UNHCR signs agreement to grant work permits for 30,000 refugees in east Sudan

Making a Difference, 2 October 2013

© UNHCR/A.Awad
A group of refugees in eastern Sudan. Under the new agreement, many will be able to work and become more self-sufficient.

KASSALA, Sudan, October 2 (UNHCR) Nearly 30,000 work permits will be granted to refugees in Sudan's Kassala state under an agreement with the UN refugee agency to improve the livelihoods of refugees and reduce their dependence on external assistance.

The agreement between UNHCR and Sudan's Commission for Refugees (COR), Kassala State, and Kassala Ministry of Finance last week after negotiations that began in late 2011 is an unprecedented step for refugees in Sudan. Work permits are essential for refugees to legally work and have the same employee rights as Sudanese citizens.

"The government of Sudan's endorsement of this agreement represents a huge milestone in the refugees' progress towards self-reliance and reducing dependency on external humanitarian aid," said Mohamed Qassim, head of UNHCR Sub-Office Kassala. "To this end, the agreement is of the upmost importance to accessing meaningful livelihood opportunities for the refugees in this region."

It is one of several recent interventions UNHCR has taken to increase the self-sufficiency of the mainly Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan under the Transitional Solutions Initiative (TSI) in conjunction with the government of Sudan, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank. It has been supported by Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States, as well as the IKEA Foundation.

UNHCR will work with the Labour Office under the Ministry of Finance to inform refugees about workers' rights to prevent exploitation. Beyond this, the Labour Office will be strengthened to streamline procedures for issuing work permits to refugees and enhance its ability to gather information about the labour market.

"It is the duty and responsibility of the government of Sudan to provide a conducive environment and regulatory environment for refugees, with the support of the UN, enabling them to become active members of society and contribute to it," Abd Elmoiz Hassan Abdelgadir, acting minister of finance, said of the agreement.

Although Sudan's Asylum Act allows a refugee to work in any job except those related to security and national defence, work permits were difficult to obtain. In 2012, only 180 refugees were issued with the required documentation.

Consequently, many refugees found employment as casual labourers and were very disadvantaged. Refugees are also self-employed in sectors such as agriculture, livestock production and micro-business. Despite the refugees' efforts, a UNHCR assessment at the end of 2012 revealed that more than 52 per cent of the refugee population lived below the poverty line.

The TSI programme seeks to reduce refugee dependency on external aid by creating meaningful livelihood opportunities, so refugee camps can operate as self-sufficient communities. After an assessment by UNDP in 2012 revealed gaps in technical skills, the TSI programme trained refugees and members of host communities in vocational skills like driving, mechanics and mobile phone repair.

To date, the TSI has trained 1,263 refugees and 316 members of the host community. Issuing work permits and formally drawing refugees into labour markets will contribute to the Sudanese economy.

By Lisa Pattison in Kassala, Sudan