Refugee Livelihoods: Toward Economic Inclusion and Pathways to Employment

By: Lorraine Charles, Co-Founder of Na’amal & Sonia Cătinean, Program Manager at Na’amal

Did you miss a session focused on Refugee Livelihoods? Here’s a deep dive of discussions that took place throughout the Migration Summit 2023:

The Migration Summit shed light on the challenges and opportunities related to employment  for refugees and migrants. Refugee economic integration has been acknowledged as crucial if  refugees are to retain agency over their lives. The importance of economic inclusion and access to legal and safe work for people on the move was emphasized, while barriers to economic inclusion were identified. 


The rapid transformation of technology has had a profound impact on the economic integration of refugees, significantly impacting work and how it is performed. Technology has opened up possibilities for employment which was not possible before.

Digital Freelancing and the Future of Work

One noticeable trend has been the exponential growth of the online freelancing industry, fuelled by the rapid transformation occurring in the world of work. With an annual growth rate of 11% since 2018, the global demand for digital employment is soaring, and experts project that the gig economy will reach an astounding $455 billion by the end of 2023.

The session “Digital Freelancing and Digital Livelihoods,” with panelists, Angela Solomon, Albert Azis-Clauson, Maria Prieto, and Michelle Lee, highlighted considerations for the future of work. Emphasizing the shift from role-based to skill-based hiring, Albert Azis-Clauson stressed the importance of individuals learning to commercialize their skills and navigate the challenges and opportunities of digital freelancing. Maria Prieto shed light on the ongoing digital transformation influenced by globalization, demographic changes, and environmental concerns, cautioning that technological advancements may not always lead to increased income. Regulatory measures and discussions within organizations like the International Labor Organization were emphasized to ensure fair treatment and income stability for digital freelancers. Michelle Lee focused on the push and pull factors driving digital work, emphasizing global collaboration and the need for empowering programs and support for underrepresented talent, particularly in displaced communities. The panelists highlighted the significance of diversity in the workforce and the need for cultural shifts to embrace digital relationships. They also addressed challenges such as regulation, worker exploitation, and the blurred line between freelancing and entrepreneurship. Clear guidelines, inclusivity, and support systems were identified as essential for navigating compliance and formalization processes. Access to infrastructure, and skills were deemed crucial for the future of digital freelancers, particularly in the Global South. They reiterated that in order for refugees to access these skills and infrastructure, structural changes to employment policies and training programmes are needed. Equitable access and support through education, skills development, legal regulations, and mentorship opportunities were stressed as critical factors for the future of digital work. The session concluded by recognizing the benefits of digital freelancing, including global networking opportunities and diverse career paths in the tech industry, while underscoring the importance of fair treatment, diversity, and mentorship for professional growth and success within the digital economy.

Challenges and Opportunities in Hiring Refugees

Sessions on hiring refugees remotely have shed light on the challenges and opportunities for hiring refugees. Companies, Concat, Appen, Somos, and Accenture, highlight their challenges, their solutions for overcoming these challenges and their best practices. The PROSPECTS Opportunity Fund’: Promotion, Inclusion and Protection of Refugees in the Gig Economy, a collaborative project by UNHCR and the ILO, seeks to improve the working conditions of forcibly displaced people and their hosting communities when using digital labor platforms, addressing the challenges faced by refugees and their host communities. The session, “Hiring Refugees; Challenges and Opportunities” (featured in the ILO news) highlights the importance of creating enabling legal and regulatory environments for refugee employment. The project emphasizes the need for partnerships to address underemployment and the lack of opportunities for displaced talent. Throughout the sessions on digital livelihoods, there was also a recognition of  the significance of soft skills, training, upskilling, and providing growth opportunities to empower refugees and facilitate their integration into the workforce.


Somos acknowledged the risks of remote work and pay discrepancies. To mitigate these risks, Somos focuses on providing benefits and fair pay to ensure the well-being and rights of refugees. Concat highlighted some of the more significant challenges facing refugees- payment and connectivity. Appen, a company hiring contractors for AI data projects, strives for inclusivity, but faces similar challenges as Concat in payment and technical issues.  Accenture showcased its inclusive hiring practices and support for refugees. The company recognizes the importance of collaborative solutions and building relationships with stakeholders to create equitable environments and support HR efforts. This aligned with the discussions held by Upwardly Global, which emphasized the need for collaboration among stakeholders and systems change for economic inclusion. They emphasize the shift in perspective from viewing refugees as liabilities to recognizing them as valuable assets.  Panelists warned against the danger of a neo-digital colonialism, where work is outsourced to individuals in the Global South, who work at  low rates, while intermediaries in the Global North make significant profits.  


