24 November 2020 Written by 

Creating Economic opportunities for refugees: Why refugees in Ethiopia are refusing their right to work and integration?



1. The right to work of refugees


          The right to work is one of the fundamental human rights recognized by different human rights instruments. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under its Article 23 declared the right to work as a fundamental human rights.

For refugees, the right to work is vital for reducing vulnerability, enhancing resilience, securing dignity, and integration. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees recognize the right to work of refugees including their Right to housing, education, welfare assistance and social security, Freedom of movement, ID documents and travel documents.

To implement the right to work of refugees there are Legal conditions required for refugee laws and employment law including, protection and refugee status determination; the variety of legal conditions related to the right to work; and other legal restrictions on the right to work such as work permits, restricted sectors, encampment, and restrictions on freedom of movement.

In 2017 the government of Ethiopia (GoE) accepted to implement Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). The core objectives of the Framework are to ease pressure on the host countries, enhance refugee self-reliance, expand access to third-country resettlement solutions, and support conditions in countries of origin for safe return.

Following the decision of GoE to implement CRRF, in 2019 the GoE revised the 2004 refugee proclamation. The main focus of the revised proclamation is on durable solutions through local integration of refugees by allowing the refugees the right to work and freedom of Movement by revising the existing out of camp policy (OCP).

The revised proclamation has introduced fundamental changes to the existing refugee framework. One of the major improvements of the proclamation is it permits the right to engage in gainful employment. Hence, refugees can secure lawful work without discrimination on the basis of their refugee status; access labor protections that safeguard them from exploitation or wage theft; Earn a fair wage.

GoE was ambitious towards a more Comprehensive refugee response, becoming one of the first countries to initiate the implementation of the United Nations-backed Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). Since 2019 GoE and other International humanitarian organizations are implementing CRRF in selected areas where refugees and host community are relatively easy to integrate and stable. For example, Currently, the GoE is implementing CRRF in Somali region Fafan Zone. In the area three refugee camps are existed. 

To implement CRRF, different government offices like Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), and international humanitarian organizations like UNHCR and other Implementing Partners are involved. In addition, Industrial park corporation, Investment commission and international organizations such as World Bank (WB) are involved indirectly.


2. Why refugees in Ethiopia are refusing right to work?


Creating economic opportunities for refugees by the GoE and international partners is facing challenges at the inception stage of its implementation. One of these challenges is unwillingness of refugees to take part in the implementation of comprehensive refugee response framework. As part of CRRF, to integrate refugees with host, refugees (in some refugee camps) have been requested by GoE to have Resident permit of Ethiopia. However, refugees who have been offered by GoE to access resident permit rejected the offer.

Providing the resident permit for refugees could pave way to access services provided by GoE and enable refugees to use their rights provided under Ethiopia’s Refugee proclamation number 1110/2019. It is also important for refugees to have resident permit, because it enables refugees to access social services which are only allowed for Ethiopian citizens. For example, Access to Banking and Financial Services, the right to work, rationing, telecommunication services, driving license etc. When the refugees have the resident permit it is easy for them to integrate with the host and they also create an opportunity/right to remain in Ethiopia. Of course, refugees have the right to remain in Ethiopia if they are recognized and got refugee status without having resident permit.

‘Locations where refugees reside may condition the quality of access to work in both the formal and informal sectors.’ For example, some refugees in Addis Ababa are engaged in an informal job, opening a business, owning property or capital. Hence, it is not clear which government agency allowed them to do such activities and not clear who is regulating them. Such act of refugees is unlawful act and it create an impediment for refugees not to claim labor rights protection, and the freedom to join unions.   On the other hand, it is obvious that when refugees are denied the right to work, they are doubly disadvantaged by not being able to access employment and the frequently contingent benefits and rights.

What surprises one who follows about refugees in Ethiopia is that refugees tend to participate in an informal job by moving from camps to nearest towns without the permission of Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). However, they are unwilling to engage in a formal employment due to different reasons.

The question is why refugees in Ethiopia are refusing right to work in a formal way and integration?

Since this issue is a recent phenomenon It’s not easy to answer this question without conducting an assessment in areas where comprehensive refugee response is implementing. Yet, since there are some observable reasons why it’s challenging to implement the CRRF, we can mention some of the difficulties and issues to be considered by comprehensive refugee response framework executing organizations.

  1. Most refugees in Ethiopia need resettlement in 3rd countries (i.e. USA and Europe) than working and integrating with host community in Ethiopia. Thus, they have fear of losing their right of resettlement in 3rd country if they participate in a formal employment and integrate with host community in Ethiopia. So far, the refugees are not communicated regarding this issue by concerned organizations.
  2. The refugees have a perception that, if the government let them to go out of camp in search of their own job, they have a fear that they might lose all the rights they have as a refugee.
  3. Some refugees (Insignificant in number) are Economically self-sufficient and unwilling to work, they are just waiting for resettlement to 3rd These refugees have financial assistance from their relatives who have settled in 3rd country.
  4. There was no consultation made with refugees and host community by concerned organs while implementing the comprehensive refugee response.
  5. Lack of coordination between different CRRF implementing governmental and non-governmental (humanitarian) organizations.
  6. Due to Lack of sufficient awareness about CRRF by implementing organizations, refugees, and host community, implementing organizations lack confidence in implementing CRRF, and refugees are reluctant to participate in a formal employment.
  7. Delay in enabling laws of revised refugee proclamation. Since there is no enabling law, for humanitarian organizations implementing CRRF, it is not clear for them what to do or not to do while implementing their project.



  • There should be clear enabling laws to execute the rights provided by refugee proclamation. Without enabling laws trying to implement CRRF is waste of time and resource. In addition, there should be clear understanding of CRRF objective, government policy, and laws by the implementing organizations, refugees, and Host community.
  • Since CRRF is new for Ethiopia, ARRA and UNHCR should take the initiative to create Awareness for implementing organizations, refugees and host community about CRRF and the revised refugee proclamation.
  • Humanitarian organizations should consult and create awareness of refugees and host community about CRRF.
  • Study show that ‘countries are facing pronounced labor market pressures from the combination of refugees and rapid growth of the domestic labor force from demographic increase.’ GoE should consider this and put some conditions for refugees who are going to partake in a formal employment and integration.
  • ‘Because conditions governing the right to work are usually complex, refugees should have access to information and due legal process. However, the evidence shows that refugees often lack the means or the willingness to pursue their legal entitlements to work or protection in the workplace. Vulnerability to injustice and unfair treatment is compounded when the judiciary and police lack knowledge of refugee law and rights.’ To protect their rights, refugees should access Information and legal aid services from concerned government organs and NGOs.
Surafel Dinkalem

The blogger graduated from Mekelle University and currently is working as a Legal Officer at Danish Refugee Council. He is also attending a Public International Law at Addis Ababa University.