Social Protection that includes migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: can it happen?

Photo courtesy of Bulent Kilic/AFP

Social protection (SP) for the most vulnerable has drawn much attention from global policymakers in recent years due to the myriad of crises that have shaken the world, resulting in the acceleration of human trafficking, borderland disputes, domestic violence and other issues. Those issues are particularly emphasized in the MENA region, as the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers witnessed a major rise in inflows over recent decades. As a result, much attention needs to be given to enhancing inclusive and effective national social protection policies and legislation for international migrants.

In a recent webinar conducted by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), several key representatives of both organizations and Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine El Kabbag shared their views and reflections on the extent to which national SP systems have the capacity to integrate migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

Capacity and efforts of national SP systems.

“After the Arab Spring, there were huge economic repercussions across the region,” said El-Kabbag in the webinar, and added that at the same time Egypt managed to absorb the infusion of refugees and migrants with the most emphasis on Syrians who today “not only have employment rights but actually they themselves employ Egyptians.” Kabbag points out that despite the laws and regulations protecting refugees, difficulties arise as some host countries are themselves suffering social protection issues in reaching their own citizens.

“There is an estimate of five million migrants and refugees in Egypt, around 250 thousand registered with UNHCR from 58 nationalities. That is why we are investing all our efforts to develop a roadmap and a database as accurate as possible to formalize the status of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. We have no policy of encampment on refugees and asylum seekers.”

Rafael Osorio IPC-IG research coordinator further emphasized the need for a streamlined strategy which countries in the region can follow with regard to the hardships migrants and refugees face when transitioning to a new home. “We know that those people are very vulnerable; they lack the community ties to access social protection, and sometimes they can’t even speak the language, so how do social protection systems include or exclude the most vulnerable?”

“We are trying now to develop a vision and legal framework to address this issue in coordination with other Egyptian authorities like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood,” added El-Kabbag.

Best practices to ensure SP access along several dimensions

“One of the central conceptual debates included in the study was the key role of social protection for all, where we define it as a tool to increase the resilience of families in situations of vulnerability and poverty,” said Marina Andrade, one of the co-authors of the IPC-IG-UNICEF paper “Improving social protection for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt: An overview of international practices” on which the discussion in the webinar was based.

Andrade further added that it is essential to tackle SP from a human rights-based approach to improve access. “SP must be progressively guaranteed as a right to all, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other important guiding instruments.”

Furthermore, Sato presented an overview of international practices, focusing on the enabling factors of each country case. For the social assistance factor, the study analyzed three cases, Morocco, Turkey and Brazil.

“Morocco has been adapting its migratory policies towards a humanitarian approach, and there is evidence showing that 2.5 thousand non-nationals were receiving social assistance between 2017 and 2019.”

“This access is the result of factors such as changes in the legislative frameworks including a new constitution based on equality principles between nationals and non-nationals, [and] the adoption of a new migration policy that represented a paradigmatic shift replacing a policy based on a security approach that used to criminalize illegal migration.”

“In Turkey, 1.75 million refugees and asylum-seekers benefitted from the Emergency Social Safety Net as of July 2020.”

“Brazil comes with a comprehensive legal framework including directives clarifying the rights of non-nationals to enroll in the single registry of social programs,” Andrade presented.

Regarding social insurance, the study dedicated a special section to debate the role of social security agreements. The study of the Philippines shows how countries can take unilateral initiatives to protect their workers overseas. The study mentioned that “Thousands of Filipino migrant workers and their families can access social insurance benefits because the country accounted for the early development of governance structures for labor migration, establishing a public agency to facilitate employment overseas and protect workers.”

Finally, Lucas Sato- another of the paper’s co-authors- referred to the case of Lebanon as good practice when it comes to the provision of basic public services. “The number of refugees in Lebanon accessing education has quadrupled in the five years from 2013 to 2018.”
“One enabling factor was the collaboration with international institutions, which established subsidies for enrollment fees, regulated more formal education opportunities and opened a second shift in public schools creating more vacancies for non-nationals.”

Egypt as a host country

As mentioned in the study, the amended Egyptian constitution of 2019 provides the right to grant refugee status to ‘political asylum seekers’ and prohibits their extradition rather than their refoulment. Additionally, the National Strategy on Combating Illegal Migration is a step taken by the government to address issues with irregular migration, focusing on preventing illegal or irregular emigration by Egyptians. “This is particularly important seeing as unaccompanied Egyptian children constitute a high number of Egyptians abroad,” said Andrade.

“Egypt has contributory social and health insurance schemes which were extended to all foreign nationals due to the passing of law No. 148/2019 as opposed to the previous law which only extended them to nationals of countries with reciprocity agreements,” added Andrade.

Nevertheless, Andrade pointed to the fact that there is still a long way to go for the country to protect migrants and asylum seekers and ensure access to SP. “Egyptian law No. 82/2016 exempts migrants from any criminal or civil liability and imposes penalties on smugglers, which is a great initiative. However, the law disregards the rights to seek asylum, freedom of movement, SP, education and protection against refoulment for the migrants. It also does not provide a timeframe for administrative detention or specific details on treatment of migrants in cases of deportation.”

“Labor law No. 12 of 2003 denies the validity of paid domestic workers as an employment relationship, which hinders access to SP, while law No. 159/1981 further limits the migrant workforce allowed in registered companies and certain sectors of employment in Egypt.”

“The most expedient way in which non-nationals may benefit from social assistance schemes is through Zakat-giving institutions which is unsustainable in the long run, not to mention that COVID-19 related closures have exacerbated their inability to access existing or emergency social assistance programs.”

Recommendations to improve SP

The study provided cross-cutting recommendations to improve SP based on the conducted research presented in the webinar. Firstly, the study pointed to the significance of building consensus on inclusive SP through a business case demonstrating the benefits of expanding support to migrants. “This can demonstrate economic affordability, long-term fiscal sustainability and rates of return of investment in the extension of SP policies to refugees and asylum seekers,” said Andrade.

Andrade also highlighted the importance of effective coordination and partnership between development partners and government responses for better alignment and more effective targeting. “These collaborations have the potential to enhance the administrative, technical and operational capacities of national SP systems.”

Finally, Andrade stressed on directing efforts towards inclusive SP programs for all families residing in Egypt in addition to guaranteeing local residence and identification documents for irregular migrants in the country. “This is the baseline of ensuring non-nationals’ access to SP, so it is the main thing that needs attention.”

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