regime built a firewall between refugees and economic migrants. For many years, the UNHCR and the refugee advocacy community expressed strong opposition to any effort to breach that wall and approach refugees as mobile workers.
In the past few years, however, in the face of the inadequacy of traditional humanitarian protections to address the global refugee crisis, refugee labor has gained prominence as a solution. The new password to conversations about refugee policy is “self-reliance.”
For most refugees, self-reliance is merely a description of reality, if more of necessity than by aspiration. The majority live in urban areas outside the UNHCR umbrella, and many labor in the informal economy, essentially as undocumented migrants. Under those circumstances, interventions that truly open doors to making a good living and building a meaningful life would be welcome.
What self-reliance means to international organizations and policymakers is much more complex. For a while now, refugees have been encouraged to take up farming for their own consumption and for sale in local markets. Many refugees are self-employed, albeit usually off the books.
Putting refugees to work is the latest silver bullet. Until the recent crisis, official refugee employment initiatives were largely limited to Crafting (small-scale efforts to sell products made by refugees) and Creaming (options for highly skilled refugees).
Whether we can expect refugees to achieve self-reliance, given everything they have been through and all the obstacles in their way, is an open question. But in the name of that goal, it is unacceptable to put refugees in a situation where we already know, by looking into the migrant silo, that they will face exploitation from a position of heightened vulnerability.