Eden Tadesse: Workers rights are essential for refugees to live with dignity

Eden Tadesse: Workers rights are essential for refugees to live with dignity

A hundred million people worldwide were forced to leave their homes in 2022, fleeing conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Around the world, refugees and other forced migrants lack the basic rights to work, move, and thrive. Their equitable economic inclusion in their host country is prevented by legal, administrative and practical barriers.

In 2019, Ethiopia passed a law allowing refugees to get work permits, drivers’ licences, open bank accounts and access primary education. It was a historic moment for one of the largest refugee hosting countries in Africa, which now has 4.2 million internally displaced people, largely due to the Tigray war in northern Ethiopia and the climate crisis. 

At the time it was hailed by the UN as one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in Africa. However it’s not enough, says Eden Tadesse, an advocate for refugee rights based in the capital Addis Ababa. “Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA) is understaffed and under-resourced, from what I hear. I don’t think they’re able to handle the situation and the influx of refugees that are coming into the country even today.”

Lack of resources worsens the displacement crisis

Ethiopia has more than 900,000 refugees and asylum seekers, coming predominantly from Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. Since the beginning of 2023, more than 60,000 Somalis, mainly women and children, have fled to Ethiopia to escape clashes and insecurity, the UNHCR recently announced. An average of a thousand people continue to cross into the country each day, and are being hosted in some of the areas where resources are already overstretched.

“The Tigray war has created the worst displacement crisis in Ethiopia,” Tadesse explains. “Millions of people have been forcibly displaced internally and across the border into Sudan. What is even more heart-breaking is that aid hasn’t been able to reach them. They haven’t been able to get far because they don’t have access to food or water – it’s been devastating.” 

Southern areas of the country have also been hit by drought, following five consecutive failed rainy seasons, forcing people to migrate. “We are experiencing the worst climate disaster in 40 years,” Tadesse tells us. “The desert locust plague has been affecting the Somali region, one of the largest regions, in the south of the country. People there, especially women and girls have been disproportionately affected, and there’s just not enough climate financing.”

The right to work for refugees and asylum seekers

Over 60 per cent of the world’s refugees live in urban environments, making the right to work critical for refugees. Although Ethiopia has a long-standing history of hosting refugees and maintains an open-door policy, refugees had no legal right to work until 2019. 

“Labour policies for refugees only came into effect a few years ago,” explains Tadesse. “The government thought refugees were here because they’re fleeing war – they don’t want to stay. Because we have a dominant language that is only spoken in this country and we have an unemployment crisis, the government assumed Ethiopia was merely a transit for refugees, not a destination country. That’s where they got it wrong.”

“Back then, Ethiopia was a peaceful country. It was even dubbed ‘the anchor of peace in the Horn of Africa’. Who wouldn’t love that? As a fleeing refugee, I would want to go somewhere where I know I’m not going to be targeted, a place where I can be safe – even if I don’t speak the language. It’s about safety and security. Many refugees did not envision Ethiopia as a transit country – they wanted to stay and rebuild their lives here. And for many years, the government ignored their pleas for work permits and labour rights.”

refugees, ethiopia
Source: Refugee population in Addis Ababa, UNHCR, November 2022

The law adopted in January 2019 replaced the 2004 Refugee Proclamation which upheld the key principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention, which restricted some refugee rights, like freedom of movement and access to education, and made no mention of integration. However, the new law is not without limitations.

As per Article 26 of the 2019 proclamation, refugees are able to gain wage-earning employment as long as they fulfil some requirements – mainly if the right to engage in gainful employment as a foreign national is compatible with relevant laws of the country. Liberal professions, for example, where people work independently in a high-skilled career, are limited to Ethiopian nationals, because the relevant laws are reserved for them. Also, all commercial activities that would be pertinent to refugees’ self-employment opportunities were clearly branded as “areas of investment reserved for domestic investors”, such as barbershops, beauty salons or retailing kiosks.

Host countries must help refugees to unlock their potential

According to the Centre for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C. that works to reduce global poverty through innovative economic research, fifty-five percent of all refugees worldwide live in countries that restrict their rights to work, and eighty-nine percent live in countries that do not generally recognize their professional or academic qualifications. 

“As multiple studies have shown, refugees add billions of dollars to the economy,” Tadesse says. “Refugee unemployment is a burden for host governments – so I say, refugees should be given meaningful jobs that align with their skillset or education”.

“Major host countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have this overarching labour policy that force refugees into three sectors: agriculture, construction and cleaning. These industries are very important and critical to our economies. But millions of refugees are highly educated and skilled. So why give them low-skilled jobs that disempower them? It’s unfair and discriminatory. With this mind, I believe these labour policies should be revisited and revised to be more inclusive.”

Improving refugees lives with remote work

In 2019, Tadesse launched Invicta, an award-winning tech startup that helps skilled refugees find sustainable employment in their field of expertise. She has been working with refugees, matching them with companies from all around the world, for remote working. 

“It’s a great opportunity to help refugees secure fair wage jobs, become digitally empowered and contribute to the economy. Host communities need to remember that refugees aren’t there to create havoc – they’re there to rebuild their lives and create a sustainable future for themselves and their families.”

“Refugees are resilient, hardworking people. You know they’ve had to go through the worst experience to reach where they are today. They’ve literally been through hell – so it’s important for us to be empathic, supportive and ultimately create that enabling environment for them to flourish.”

Alia Chebbab

Featured image by Freepik

READ MORE: Jeanna Deswert, caring for women in refugee camps

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