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Briefing: are labour mobility schemes for skilled refugees a good idea?


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On 20 July 2021, Free Movement published an article about the UK’s new Displaced Talent Mobility Programme, which concluded that it constituted “a new complementary pathway” for refugees to reach the country and “a positive step that will hopefully encourage other countries to do the same”. The purpose of this article is to situate the new UK programme in a historical and global context and to provide a critical analysis of its value as a means of providing refugees with protection and solutions.

The early years of the refugee regime

In the early years of the international refugee regime, established in the inter-war years under the auspices of the League of Nations, it was taken for granted that people who were escaping from persecution in their own country should be assisted to enter and be integrated in the labour market of the state where they had found a safe sanctuary.

While the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees was responsible for protecting these refugees and providing them with the documentation needed to move to a country where their labour was needed, the International Labour Organization (ILO), which had also been established in the aftermath of World War One, was charged with finding them employment and monitoring their conditions of work. 

The notion of refugees as workers persisted after World War Two, when many thousands of people who had been displaced in Europe were resettled in countries such as Australia, Canada, South Africa, the UK and USA. This was by no means a solely humanitarian gesture. On one hand, the western powers were alarmed by the prospect of “overpopulation” in Europe, with the risk that displaced people who had been left unemployed and living in dismal camps would be seduced by Communist propaganda. On the other hand, as the Cold War took hold, the US and its allies recognised the need for labour to strengthen their infrastructure and build up the industrial-military complex to counter the Soviet threat. 

This phase in the evolution of the international refugee regime came to an end in 1959-60, when the United Nations organized World Refugee Year in order to find resettlement places for the refugees and displaced people who remained in camps in Europe, many of whom were too old or unhealthy to be an asset in any labour market.

Refugees are not migrants

By this time, international refugee policy had taken another twist. The change was influenced by a determination to prevent a repetition of the Holocaust, when many Jews were unable to find a safe sanctuary beyond the borders of Germany and other Nazi-controlled states, and by a new desire to highlight the plight of people escaping from repression in the Communist bloc. 

As a result of these considerations, refugees were now framed strictly as victims of persecution, rather than as people who were in need of employment and who could contribute to the economy of their asylum country. Thus the ILO was largely excluded from the discussions that led to the establishment of the UN Refugee Convention and High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1951. The Convention itself was largely focused on the protection, rights and obligations of refugees, rather than their role as workers in the countries to which they had fled and the labour standards to which they were entitled.

In the five decades that followed, the “firewall” established between refugees on one hand and economic or labour migrants on the other became increasingly entrenched. As the focus of the refugee problem shifted to the Global South, host countries in the developing world proved reluctant to open their labour markets to the new arrivals, believing in a zero-sum way that every job taken by a refugee would be one denied to a citizen. 

Eager to maintain good relations with those countries so that they would keep their borders open and agree to the long-term presence of refugees, from the 1960s onwards UNHCR did little to challenge such policies and made little effort to advocate for refugee access to the labour market. As a result, many refugees in the Global South found themselves confined to camps, dependent on meagre “care and maintenance” assistance programmes and unable to practice or develop their skills. While UNHCR established a number of small-scale livelihoods and self-reliance projects for refugees (sewing for women and carpentry for men were particularly favoured) these had little real or lasting impact. Similarly, an initiative taken by the Organisation of African Unity to find new opportunities for skilled refugees, known as the Bureau for the Placement and Education of African Refugees, had very limited success in promoting refugee employment during its 34-year existence (1968-2002).  

The strict distinction established in this period between refugees and labour migrants was manifested in other ways. Concerned that Global North countries would use their resettlement programmes to “cherry-pick” the most talented and resourceful refugees, UNHCR began to insist that refugees should not be selected on the basis of their “integration potential”, but for their vulnerability and protection needs. 

At the same time, the organisation was increasingly worried that the growing number of people moving from the Global South to seek asylum in the Global North were doing so for essentially economic reasons, and in the process were undermining the integrity of and confidence in the international refugee protection regime. This concern found clear expression in the unambiguous title of a 2005 article written by UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection: Refugees are not migrants

Labour mobility back on the agenda

The question of refugee employment surfaced once again at the beginning of the 2010s, when an enterprising staff member in UNHCR’s Division of International Protection, responsible for developing policy in relation to the phenomenon of “mixed migratory movements”, launched an initiative called “Labour Mobility for Refugees”. Its rationale was set out as follows:  

Many refugees flee to countries where they do not have access to agricultural land or the formal labour market. They are consequently obliged to rely on international assistance and occasional work in the informal sector. As a result, they may try to move to a state where better jobs appear to be available. In many cases, however, they lack the necessary passports, visas and work permits and may find themselves in a situation of continued vulnerability. Such situations would not arise if refugees, especially those with particular skills, could exercise freedom of movement, gain access to the required documents and work legally in other countries. Although not a solution in itself, labour mobility could assist refugees to locally integrate in the country where they are working or their country of first asylum. It could also provide refugees with the resources and capacity to return to their country of origin, once it becomes safe to do so.

