CAIRO: Almost all recognized refugees work informally and are often underpaid and exploited, according to research conducted by the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
The study shows that most of the time, their salaries are much lower than their Egyptian counterparts. Moreover, they are often denied payment at the end of their services.
The situation is even more complicated for thousands of Sudanese asylum seekers after the refugee status determination (RSD) was suspended in June 2004 following the declaration of a ceasefire between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army earlier in the same year.
This decision, and its subsequent renewals, has increased the number of illegal workers competing in the informal labor market.
Even though Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, it has made reservations on five articles. One of these is article 24, according to which refugees are granted the same rights as nationals regarding labor legislation and social security.
According to Chantal Thomas, head of AUC’s law department, the refusal to grant refugees or asylum seekers the right to work in a legal context reduces the bargaining power for both refugees and Egyptians.
“The illegal migrant workers, by nature, are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, said Thomas, “and because of their fear of arrest or deportation, they accept lower remittances and inhuman working conditions, which eventually leads to reducing the wages for Egyptian workers as well.
“The best way to deal with this dilemma is to legalize the migrant workforce, which I know is difficult for Egyptians to hear, she added. “However, this is the only solution now that borders have become increasingly permeable and illegal workers will keep coming in whether we like it or not.
From an economic perspective, experts find it hard to provide clear answers to the question: Are refugees truly taking jobs away from Egyptians?
As widespread as they are among Egyptians, many economists say these claims have no grounds and are subject to debate. Moreover, the data available on refugees and their skills is limited and often unreliable.
“We often make the mistake of focusing on a micro perspective, namely how refugees are an additional burden on a country with the highest unemployment rate in Africa, said Tarek Selim, professor of economics at AUC.
“Before we make this judgment, however, we need to know the skills of these workers, he added. “There is a chance that they possess skills which we lack here and they can even create job opportunities that [were not available] before their arrival.
Selim also believes that the informal job market is so huge that it can absorb more workers.
A study conducted by the Economic Research Forum in 2006 shows that there are around 10 million workers in the private and non-agricultural businesses, 3.5 out of whom are employers.
Out of the remaining 6.5 million – the employees – 67 percent work informally, without a contract or social security.
“The fear of refugees is exaggerated, said labor economics expert Mona Said. “They are not a threat to the local workforce per se. The problem is that they reduce the quality of the jobs offered because they accept lower conditions, which eventually Egyptians will also have to accept so that they can compete in the market.
“In addition, Egypt’s unemployment problem is mostly that of the educated, not the unskilled, she said,
Said also believes that if we take into consideration that the unemployment rate has decreased significantly during the last eight years, while the number of refugees has increased during the same period, it is hard to argue that refugees have been taking jobs away from Egyptians.
“We also have to think long-term, she explained, “it’s true that Iraqi asylum seekers, for instance, are now buying land which is raising prices in some areas, and not creating job opportunities. But if at one point in time, they start actual construction work, more jobs in will be created.
“The first step is to recognize that there is a problem, which can be solved using different approaches, Tarek Selim said, “but just relying on security to deal with the problem is not a right approach. This militant mentality is not efficient.
He recommended that the government study models other countries have implemented to integrate refugees into the market and utilize this workforce for the benefit of the host country’s economy.