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School of Law

(B)OrderS Masterclass: Refugees and Decent Work

Date: 6 June 2022

Since World War II, refugees have largely been denied the right to work in their host countries, separated from labour migrants by a firewall that runs from the international level to the ground. In the face of multiple refugee crises in the past decade, however, the international community has begun to consider turning refugees into workers. This (B)OrderS Masterclass discussed the risk that, without sufficient attention to mechanisms to ensure decent work, the resulting refugee employment initiatives may place some of the world’s most vulnerable people in some of its most exploitative jobs. Professor Gordon illustrated this concern by drawing on her field interviews and observations in Jordan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Mexico, which between 2016-19 were the focus of discussions regarding the employment of refugees in factories in export processing zones, hailed at the time as a paradigm shift although never realized in practice. (In the case of Jordan, efforts to carry out such a plan failed; in the other countries the proposals never left the drawing board). In response, Professor Gordon argued that it is both necessary and possible to centre decent work in the design and implementation of refugee employment initiatives, offering a set of principles to guide future efforts.

Professor Gordon also described the research challenges she has encountered in the design and execution of her Refugees as Workers project and discuss some of the strategies she has used to overcome them. Finally, she previewed the next stage of the project, which will focus on the 5 million displaced Venezuelans in South America. Few host countries have recognized Venezuelans as refugees, but a number nonetheless permit Venezuelans to work and grant them equal rights with local workers. The goal is to consider the labour experiences of Venezuelans within the different legal regimes established to accommodate them, drawing lessons from these settings about the possibilities and challenges of achieving decent work for refugees, whether within or outside the formal refugee regime.

This (B)OrderS Masterclass was of interest to postgraduate taught and research students (LLM / MA / MSc and PhD) as well as early-career researchers who are developing research projects relating to work with refugees. Attendees had the opportunity to draw upon Professor Gordon’s long experience in developing and implementing research projects employing different research methodologies.

The event was chaired by Professor Violeta Moreno-Lax, Professor of Law and Founding Director of (B)OrderS: Centre for the Legal Study of Borders and Migration, Queen Mary University of London.

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