Council of Europe interview with Olivier Beer, UNHCR Representative to the European Institutions in Strasbourg
UNHCR: Refugees face exploitation, harassment and abuse in Europe
August 29, 2012
Council of Europe
Refugees in Europe face harassment, exploitation and sexual abuse because of governments' failure to recognise their rights to work, according to the UN refugee agency.
This UNHCR warning will be a central theme in the Strasbourg conference it will organise next month with the Council of Europe, to highlight the employment rights of refugees.
Some 1.5 million refugees are now living in the Council of Europe's 47 member countries. The 27 September conference will also feature the "success stories" of three newcomers who have found work.
"Denied the right to work, refugees are forced to resort to negative economic coping strategies – prostitution, crime, begging, child labour and illegal, dangerous and exploitative work," says Olivier Beer, the Strasbourg-based UNHCR Representative to the European Institutions. "This can lead to serious protection risks especially for those already more vulnerable such as women, youth, or older persons.
"Without access to livelihood opportunities, refugees are at risk of being harassed, exploited, marginalized, or sexually abused.
"We hope that the participants will understand that refugees have the right to work, that they are not a burden for the host society but can and are willing to contribute to the society, and that states should not forget them when elaborating integration strategies and policies."
Interview with Olivier Beer, UNHCR Representative to the European Institutions in Strasbourg
1. The Council of Europe and the UNHCR will host a conference on 27 September in Strasbourg to discuss the refugee's right to work. What do you hope will be the outcome of this conference?
UNHCR hopes that CoE member states will be encouraged to be more flexible in their legislation and practice so as to facilitate the economic activities of refugees whose majority in Europe reside in towns and cities. Urbanization is one of the "mega trends" of the twenty-first century, and it is also affecting migratory movements, including those of refugees and asylum seekers. Therefore promoting the right to work is an integral part of a comprehensive livelihood strategy and the search for durable solutions for persons of concern to UNHCR.
Without access to livelihood opportunities, refugees are at risk of being harassed, exploited, marginalized, or sexually abused. We hope that the participants will understand that refugees have the right to work, that they are not a burden for the host society but can and are willing to contribute to the society, and that states should not forget them when elaborating integration strategies and policies.
2. Who is this conference aimed at and what will be the main talking points?
1. We invited a very wide audience including State and local authorities' representatives, international and European organizations officials, parliamentarians, NGO members, social workers, trade unions, employers and, last but not least, refugees themselves
2. The main talking points could be summarized as follows:
- Access to the job market is a right but not yet a reality for refugees
- The effective exercise of this right is instrumental to refugees
- The effective exercise of this right is an opportunity for the host society to benefit from refugees' skills
- Access to the labour market is a prerequisite for successful integration in the host society
- Access to the job market is not the end of the story. Very often refugees' actual qualification remain unused
- Solutions exist and have been implemented in certain countries
Here in Strasbourg, a large number of seminars and workshops on the complementarity of the Council of Europe standards and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees have been organized over the past few years but few dealt with the social and economic standards of these two regimes, which are applicable to refugees.
This is surprising in light of the gap between, on the one hand, the wide recognition of this right in international, European and national law and, on the other hand, the difficulties faced by refugees to enjoy that right in practice, including in some Council of Europe member states.
This is the reason why UNHCR organized in December 2009 with the Department of the European Social Charter a Round Table on the Social rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Internally Displaced Persons.
The Colloquium on the right to work is a natural follow up of this round table and will aim at examining the extent to which applicable standards overlap or differ and to identify the impediments to the enjoyment of that right in practice.
3. The conference agenda is packed with speakers discussing a range of topics. Who are you most looking forward to listening to?
I will be listening to all speakers and participants. We shall need to listen to everybody. Of course, I am particularly happy that three refugees will be present and will share their experiences directly with the participants.
4. There is more and more concern about the presence of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Europe. What are the distinctions between each of these groups?
- Refugees are forced to flee because of a fear of persecution while migrants may leave for many other reasons and still enjoy the protection of their country of origin
- Asylum-seekers are applying for the refugee status or other forms of international protection but their claims have not yet been decided
5. There are international treaties governing the rights and responsibilities of refugees. What are those rights with regard to employment?
The right to work is a human right enshrined in various international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and regionally, in the revised European Social Charter, art 1. It allows men and women of all ages and background to live in dignity, free from discrimination, and to become self-reliant. According to articles 17, 18 and 19 of the 1951 Convention, the right to work applies to refugees.
We also have to be aware that the violation of other human rights undermines the access to the right to work, for example the violation of the right to freedom of movement, arbitrary detention in violation of art 5 ECHR and art 31 Refugee Convention, the non respect of the principle of non refoulement.
