According to the UN Refugee Agency, today there are approximately 16 million refugees, people who have fled their own country to escape persecution or civil war. Emily Arnold-Fernandez, founder and executive director of Asylum Access, is a social entrepreneur working to transform the human rights landscape for refugees worldwide. To date, her work has impacted over 1 million refugees and earned numerous international accolades, including the Grinnell Prize; the Echoing Green fellowship; and recognition by the Dalai Lama as one of 50 “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” worldwide. In this Q&A, Emily describes the situations refugees face, the findings of Asylum Access’s recent report, and ways people can help.
Center: What is the most common myth about refugees that you’d like to dispel?
The most common myth is that refugees are temporary. As I discussed in a recent Op-Ed in Forbes, this myth has a big impact on the US government’s response to refugees – and keeps us from implementing innovative and effective solutions.
In truth, the misconception that refugees spend only a year or two in camps or otherwise stuck in limbo underpins most international development policy, by the UN and donor governments alike.
Center: What prompted your work on refugee rights?
I was outraged when I learned that refugees spend an average of 20 years in internment camps or on urban margins. Imagine that – 20 years. An entire childhood. A career (or maybe several). Twenty years ago I hadn’t yet gone to college, or traveled outside the country, or had a full-time job for more than three months at a time. I can’t fathom who I’d be now if my adulthood had been put on hold before it even began. Out of that outrage, I founded Asylum Access to help.
Center: What are the primary reasons people leave their homes?
When we use the term “refugee,” we are talking about people who have fled their own country to escape persecution or civil war. That’s the international legal definition.
Legalistic words don’t capture the horror many refugees face, however: Being raped in front of your husband and then seeing him murdered in front of your eyes. A man thrusting a gun in your face and telling you he’ll kill you if you don’t let him take your 10-year-old child to be a soldier. Going to recover your brother’s body after he’s been attacked and left dead in the street.
I’m continually amazed by the resilience, courage, and warmth so many of our clients demonstrate even after enduring hugely traumatic experiences. One of our first clients in Tanzania was a man who, with his wife and young kids, escaped an attack on their village in Democratic Republic of Congo. As the family was walking to safety, they came upon a teenage boy, a member of the same militia that attacked them.
The boy’s legs were broken, and the militia members had left him to die in the bush. This man, already struggling to shepherd his own family to safety, picked up this teenage boy and carried him for days until they reached Tanzania.
Center: Where do most refugees live?
About half the world’s refugees live in camps. The other half live, often undocumented, mostly on the margins of big cities primarily in Africa, Asia or Latin America.
Many of these “urban refugees” are at constant risk of arrest, detention, or deportation. Most are denied the right to work or start businesses, to open bank accounts, to attend school. When they work informally, they are vulnerable to exploitation and slavery. If they run an informal business, police can arrest them or confiscate their assets.
Center: You recently released a report that examined work rights among refugees. Why is this important and what were the report’s key findings?
Our Global Refugee Work Rights Report is a first-of-its-kind study of barriers to refugee employment and entrepreneurship, covering 15 countries and 30% of the world’s refugees. Key findings include:
- Nearly half of refugees covered by the report have a complete legal bar to employment. This means people who want to work and provide for their families are instead forced to depend on international aid.
- In many countries where refugees are legally allowed to work, practical barriers make safe and lawful employment extremely difficult. For example, some countries require that refugees remain in internment camps, effectively preventing them from accessing the job market. Other countries charge prohibitively expensive fees for work permits.
- Contrary to refugee-hosting nations’ fears, work rights are not a pull factor: No evidence shows refugees are more likely to seek asylum in states where they can access employment. Refugees are fleeing from persecution or war, not seeking economic opportunity.
- Rather, when refugees do work, they have significant positive effects on the national economy. They catalyze local job growth, creation of new markets, and expansion of existing markets.
A complementary study released this summer by Oxford University’s Humanitarian Innovation Project, Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions, found that in Uganda 40% of refugee employers – refugees who started businesses and employed others – were employing Ugandans.
Center: How can impact-focused funders best help?
Be tenacious! Tackle the hard problems. We achieve the most meaningful change when impact-focused funders invest in changing unjust systems, not just treating symptoms.
Systemic change takes time. Segregation didn’t end in a year. It took more than 50 years – and even then, it wasn’t until 10 years after the passage of the US Civil Rights Act that the courts finally enforced it.
Refugees aren’t going to enjoy their rights next year, either – but the Refugee Convention is one of the strongest human rights instruments we have. If we can transform it from broken paper promises to lived experience in the lives of refugees, we’ll have a blueprint we can use for making human rights a reality for any vulnerable group, anywhere in the world.
Center: Any last comments?
I met a 20-year-old refugee who’d fled Liberia when he was 10 years old, and ended up in Egypt. Under Egypt’s laws, he couldn’t go to school, work, or take other critical steps to rebuild his life. But he had three different volunteer jobs. When I asked him why, I thought he’d tell me he was giving back because others had helped him.
Instead, he looked me in the eye and said, “Someday I’m going to get out of here, and I’m going to be somewhere where they’ll let me work – and I’m going to need a resume. I’m doing this to build my resume.”
That refugee was tenacious. He was taking the long view, investing today so he’d be ready to take advantage of opportunity when it arose.
Impact-focused funders should do the same: Take the long view. Invest today in shifting the policy framework so everyone – refugees and locals, women and men, people of all types – can access opportunity. There will always be someone willing to build schools or drill wells – but without the right legal framework people who look different, who come from a different place or worship a different god or speak a different language will still be excluded from resources and opportunities.
University of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre: Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions and How Long is Too Long: Questioning the Legality of Encampment through a Human Rights Lens
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Global Strategy for Livelihoods 2014-2018,
NPR: Planet Money, Episode 557: Doing Business Like a Refugee
Asylum Access: Refugee Work Rights Blog