This rationale was further elaborated in 2012, when ILO was welcomed back into the refugee fold and invited by UNHCR to convene a joint workshop on the issue of labour mobility for refugees. According to the concept note for that meeting:

Refugees are a distinct category of people with a unique legal status under international law, which ensures that they are not forced to return to a country where they would be at risk. This distinct humanitarian character of the international refugee protection regime has, however, led to an overly strict separation between refugees and labour migrants which does not necessarily reflect the complexities of contemporary migration, nor does it necessarily meet the needs of refugees. It has, on the contrary, at times prevented refugees from accessing labour mobility schemes which could have empowered them, enhanced their self-reliance and helped realise a durable solution.

In the immediate term, this new and more flexible approach to the relationship between refugees and labour migrants gained little traction. Some states did not understand the need for such an initiative, or complained that it constituted a major U-turn in UNHCR policy. Having been told by the organization for many years that they should not select refugees for resettlement on the basis of their integration potential, it now seemed that they were being asked to prioritise admission for those refugees who had valuable skills and qualifications. 

At the same time, UNHCR staff members who had been schooled in the philosophy of “refugees are not migrants” were less than enthusiastic about this new approach, raising a number of legitimate issues about how a labour mobility programme for refugees might work in practice. What legal status would refugees have if they moved temporarily to a country in order to take up employment there? Would they be guaranteed equal pay and conditions with nationals and be permitted to change jobs if they wished to do so? Would they be able to take their families with them? Would they be allowed to remain indefinitely in the country where they had found employment if that was their preference? When their contract came to an end, was there a possibility that they would be returned to danger in their country of origin or find themselves languishing in a camp in their country of asylum?

Safe and legal routes

Such unresolved issues might have killed off the notion of labour mobility for refugees had it not been for the Syrian emergency that erupted in 2012-13, and the subsequent mass movement of refugees from that and other countries to the EU in 2015-16.  During that period, the media gave enormous publicity to the dangerous, deadly and irregular journeys that refugees were making to enter Europe. States appeared unable to control the influx, a situation which evoked a hostile response from politicians and the public in countries affected by the movement. A new approach was evidently required.

It was in this context that the notion of “safe and legal routes to asylum” gained a new prominence and popularity in the refugee and migration discourse, a concept that was subsequently changed by UNHCR to that of “complementary pathways”. Such routes or pathways, it was argued, would avert the need for refugees to risk their lives on land or at sea. 

These pathways would allay the fears of governments and the public by giving them a greater degree of control over the people admitted to their territory, and at the same time enable them to establish better organised reception and reintegration programmes. And because they would be complementary to established and state-sponsored refugee resettlement programmes, they would entail an overall expansion in the number of people able to find protection beyond the borders of their own country.

While the notion of a complementary pathway does not have a legal or commonly agreed definition, for the purpose of this article it can be understand as an arrangement that enables people with a fear of persecution in their country of origin, or who is confronted with serious protection threats in their country of asylum, to move in an organised way to a safe country that has authorised their admission. 

In this context, five particular routes are of relevance: 

  • resettlement programmes sponsored by local communities, civil society and faith-based organisations;
  • family reunion programmes that allow people to relocate if they have close relatives who have already found asylum elsewhere;
  • humanitarian visa and humanitarian corridor programmes that provide refugees with a safe passage to another state;
  • educational scholarship initiatives that enable suitably qualified refugees to find a school, college or university place in another country; and,
  • labour mobility programmes that provide refugees with access to the labour market and employment opportunities beyond their country of asylum.

A full review of the extent to which such routes have been established in recent years lies well beyond the scope of this article, although some relevant data can be found in a recent report by the OECD and UNHCR. What can be said is that the notion of labour mobility for refugees, which gained little traction in the aftermath of the 2012 conference organized by UNHCR and ILO, has begun to attract a new degree of attention and even enthusiasm in recent years, signified by initiatives launched by Canada, Australia and the UK.

Pilot projects

Launched in April 2018, Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) “helps Canadian employers find skilled refugees to meet their labour needs, while providing safe and durable solutions for refugees in need of protection in Canada”. According to the government’s website, “complementary pathways like the EMPP provide additional ways for refugees to find a home in Canada while contributing to our country’s economic growth”.

In July 2021, the Australian government launched the Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement programme, which “removes many of the barriers that refugees and other forcibly displaced people face when trying to access employer-sponsored skilled migration pathways… It makes it easier for employers in Australia to hire from this often overlooked talent pool of skilled professionals and tradespeople who have been or displaced from their homes”.

