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Lack of access to work for refugees undermining efforts to prevent secondary migration – new report

Written by Richard Mallett, Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Clare Cummings

Press Release

Efforts to reduce irregular and dangerous secondary migration among Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia are being undermined by the fact they are not allowed to work legally, a new report by the Overseas Development Institute has found.

Researchers at the UK’s leading think-tank on international development have found that while donor-funded policy measures such as livelihood support – including vocational training and loans – help Eritrean refugees get by in the short term, they do not compensate for the fact they are not allowed to work.

Without being allowed to work, newly acquired skills and capital cannot be put to good use. Because of this, many Eritrean refugees - who continue to leave their country due to obligatory National Service, political persecution and limited livelihood opportunities - are forced into insecure and potentially illegal economic arrangements.

The report, ‘Journeys on hold: how policy influences the migration decisions of Eritreans in Ethiopia’, is based on interviews with Eritrean refugees living in both camps and urban areas. The study set out to uncover the reality behind why they moved to Ethiopia, their plans and aspirations, and the influence of migration policies in their decision-making process.

Lead author Richard Mallett, research fellow at the ODI, said: ‘A range of policies is being used by western governments and donors to try to reduce secondary migration, particularly through irregular means, for example in-country livelihood support.

‘While there is no doubt this support is helping people meet basic survival needs, the policy has a limited effect on people moving.

‘If refugees are not allowed to work, then they are unlikely to want to stay where their opportunities are limited – and instead opt to take life-threatening routes, sometimes to Europe. Policy-makers have to address these realities if their aim is to curb secondary migration.’

The report outlines how the proposed Jobs Compact in Ethiopia, which aims to create 30,000 jobs for refugees, could start to address the situation – despite the fact that only a small proportion of the refugee population will benefit, and there is currently limited information on what these jobs will look like.

Researchers also highlight how formal refugee resettlement – for example, to European countries and the US –  has the effect of slowing down irregular migration, particularly as it provides people with an opportunity to move onwards safely and legally.

However, this effect appears to weaken over time as trust in the formal system declines. Refugees often feel they will have to wait for years for approval, and only a small number are actually successful in their application. 

The report makes a series of recommendations to both improve the lives of refugees and reduce levels of secondary migration, including:

  • Refugee labour rights should be enhanced so Eritreans are not prevented from legally accessing the labour market in Ethiopia
  • Legal pathways should be developed and expanded to ensure that there are genuinely viable alternatives to irregular migration
  • Information about resettlement should be clearer and more accessible so refugees are able to make more informed decisions about the options available to them


Notes to editors

  • The report ‘Journeys on hold: how policy influences the migration decisions of Eritreans in Ethiopia’ is due to be published on Thursday, March 2
  • Researchers carried out 63 qualitative interviews with Eritreans in camp and urban settings in Ethiopia during September 2016
  • Eritreans are the third biggest refugee group in Ethiopia (155,207) after South Sudanese (282,033) and Somalis (251,797) – figures taken from Carter, B. and Rohwerder, B. (2016) ‘Rapid fragility and migration assessment for Ethiopia’
  • Eritreans formed the fifth largest group of irregular arrivals in Europe in 2016, with 20,734 people arriving, constituting six per cent of the overall number – data taken from UNHCR (2017) ‘Refugee/migrants response – Mediterranean’ - http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php