Editor’s Note: David Miliband is CEO of International Rescue Committee and former foreign secretary of the UK. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
We are living through a global refugee crisis. In June, the UN High Commissioner of Refugees reported a record-high number of displaced people around the world, the highest in almost 70 years. And many refugees face restricted access to labor markets — they are often barred completely from working and earning an income. Women asylum seekers have it even harder: many women refugees face long-term poverty and high levels of sexual abuse.
In fragile and conflict-affected states, only about four in 10 women are in paid work, while seven in 10 men are. Helping refugees isn’t just morally right — it’s economically smart too — both for refugee hosting countries’ economic productivity and also for the safety and economic security of refugee women and their families.
For refugee women, participation in the labor market is as low as 6% in Germany, Jordan and Lebanon. And when they do work, the gender pay gap magnifies the disadvantage. The World Economic Forum has found that just 63% of the wage gap has been closed across the world, while women still spend double the time doing unpaid tasks, like housework, compared to men.
So there is a chance for a win-win here — help women refugees while simultaneously addressing gender inequalities, including pay. As the UN High Commissioner of Refugees states clearly in its 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, enabling refugees to earn incomes is far better than giving them aid, as it creates self-reliance and choice. An income — and the very fact that women can go to work — often mitigates gender-based violence. Families are often better protected, too. For example, women refugees no longer have to rely on income from their children working on the streets. Instead, they can attend school.
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A new report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) illustrates the massive economic prize if refugees — specifically women — could access jobs. The report found that refugee women could contribute up to $1.4 trillion annually to global GDP if employment and earnings gender gaps were closed in the 30 countries that host 90% of the world’s refugees. Closing these gaps for all refugees — by equalizing wages and employment rates between genders in these countries — could boost global GDP up to $2.5 trillion.
In the United States, the analysis suggests if women refugees were participating in the labor market at the rates of American males, they could contribute $1.6 billion to annual US gross domestic product. This is on top of a 2017 study by the Department of Health and Human Services that reportedly found refugees contributed a net $63 billion to the US economy between 2005 and 2014. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration rejected the study.
These numbers are a call to action. A serious global agenda must include upholding opportunities for refugees to work by permitting labor market access, including self-employment, and increasing refugees’ access to decent work.
That will only be possible if international economic institutions support countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Ethiopia in fulfilling their responsibilities to refugees as well as to their own populations. For example, Uganda was one of the first countries to receive economic support to help the country deliver on its promise to welcome and economically integrate millions of refugees. Uganda hosts the highest number of refugees in Africa and boasts one of the highest refugee employment rates, at 37%, right behind the United States at 40%.
IRC is calling for the establishment of a Global Refugee Women and Work Commission to help other countries follow Uganda’s lead, which would include donors, host governments, international organizations and the private sector. A good place to start is the selection process for a new IMF managing director. As the new IMF chief is selected, candidates must be asked to publicly declare whether they intend to continue Christine Lagarde’s work in the area of gender pay inequality, and specifically how they will address the issue of women refugees’ access to work.
Taking on the injustice of unequal access to work for women refugees is an imperative in the global fight for gender equality. The stakes are just too high to fail.