Asia Pacific is home to world’s largest population of refugees and displaced persons with an estimated 3.8 million people. As this number continues to increase, global efforts are focused on strategies to manage the unprecedented flows of people. Significantly less international attention has been directed to the welfare of refugees on arrival in their receiving countries.
It is well known that refugees face stigma, discrimination and alienation in host communities. However they also face significant barriers in accessing the legal and legitimate labour market. Without rights and opportunities to participate in employment and earn a livelihood, the wellbeing of refugees is severely affected. Refugees, who are already vulnerable, become more susceptible to being trafficked, smuggled or exploited by criminal networks, thereby exacerbating the global crisis of displaced persons.
As part of an Asia Pacific strategy to address the barriers for refugees in accessing the labour market, I was invited to participate in an event with the Regional Support Office (RSO) for the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (the Bali Process). The Bali Process is an intergovernmental, multilateral process designed to facilitate efforts to combat people smuggling and trafficking in persons. The RSO, based in Bangkok, facilitates the operationalisation of the Regional Cooperation Framework to reduce irregular migration in the Asia Pacific region.
The RSO event, ‘Pathways to Employment: Expanding the legal and legitimate labour market opportunities for refugees’ brought together 85 representatives from government, UN agencies, civil society organisations and — for the first time in the history of the Bali Process — the private sector. The objective was to identify innovative, regional strategies and solutions to provide refugees with work rights by engaging the participants in a process called ‘design thinking’, a methodology used by designers to solve complex social problems. For many participants, ‘design thinking’ was an unfamiliar method of problem solving but nonetheless, a novel process through which the diverse expertise and experiences of the participants were drawn upon.
The first day of the event was the Innovation Challenge with a select group of participants. More than 300 ideas were collectively generated which later culminated in the development of 20 key concepts. The concepts were ambitious and far-reaching. They included, among other things, a regional policy to recognise the legal status of refugees, a refugee entrepreneurship scheme, a shared education data hub, a fast-tracked skills recognition program for refugees, a regional identity document to allow simple and secure identity checks for refugees and a National Organisation of Migration to coordinate migration policies and services in the region.
The second day of the event was the Regional Forum where I, and three other participants, ‘pitched’ the 20 concepts to the wider group of 85 participants. Pitching potential solutions to senior government officials and refugee experts was challenging but rewarding with the concepts receiving both support and criticism from the wider group. After further discussion, critique and refinement, 10 final concepts were collectively validated and potential pilot projects structured. Those 10 agreed pilot projects will now be put forward at the next Bali Process Ministerial meeting in early 2017 for consideration, approval and implementation.
The RSO event was significant for the pro bono community for two reasons.
First, the event reinforced that the opportunities to assist refugees are broad. Although pro bono work is often focused on helping people apply for refugee status, firms can also reduce barriers and facilitate refugee access to the labour market. Pro bono firms could, for example, help design standardised identity documents, create template refugee employment contracts and draft regional migration data sharing agreements.
Second, the event reiterated the importance of the private sector in collectively addressing the refugee crisis and improving access to the labour market. For companies in Asia, it presents a unique opportunity to design innovative CSR initiatives that offer refugees training and internship programs and employment pathways into corporate roles. Successful programs, such as CareerSeekers, already exist in Australia and it would be encouraging to see similar programs supported by corporates, particularly law firms, in Asia.
Catriona Martin is the Pro Bono Director – Asia Pacific at DLA Piper