In similar fashion, and in the same month, the UK’s Home Office announced that it was to establish a Displaced Talent Mobility Pilot, “in a bid to support highly skilled people who have been forced to flee their homes”. In the words of Home Secretary Priti Patel, “I am announcing that those displaced by conflict and violence will now also be able to benefit from access to our global points-based immigration system, enabling them to come to the UK safely and legally through established routes”.

Such initiatives are to be welcomed in several respects. They provide refugees with an opportunity to move away from host countries where the protection environment is fragile, where they are unable to practice their trade or profession and where it is impossible for them to plan for the future. It can be assumed that such refugees will wish to send remittances back to the relatives and friends they have left behind, thereby alleviating the high level of impoverishment and indebtedness those people often experience. 

If they work well, these programmes could help to generate a more positive public reaction to the arrival of refugees, thereby creating a more welcoming environment for others who are seeking asylum. Finally, it should be noted that all three of the initiatives outlined above involve experienced NGOs such as Talent Beyond Borders and RefugePoint, enhancing their potential to function in an effective and equitable manner.  

The limitations of labour mobility

In other ways, however, the limitations and potentially adverse consequences of such initiatives must be recognised.

First, all three of the programmes outlined above are pilots, with no guarantee that they will be continued on a long-term basis or that they will be expanded. Initially at least, the numbers involved are very small in relation to the global refugee populations of around 20 million. The UK, for example, expects to admit “up to 100” refugees in the first phase of the pilot. Canada has admitted just 15 refugees and their dependents so far, but has announced that the number might increase to 500 over the next two years.

Second, these projects are highly selective in nature. Both the Australian and UK programmes are targeted at Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, while Canada’s scheme relates to both Syrian refugees and refugees in Kenya. None of the three countries appears to have explained why these particular refugee populations have been prioritised. 

Applicants to the UK scheme must be able to speak English, have a job offer and “prove that they have the necessary skills to fulfil roles on the UK’s Shortage Occupation List”. Engineers and IT experts are particularly welcome to apply for the scheme. Australia acknowledges that the objective of its programme is to draw from “an overlooked talent pool” and, like the UK, states that refugees will only be able to take up employment in “approved occupations”. 

Canada is even more explicit in linking refugee admissions to economic performance. The Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot is intended “to meet the requirements of Canada’s economic immigration policy”, and candidates to the scheme will have to demonstrate that they have “strong economic settlement potential”. Those recruited will be selected “based on their human capital or ability to fill Canadian labour market needs, rather than their vulnerability and need for protection”.

While the three countries concerned have been at pains to point out that their pilots derive in part from the Global Compact on Refugees, it must also be recognised that the Global Compact takes refugee policy in a strongly neo-liberal direction. As I have explained elsewhere, with the establishment of the Compact, there has been a determined effort “to rebrand refugees as resilient entrepreneurs, gifted innovators and hard-working employees” [or even as “alpha migrants” — Ed.]. This begs some serious questions as to the fate of those who are unable to assume such market-friendly roles.

Finally, Canada, Australia and the UK have all stated that their pilot labour mobility projects will not form part of their regular refugee resettlement quotas and will thereby entail an overall increase in the number of admissions. It remains to be seen if those promises will be kept. More seriously, there is a very real risk that this new “complementary pathway” will be used as a pretext or justification for the exclusion of asylum seekers who arrive independently and irregularly in those countries.  

In the words of UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, “the British people have had enough of open borders and uncontrolled migration; enough of economic migrants pretending to be genuine refugees; enough of people trying to gain entry illegally, ahead of those who play by the rules”. To address these alleged problems, she has proposed to establish a two-tier asylum system. 

Those who arrive independently and irregularly will, whenever possible, be declared inadmissible to the asylum system and returned to their country of origin or a country through which they have transited. If they are allowed to remain, either because they meet the criteria for refugee status or cannot be returned to another country, they will be granted a very limited range of rights and benefits. 

By way of contrast, and in Patel’s own words, those who arrive “safely and legally through established routes” — including “skilled displaced people who have had to flee their homes” — will be given (in relative terms) the red carpet treatment, including immediate indefinite leave to remain in the UK, full access to the labour market and support with integration. 

In conclusion, while labour mobility programmes have the potential to provide solutions for a very modest number of refugees, as long as they have the requisite skills and nationality, there is a very real risk that they will be used to cream off the best qualified refugees from countries of asylum in the Global South, while providing a pretext for the false argument that all the others should wait their turn for access to a resettlement programme or another safe and legal route to a destination country. For these reasons, it is entirely valid to ask whether labour mobility programmes for refugees are truly “humanitarian” and whether they are indeed “complementary”.   

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Jeff Crisp

Dr Jeff Crisp is a research associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford and an associate fellow in international law at Chatham House, London. He previously held senior positions at UNHCR (head of policy development and evaluation), Refugees International (senior director for policy and advocacy) and the Global Commission on International Migration (director of policy and research).