Increasing the Economic Independence of Refugees—Can We Go Remote?

Blog | May 02, 2017


Refugee-hosting countries in Syria’s neighborhood—particularly Jordan and Turkey—have started adopting policies that aim at including refugees in the labor market. In reaction, international donors have begun to focus on helping host countries with these laudable, but at times politically delicate efforts. Indeed, the need to provide pathways to economic independence for Syrian refugees has become a priority and when governments, international donors and businesses work together, the prospect exists to turn some aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity.

After a six-year-long focus on temporary measures, governments of refugee-hosting countries and international donors are seeking more (semi)-permanent solutions to the plight of the Syrian refugees. The reasons to do so include:

  • The protracted nature of the Syrian crisis. Many Syrians are for now resigned to the fact that they need to rebuild their lives in their new communities, including more permanent solutions to make a living.
  • The risk of societal tensions. With the passage of time and the situation becoming more permanent, there is a risk that societal tensions may grow between citizens and migrants competing for state services such as healthcare and education.
  • The loss of state revenue. Syrian refugees often receive state benefits, though do not always contribute towards the state’s finances when businesses and employment remain "informal."
  • (Future) decline in international aid. Given political developments in key donor states, including the rise of more nationalist politics, the international community is increasingly likely to demand “solutions in the region” in which Syrians will need to become more self-reliant.
  • Necessity for Syrians to retain skills to return and rebuild Syria. Unemployment and underemployment can lead to a loss of human capital among the Syrian refugee population, thereby negatively influencing their capacity to contribute to Syria’s future economic development.

To enhance the prospects for displaced persons to find gainful employment, a lot of barriers need to be overcome. Some are political, others legal or regulatory and still others cultural. But the largest barrier to success remains the capacity of host economies on both the demand as well as the supply side. There simply are not enough jobs for both citizens and refugees alike, and those wanting to work often lack marketable skillsets.

The solution lies in the creative combination of creating jobs and matching skills. Here, policy makers can take of initiatives that will allow for upscaling solution-driven and innovative thinking that directly links the supply-side (marketable skills) and the demand-side (availability of jobs).

Many initiatives are currently proving that superior achievement occurs when local governments, the donor community, the private sector and development agencies work together. A good example is the work of NGO SPARK, which provides entrepreneurship training and scholarships for refugees. They owe much of their current success to the fact that the nature of the scholarships is linked strongly to the current (and future) needs of local labor markets.

Most policies in the realm of education and job creation are the responsibility of national or even local governments, but the international community also has significant potential to provide support.

Donors could create jobs within the hosting communities and could encourage international companies, working in those countries hosting large numbers of refugees, to create vacancies or internships for refugees, as per the example of the Dutch and Danish government as well as the efforts of UNHCR and the OECD with regard to private sector involvement.

Also, real potential exists in creating jobs “through the cloud” and in having international enterprise explore the means of providing remote employment opportunities for the displaced. Such solutions will need to combine insights related to the global skills gap, the digitalized economy, remote working opportunities, current education-for-employment initiatives and donor behavior.

While not a current reality, perhaps a refugee in Amman could do translations for a company in London, someone in Istanbul could do a data entry project for a company in Dubai, while someone in a refugee camp could code for a company in Silicon Valley. Several smaller NGOs have already begun to move in that direction.

Of course, a digitally empowered solution will not be suitable for all those displaced as many lack the skills to succeed in the digital age. However, it could help those tech-savvy, ambitious youth that are desperate to kick-start their professional lives. Even skeptics will point out that while the youth in question do not yet have such marketable skills, they tend to be well-versed in digital platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp.

At the same time, international development agencies working on education and enhancing livelihoods for refugees could help by designing their programs in such a way that they encourage self-reliance and entrepreneurship and emphasize the need to link education to employers. Here, agencies can implement revolutionary education models such as "boot-camp learning"—a model that is proving very successful in graduating highly employable individuals in a very short period.

One of the best examples is the work of ReBootKAMP, in Jordan. During a four-month intensive program, refugees and local youth learn how to become software developers; immediately following, they are put in touch with international companies looking for this skill set.

Currently, the software developing world is most prominently exploring possibilities for remote employment opportunities. More opportunities, however, remain unexplored. Finding the mechanism could be a game-changer for refugees, for displaced persons and for many others in places that struggle creating “local” jobs.

This blog is based on a paper written by Saskia van Genugten and Lorraine Charles for the Emirates Diplomatic Academy. Saskia van Genugten, Senior Research Fellow in the MENA Peace and Security Program of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi. She holds a Ph.D. from SAIS Johns Hopkins and previously worked as a manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Government and Public Sector Advisory practice.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.