Policies that Empower: Redefining Responses to Refugees — Henry Zeris

4 min readDec 23, 2021


1 in every 103 persons is either a refugee, asylum-seeker, or internally displaced person. In theory, according to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees signed by 147 countries, refugees have the right to seek asylum and all countries have a shared responsibility towards providing safety and offering a way to integrate refugees into society. In reality, this is not the case. Today, refugees in almost any path they take struggle to find empowerment in employment. This is because most policymakers fail to recognise refugees as people with talents and skills, capable of contributing to society and deny them the right to work in the first place.

When someone decides to flee their country, there are three common options. One is taking a long, expensive and potentially life-threatening journey to another country. A recent example may be those paying smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to reach the Greek islands. Even in 2018 when there was a drop in the number of people reaching European shores, an estimated 2,275 died or went missing along the way.

His study goes onto explain how 75% of Syrian refugees choose to take the alternative and third option: to enter an urban area of a neighbouring country. However, the same difficulty to gain access to work still remains.

Part of this problem lies in today’s populist politics. The media’s way of describing refugees, such as how they are ‘flooding’ into countries can make national citizens view refugees as a threat. Fears that refugees may take people’s jobs, as well as conceptions that they are costly for the taxpayer have left politicians torn. On the one hand, they realise the need for a practical and ethical approach towards helping refugees. On the other hand, they also seek to do what voters want for the sake of political survival. The UK and most EU countries take this path, barring refugees from working for long periods of time after they have arrived. Even when they are finally granted asylum status and the right to work, they are still left in a situation that is difficult to gain employment. The UK, for instance, may offer support through job centres. However, refugees often struggle to have their various qualifications and educational certificates validated in what is a long drawn out process of costly administrative fees and missing paperwork.

The assumption that refugees are a costly burden on a country and lack skills should be questioned. Rifaie Tammas argues that “Empowering refugees does not have to come through emphasising their heartbreaking stories” and that, once resettled, “most refugees try to move on with their lives, focus on their families, establish new careers and contribute to the society that has taken them in.” Employment bans that countries impose on refugees are short-sighted and overlook the fact that refugees want to play an active role in the countries they move to. Moritz Marbach , a researcher at ETH Zurich, highlights that “Instead of having refugees depend on government welfare for years, countries can capitalise on their initial motivation and integrate them quickly.”

Of course, policies during the emergency phase that fund for shelter, food and safety for large amounts of refugees that enter a country are important. Another problem is the psychological struggles that migrant refugees face. For example, battles against PTSD as refugees escape war-torn countries is one factor that is important to address and a key distinction between a standard migrant and migrant refugee. Though it is essential to provide mental health support for refugees, it is also important to provide them with a gateway towards independence and empowerment. Acknowledging what long-term actions can be taken is essential towards improving the livelihoods of refugees and the development of host countries.

Another fundamental issue with the Jordan Compact was its disproportionate distribution of work permits. Figures released by the Livelihoods Working Group showed that Syrian women typically hold only 5% of the work permits issued. The project hoped that by the end of 2016, 2,000 women would be employed; the result was just 30 women. Part of this failure was because of the assumption that most women would want to work outside of their homes, when in fact most did not want to work in factories. What can be learnt from this project, though it did have some successes, is that refugees need to be heard and their voices and opinions prioritised if such policies are to prove more successful. Though it may not have initially been successful, the fact further investment has been made in this project indicates its potential in widening Jordan’s job market and increasing economic growth.

Ultimately, countries that consider refugees not as a burden, but as an asset have the greatest capacity to benefit. It is time we start redefining our conceptions of what a refugee is capable of. Policies that actually listen to the wants and needs of refugees are the ones that will enable refugees not to be dependent on government support, but to thrive and flourish, allowing host countries to prosper with them.


Henry is a second year English Language and Literature student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.

Originally published at the BizGees here.