Around the world, refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants with medical qualifications are reporting for duty from cardiologists caring for neighbors and patients to those cleaning hospital wards to vegetable and fruit vendors.

And those on the front line need their support troops: refugees have been making soap and personal protection equipment, cooking free meals for health workers, staffing information centers joining in the massive volunteering effort in their host communities.

All of a sudden, the origins and legal status of displaced people seems to matter a great deal less than the skills, knowledge, and experience they can bring to bear on our shared predicament. The stories of these refugees and asylum-seekers illustrate what happens when people are empowered to make use of their skills, knowledge, and experience: everyone stands to gain.


The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees accords refugees the right to work under Chapter III, Articles 17-19.

Article 17 provides for wage-earning employment-

1. The Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favorable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wage-earning employment.

2. In any case, restrictive measures imposed on aliens or the employment of aliens for the protection of the national labor market shall not be applied to a refugee who was already exempt from them at the date of entry into force of this Convention for the Contracting States concerned, or who fulfills one of the following conditions: (a) He has completed three years residence in the country; (b) He has a spouse possessing the nationality of the country of residence. A refugee may not invoke the benefits of this provision if he has abandoned his spouse; (c) He has one or more children possessing the nationality of the country of residence.

3. The Contracting States shall give sympathetic consideration to assimilating the rights of all refugees about wage-earning employment to those of nationals, and in particular of those refugees who have entered their territory under programs of labor recruitment or immigration schemes.

Article 18 provides for self-employment-

The Contracting States shall accord to a refugee lawfully in their territory treatment as favorable as possible and, in any event, not less favorable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage on his account in agriculture, industry, handicrafts, and commerce and to establish commercial and industrial companies.

Article 19 provides that refugees seeking employment in Liberal professions should have similar treatment as aliens in the same or similar circumstances.

1. Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory who hold diplomas recognized by the competent authorities of that State, and who are desirous of practicing a liberal profession, treatment as favorable as possible and, in any event, not less favorable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances.

2. The Contracting States shall use their best endeavors consistently with their laws and constitutions to secure the settlement of such refugees in the territories, other than the metropolitan territory, for whose international relations they are responsible.


However, many host countries are reluctant to allow these rights. This reluctance reflects varying concerns about labor market distortion and limited capacity to absorb new labor, the crowding of certain sectors, availability of jobs for citizens, reduction in wages, and decline in working conditions.

Host governments may also be swayed by popular opposition to refugee rights to work and by security concerns about large-scale refugee populations settling and working. Of the 145 States Parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, almost half declare reservations and even States that grant the right to work usually impose conditions on access to labor markets. The same limitations apply to many of the 48 States that are not States Parties to the Refugee Convention.

 Highly trained professionals find that their qualifications are not recognized. Converting or updating them is either bureaucratically impossible or dependent on access to education and training – which refugees are often denied.

Refugees who once ran thriving businesses find it hard to secure the necessary licenses to start up new enterprises or are denied the right to rent retail space. Even in the 50% of countries that grant refugees access to labor markets, an array of other restrictions – on movement, property rights, access to skills training – make finding sustainable, regular, properly paid employment impossible.



Calls for alleviating pressure on the country’s health service began in March 2020 as the NHS is buckled under the pressure of Covid-19. Hundreds of refugee doctors have called on the government and the General Medical Council to fast-track their accreditation so they can help the NHS tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

New policy proposals envisioned a plan to fill the personnel gap with the medically trained refugees already based in the UK. There were hundreds of qualified refugee doctors and other refugee medical professionals currently known to the British Medical Association. However, they were not working for the NHS because they did not have the guidance and support needed to help them enter medical employment in the UK.

New initiatives proposed by policy groups would help relieve this acute staffing crisis with refugees. The proposed schemes would employ refugee junior doctors to fill the gaps in the rota.


In recognition of their exceptional service of refugee frontline workers, on August 14, 2020, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, announced a temporary measure that would provide a pathway to permanent residency for asylum claimants working in the health-care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under this measure, asylum claimants across the country working on the front lines providing direct care to patients in health-care institutions would be able to apply for permanent residency if they meet the criteria. Quebec would select those qualifying for this special measure who wish to reside in Quebec. This approach would recognize those with precarious immigration status who had filled an urgent need and put their own lives at risk to care for others in Canada.


In some states, the urgent need for health care professionals to help with the outbreak is prompting officials to loosen the rules. Colorado’s governor signed an executive order permitting foreign-licensed healthcare professionals to contribute to the COVID response. New Jersey’s governor temporarily authorized foreign-certified doctors to serve in specific contexts. And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is letting doctors accredited abroad provide patient care in hospitals if they have completed at least one year of graduate medical education in the U.S.

The overburdened health system and a scarcity of trained medical staff presented a demand that could be met by the supply in the form of several underutilized and qualified doctors and nurses. Refugees and asylum-seekers became a possible solution to fulfill the need of essential workers in the fight against COVID-19.


Refugees have presented a ray of hope by willingly risking their lives in the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. Many countries are working towards removing unnecessary difficulties in recognizing degrees obtained overseas. This is a positive trend and will allow families of these essential workers to be united with them under Family Unification Plans possibly saving them from an uncertain future.

This development is also a testament to the fact that refugees and asylum-seekers can contribute in myriad ways to fill essential gaps in the workforce. Be it as medical professionals or fruit and vegetable vendors, refugees have the potential to contribute positively to the economy and nation-building. A clear win-win for all, hopefully, this leads to a change in the xenophobic narrative that immigrants “take-away” the jobs of the deserving local population and leads to a more positive and inclusive outlook towards refugee integration. 

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