With an increasing number of refugees fleeing from conflicts to neighbouring countries, as well as much further afield, host governments are struggling to deal with the changing situation on the ground. As financial pressures, shrinking economies and rising unemployment plague many refugee-hosting countries, the presence of large refugee populations has created an additional burden.

In their host communities, refugees are often a marginalized group. Their options for employment are limited, both structurally and legally. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees do not have the right to work, while Palestine refugees are only allowed to legally work in the UNRWA camps and are restricted from participating in particular professions. In Jordan, Syrians are only permitted to work in specified sectors. Turkey has no sectoral restrictions, but employers can only hire one Syrian for every 10 Turks employed. In Europe, at what point after arrival refugees can work varies by country, ranging from being allowed to work almost immediately in Greece and Sweden to much longer in other countries, such as the UK and France. This delay results in many refugees resorting to informal and often precarious employment.

People visit the second job fair for migrants and refugees in Berlin, Germany, January 25, 2017.        REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch - LR1ED1P0SJW80
People visit the second job fair for migrants and refugees in Berlin, Germany, January 2017
Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

In addition to legal and structural barriers to employment in host communities, another major issue is the lack of available jobs. There is an urgent need for a scalable, sustainable and replicable model for job creation. This new narrative for employment needs to not only serve migrant and refugee populations, but also host communities. A solution that is not bound by geography, takes into account the opportunities offered by technology, addresses the global skills gap and utilizes online, skills-based education models could provide a viable solution.

Imagine: a refugee in Amman translating for a company in London, an economic migrant in Istanbul doing data entry for a company in Dubai, while an asylum seeker in Greece is coding for a company in Silicon Valley.

This idea of remote employment would be project-based, through the internet, with payments made through a secure online system, adhering to international cybersecurity protocols. A system with the ability to rate and be rated could build an individual and company’s profile and credibility. There would be a built-in education component linking to business demand, ensuring employers that potential employees have the required skills. The opportunity for remote work can offer many, but particularly refugees, displaced and other vulnerable populations, the opportunity to regain economic independence.

The trend for remote work is growing globally and the benefits are significant. In the US, 24% of workers worked remotely in 2015 and a 2016 Gallup survey found that 43% of responders spent at least some time working remotely. The Middle East has also seen a significant increase in remote working opportunities. In Saudi Arabia, there are 500 companies in 70 cities that allow individuals to work remotely. UAE-based dubizzle, a free classifieds website to buy, sell and find items, allows employees to work remotely, choose their working hours and maintain a work-life balance. Companies benefit from access to the best talent globally, improved productivity, agility, scalability, a reduced turnover and improved retention. Most significantly, the cost savings are substantial. Companies employing remote workplace strategies can save up to $22,000 per remote worker, per year.

Remote work initiatives also exist in refugee populations. NaTaKallam is a platform that connects Arabic language learners with Syrians refugees for conversational Arabic via Skype. They currently employ 50 Syrian refugees who earn $10/hour. UK-based Chatterbox works on the same premise as NaTaKallam, employing refugees to teach a range of languages, including Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Lessons are either done remotely or face-to-face. ReBootKamp, based in Jordan, provides intensive training in coding and web development to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as Jordanians. While many of their graduates are employed in the local tech industry, some have found remote work with tech companies in the US, being paid up to four times what they would be paid locally. But these initiatives, while providing an excellent model for what is possible, are niche.

There is an opportunity for a much more extensive model of remote work. This idea can be adapted for the larger refugee populations while still taking their specific needs into account. The global private sector can provide jobs to refugee populations and also advise on the skills required for these jobs. Potential industries for remote employment include technology, translations, education, administration, finance, marketing and research. Furthermore, by combining remote employment with revolutionary education models such as “boot camp learning”, either online or in partnership with established training initiatives, employers can be sure that refugees have the skills that they require.

The obstacles to this initiative are many: political (legislative, regulatory), social (education, skills, mindset), financial (payment) and technical. Yet, these can be overcome with sufficient political will to create:

  • The right legal framework achieved by lobbying refugee-hosting countries;
  • A business case for companies to employ workers, and especially refugees, remotely;
  • A range of training initiatives that accommodate companies' demand for specialist skills;
  • Innovative payment mechanisms and the right technical and human resource system.

This innovative system has the potential to change the lives of many, as well as to positively impact the economies of communities hosting refugees. Take the Syrian refugee context as an example. According to UNHCR, there are more than 5 million registered Syrians refugees in the Middle East, 50% of which are between 18 and 59 years. Before the crisis, 15% of people in Syria had university degrees. If only university graduates are considered, this means that approximately 375,000 Syrians refugees may have the capacity for this work. Assuming an average monthly salary of $1,000 per worker, this could mean a monthly injection of $375 million into the economies of host countries.

This model has immense potential and provides a win-win solution. Refugees and host community nationals would be trained in marketable skills required in the global labour market and are gainfully employed. Host country economies would benefit from a productive labour force with disposable income and a decreased unemployment rate. Refugees would be employed in a way that is transferrable when they cross borders, either to return home or to a new host country, and be equipped with skills to rebuild their lives and positively contribute to their communities. Companies would save money by having employees off-site, and are able to access global talent and improve staff retention.

Remote work provides an innovative solution to bring jobs to the most vulnerable. It has the potential to change the narrative of employment for the displaced.