6. How many refugees are currently living in Council of Europe member states?
As of January 2012, a little over 1.5 million refugees are currently living in the 47 Council of Europe member states but some countries are not giving us data so it is difficult to say. There are also 326,700 asylum seekers who are of concern to UNHCR.
7. Do you have specific evidence of refugees being denied the opportunity to work?
No specific case in mind but it is known for a fact that such denial of the right to work exist for many reasons including discrimination, lack of knowledge of that legal entitlement, lack of recognition of refugees' degrees or experience.
The problem is that formal restrictions on accessing the labour market can compromise the protection of refugees – including children – their dignity and even their right to life. Denied the right to work, refugees are forced to resort to negative economic coping strategies – prostitution, crime, begging, child labour, and illegal, dangerous and exploitative work. This can lead to serious protection risks especially for those already more vulnerable such as women, youth, or older persons.
8. Is the financial crisis affecting attitudes towards employment for refugees?
The financial crisis in undoubtedly affecting attitudes towards employment for refugees, such attitudes become more restrictive and suspicious or even discriminatory. Paradoxically in those circumstances where more programmes/projects would be needed to tackle such attitudes, funds in this field are drastically being cut.
The financial crisis has exacerbated the feeling that there are too many irregular migrants and they are stealing jobs of nationals, that they are responsible for an increase in violence, or that they are abusing the social welfare system.
Politicians are diverting the frustration of people towards foreigners and refugees are viewed as scapegoats for all problems. Another consequence of the financial crisis is that refugees who could live with remittances of relatives abroad no longer receive them and have to work at all costs, exposing themselves to abuse and exploitation.
9. Do you believe that authorities in some countries may be reluctant to allow refugees to exercise their right to work?
Yes, this may be for political or electoral purposes or merely just because of a lack of knowledge or willingness.
The right to control immigration lies at the core of state sovereignty. Sovereignty connotes control over territory. Since there is confusion sometimes between refugees and irregular economic migrants, refugees might not be able to have access to the territory or to asylum procedures. However, refugees enjoy a right to enter a country, even without a visa and even without documents.
This is the right to seek asylum from persecution which is enshrined in the UDHR. Where there is a right to enter and stay, it follows that other human rights must also be respected.
Furthermore, since the Refugee Convention only guarantees the right to wage-earning employment to refugees who are 'lawfully staying' in the country, some states will deny this right to asylum-seekers or other categories of refugees. However, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is not expressly limited in this way and we can argue that working allows someone to live in dignity. Don't we all enjoy, as human beings, the right to live in dignity?
Those refusing to grant the right to work to refugees or who would like to limit this right because of the economic crisis and high unemployment rates of their own nationals seem to forget that many asylum seekers and refugees are usually doing jobs that nationals don't want to do and for a very small income. Those who are concerned by the rising violence in urban settings and their security should know that refugees who are working will not have the time to steal or to become drugs traffickers or terrorists. On the contrary refugees not working and living in the streets, jobless and homeless will most likely be the victims of drugs dealers and gangs.
This being said, in most developed countries, recognized refugees are usually granted the same rights to work as citizens. However, it might not be the case with respect to asylum-seekers.
Usually countries in Europe will only authorize asylum-seekers to work if their refugee status determination procedure takes long. For example, immediate access to the labour market is allowed in Greece in theory but this proved not to be the case in practice. In Portugal, asylum seekers can work after 20 days maximum from the date of introduction of the asylum request, 3 months in Austria and Finland, 4 months in Sweden; 6 months in Italy and Spain, 9 months in Luxembourg.
In some countries, legislation authorizes refugees to work but in practice, prejudices, stereotypes, racism and intolerance limit the possibility for refugees to work officially.
10. What is your organisation doing to ensure that refugees' rights are guaranteed?
UNHCR is funding a number of programmes with and through implementing NGOs partners to support access to the labour market for refugees including language and vocational trainings, to ensure that refugees can enjoy their rights without discrimination based on their gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, nationality, or political opinion.
UNHCR is also conducting advocacy and awareness-raising activities aiming at addressing policy, legal and practical issues at the national level to expand the protection space in which refugees and other persons of concern are implementing their livelihood strategies. Such issues can include access to services already available to the local population and the expansion of legal opportunities for refugees to exercise their right to work.
We are also providing legal expertise on refugee law to increase the knowledge on the particular vulnerability of this category of migrants and their specific rights. We are also intervening before national and regional courts to share our policy and interpretation of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees.
Interestingly refugees themselves are doing a lot to help each other in the host society, for instance all three refugees to speak in the Colloquium got involved to help newly recognized refugees to find a job. This dimension of their testimonies is probably the most inspiring and the best incentive to come and attend this event.