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The 1951 Convention includes considerations on economic activities. Refugees have rights to earn livelihood through wage earning, self employment or liberal professions (Chap. III, art. 17, 18, 19). The UNHCR 2009 Urban Refugee Policy also include a section on “promoting livelihood and slef reliance” . However, in numerous countries, refugees and IDPs are relegated to the margin of the society and are denied a fair access to the labour market. 


Legal status:

Without proper documentation and / or formal legal status, many refugees are forced to work in precarious conditions and face exploitation. Urban refugees and IDPs are most of the time employed in the informal sector. Many employers exploit their dire situation by offering them very low wages and insecure working conditions. However, legal status is not always the main impediment to refugees’ right to work. Host countries daily practice and policy as well as local population’s attitudes and perceptions (discrimination, xenophobia) considerably undermine the access of legal urban refugees and IDPs to the local labor market.


There is often a huge discrepancy between the level of education of refugees and their job in the host country.  Many qualified individuals lack local credentials and are forced to occupy jobs that do no match their qualifications.

Access to credit:

The narrow access refugees have to credit and saving prevents them from investing in business and becoming self reliant. They often rely exclusively on the informal economic sector and find underpaid jobs.


Language barrier is also a main concern in accessing employment.

Local unemployment rates

Scarce employment opportunities in host countries are major obstacles to urban refugees and IDPs’ self reliance.

Livelihood strategies

Employment opportunities are scarce in the formal sector and many refugees develop new strategies to survive and make a living.

Livelihood strategies are diverse: refugees and IDPs may rely on a set of informal activities such as home-based work, little street trading, hawking or self-employment taking the form of micro-enterprise (selling goods or services). Incomes are obviously unpredictable and instable: in 2004, only 39 % of IDP households in Khartoum had a regular source of income (UNHCR 2008). Street selling also exposes urban refugees and IDPs to robbery, theft and police extortion. Some households rely on social networks if any and request assistance to churches and mosques. Others also resort at times to exploitative means of survival such as prostitution.


Economic contributions of refugees and IDPs

Contrary to a long standing myth, refugees and IDPs greatly contribute to the economic and social dynamism of the city they live in. They can contribute to increase the local populations’s income by:

  • engaging in “forward and backward business relations” when they become consumers or sellers
  •  importing new skills and knowledge
  • expanding the national market (with the creation of new partnerships with other regions or countries)

Online resources:

Beyond making ends meet: Microfinance and Urban refugees, Abigail J. Sylvester,  Master of Public Policy, May 2011

Just Enough for the city-urban refugees make their own way, Karen Jacobsen, p. 57, World Refugee Survey 2004

The impact of Microfinance on African Refugees in Urban areas, Andrea Kruchik Krell, Congolese Refugee Women in Tel-Aviv, 2011

Réintégration des Femmes et des Filles dans les Centres Urbains – RDC, UNHCR Kinshasa, October 2012

Cash in hand – Urban refugees, the right to work and UNHCR’s advocacy activities, Elizabeth Umlas, Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) and Operational Solutions and Transition Section (OSTS), UNHCR, May 2011