Women Refugees and Employment

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
7 September 2023

All refugees face a range of challenges associated with forced displacement but refugee women face additional barriers because of their gender and social status. A report published by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the International Rescue Committee in July 2019 titled “Unlocking Refugee women’s potential” focused on five countries with a large refugee population and found that even where refugee women are allowed to work legally, many face discriminatory norms and regulatory and administrative barriers. The headline finding was that closing the employment and pay gaps for male and female refugees in these five countries alone could boost their GDP by US$53 million. Five times the combined annual budget of the UN Refugee Agency and the International organisation for Migration. Beyond the monetary gains, paid work provides broader benefits for women and their families, including greater autonomy and opportunities.

What are the causes of pay and employment gaps facing refugee women?

We know that gender gaps in employment and earnings are experienced by women universally but refugee women face additional regulatory and discriminatory barriers. The report states that labour markets around the world remain highly segmented by gender. Men are more likely to work in mining, industry, transport, trade, and construction and are overrepresented in management. By contrast, women are concentrated in “family” sectors like health, teaching, cleaning, cooking, and service. Women are also over represented in light manufacturing such as garments and clothes. This means that female refugees, like female migrants are concentrated in unskilled, under-valued, and low paid sectors. Women migrants tend to be more isolated since in some cultures they have less decision-making powers at home and, whether migrating alone or with family members, they have less experience or capabilities to engage with the political and policy processes.

The report further argues that the most important bureaucratic barrier faced by refugees seeking employment is restricted access to the labour market. But such networks are very gendered in nature and women refugees have more limited options than men. Social networks can help obtain necessary documentation, assistance, and even jobs according to the report and of course social and business networks can increase women’s ability to generate, use, and control resources and have the potential to advance women’s economic empowerment.

Why is it important?

Evidence shows that displaced populations can contribute to economic productivity in host economies and drive innovation, enterprise and trade and investment. The unrealised potential economic potential of refugee women makes a strong case for better access to jobs and closing the labour market gaps. Closing the employment and earning gap that constrains refugee women and men cannot be realised without concrete efforts and follow up by the host Government, international organisations, and the private sector. The authors of the report recognise that the concentration of refugees in specific locales impose a sizeable challenge for humanitarian actors, national Governments, and City Authorities in terms of providing public service access. But it is important to remember that women, and particularly refugee women, face unique challenges in accessing employment opportunities including discriminatory laws and social norms, gender based violence, vulnerability in conflict affected settings, inadequate support for unpaid care and domestic responsibilities. The policies must address the specific circumstances affecting women, countries, and locales.

The IRC has developed a number of recommendations on how the labour market integration can be improved in settings as diverse as Germany and Jordan.

The Resettlement

Resettlement can be particularly challenging for women and a study titled “Refugee women’s experience of resettlement process a qualitative study of 2020” by BMC Women’s Health, published on 27th November 2019, interviewed 11 recently arrived refugee women who had received a residence permit and were involved in the resettlement process. The refugee women suffered from being separated from their loved-ones and felt compelled to achieve something of value in the host country. All experienced both physical and mental anguish.

The conclusion of the report is that the importance of finding opportunities for women and fast entrance into employment in the host countries should have priority as this would benefit the integration and well-being of refugee women after migration. Women’s gender experiences, both pre and during flight from area of global conflict, combined with the stressor in exile, results in their needs being different from those of refugee men. They are more vulnerable to physical and mental health difficulties and more vulnerable en route to safety to sexual assaults and exploitation by armed forces.

Refugee women’s experiences include exposure to violence and unique physical and mental and social needs, as well as various health related problems. The well-being of women post flight is closely connected to how well their children are feeling adapting and performing. The report further states that lower social economic status and language barriers contribute to resettlement process being particularly challenging for women, which affects their access to education and employment opportunities. Many women participating in the study expressed a willingness to contribute to society, emphasised the important of studying the language in order to find employment and pursue university studies.

A call for intervention

Women become refugees and asylum seekers fleeing from War, conflict and persecution in their country of origin. Those women find themselves in a very vulnerable condition just because of their gender and therefore there is a need to promote and concentrate on intervention to support them. Exactly for this reason, gender is essential in developing and implementing measures and policies aimed at protecting and empowering women refugees and asylum seekers in order to allow them to become active contributors to the host society. Their needs must be recognised and fulfilled with reference to the background conditions, the situation they are escaping from and what happened to them during the journey towards safety. The UNHCR has underlined that the most vulnerable groups require a prompt, coordinated, and effective protection response for single women or women travelling with children, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied children, early married girl children, persons with disabilities, and elderly men. Single adult refugee women, according to the UNHCR constitute one of the most vulnerable groups of the whole refugee population because of the common lack of financial means, professional qualifications and family support. Another source of vulnerability is their exposure to gender based violence which in turn is exacerbated by the frequent unequal gender relations between the community of origin and it is often used as a weapon to threaten or humiliate populations at War.

Female refugees and asylum seekers are exposed to violence not only in their country of origin but throughout their displacement experience during the journey. They may fall victim to women traffickers especially if they are travelling alone and are solely responsible for the family’s burden. They are vulnerable in detention and reception centres. The safety situation damages both men and women, but due to the weaker position of women and girls in society, that means that these women lack means of travel or knowledge about their rights and suffer particular risk during the journey. Policies which are aimed at asylum seekers and refugee rights and well-being cannot be gender neutral, says the UNHCR. Women face gender specific challenges in the host country and, as a consequence, reception and integration policies which are not gender sensitive are destined to fail!