The Business-to-Business (B2B) approach implemented in Jordan by EFE (Education for Employment) and Intaj showcases a successful model that connects Jordanian youth, including Syrian refugees, with remote job opportunities in the ICT sector, despite the restrictions on the right to work in the IT sector for refugees in Jordan This collaborative effort between EFE, Intaj, and other partners aims to bridge the skills gap and provide economic opportunities for youth, including refugees The sector’s focus on increasing female participation is noteworthy. Success stories and opportunities in the ICT sector demonstrate the potential for creating employment pathways for refugees.


Skilled migration pathways  to Australia, Canada, Europe, and the UK offer alternative pathways to employment for refugees. Talent Beyond Boundaries facilitates international employment pathways, with various industries providing job opportunities for refugees. This labour mobility pathway offers residency and work rights. So far over 1,100 refugees have benefited  with improved livelihoods. Successful integration requires language proficiency, patience, and proactive engagement.


While challenges persist, such as limited access to banking services, discrimination, and lack of employment options for refugees in low-skilled work, these sessions highlighted the determination and potential of refugees to achieve their goals and make a positive impact in their communities. The call to action from these sessions includes investing in empathy, viewing refugees as untapped talent, and supporting ecosystem reshaping to promote inclusive refugee hiring and integration.


These discussions underline the ongoing efforts and collaborations between organizations, governments, and stakeholders to address challenges, create opportunities, and advocate for the economic inclusion of refugees in remote and co-located work environments.

High-tech and low-tech: Alternative views for refugee livelihoods

Finn Church Aid and Ada Animation presented how the digital creative industries can play a role in livelihood for communities in Kenya and that by directly engaging with the private sector, talent can be linked to employment opportunities. This has a transformative impact on the lives of individuals. Before joining the FCA training, Samwel, a younger animator from Nairobi, used to work as a street vendor “I began by baking bread and buns, and I used to hawk around the market selling my products”. He describes the FCA training to be his “golden chance”, because of all the “mind-blowing, amazing mentors and trainers” he met throughout the program. Samwel is now doing his internship with Ada Animation, following his passion for cartoons and animation. 

Skills 3 Creative Enterprise and Social Impact demonstrated how low-tech solutions, such as  sewing, can empower women from displaced and disadvantaged communities, enabling them to establish livelihoods, gain financial mobility, and access educational opportunities for their children. For many refugees, accessing digital jobs is not possible, hence the importance of not losing sight of low and no tech livelihoods.

Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement

To advance the economic inclusion of refugees, the importance of collaboration emerged as a key recommendation from  sessions. Building partnerships and engaging stakeholders is crucial for successful initiatives in the refugee space. In order to advance hiring, employers should prioritize personal interactions and relationship-building with refugees to remove biases. Diverse hiring committees should be established to ensure a broad range of perspectives and avoid a homogeneous workforce. Mentorship, sponsorship, and access to resources are vital for refugees’ career development and integration.

Microfinance and Financial Inclusion

Financial inclusion was identified as crucial for refugees’ socioeconomic integration, enabling access to housing, employment, and social protection. The session on “Empowering Refugees Through Microfinance: Strategies for Financial Inclusion” highlighted the importance of financial education for refugees, facilitating income management and savings habits, while microfinance programs were recognized as valuable avenues for entrepreneurship and career development. Challenges in serving refugees encompassed limited financial literacy, lack of information, legal uncertainties, and language barriers. Good practices included multilingual information, financial literacy training, partnerships, and collaboration between integration services and financial providers. Microfinance institutions were encouraged to adapt products to meet refugees’ specific needs, such as by adjusting identification and guarantor requirements. Building trust and engagement with refugee clients were emphasized, with successful initiatives establishing livelihood centers and fostering interaction between refugees and host communities. Advocacy for policy interventions, such as zero-interest credit lines, guarantee funds, diploma recognition, and access to bank accounts, was deemed necessary for supporting refugee financial inclusion.

The way forward

In order for economic integration of refugees to be achieved, we need a reconceptualising of the hiring process, where skill-based hiring is promoted and individuals are not only judged on their qualifications. This means for refugee talent to compete for global jobs, they need to be supported to commercialize their skills effectively and provided with comprehensive education and training programs that address the specific needs of these communities. This requires collaborations between NGOs, universities and other training institutions who facilitate skills development with the private sector and governments who need to generate sustainable employment opportunities. 


Digital work for refugees has been characterized mostly as gig and freelancing work. For the majority of refugees, the reality is that this work is often exploitative and the social protections that are common in more ‘traditional’ work are absent. The potential for refugees to engage and thrive in this type of work is significant. In order for this potential to be realized, a robust regulatory framework must be established to ensure fair treatment and income stability, and necessary social protections.  


In a rapidly evolving digital world, without appropriate support, displaced people will be left behind. In order to ensure economic integration and equity, and that the rights of displaced people are respected, adequate investment, partnership and advocacy is required.