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Abstract This article explains the conditions under which countries allow refugees the right to work in accordance with Articles 17–19 of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. It explores variation in both the de jure and de facto rights to work through a mixed-methods approach. Qualitatively, it builds upon research in the East African region, in which there is significant variation in state practice relating to refugees’ socio-economic rights. Quantitatively, it draws upon an original dataset to examine the policies of low- and middle-income countries that host more than 1,000 refugees. Coding for the right to work was supplied by and triangulated across three different refugee organizations with relevant expertise. We argue that the de jure and de facto rights to work are shaped by distinctive actors and mechanisms. De jure rights are determined by pay-offs at the ‘national’ level; de facto rights by pay-offs at the ‘local’ level. While being a signatory of international norms is the most important variable for de jure commitment, the degree of decentralization is the most important variable underlying de facto rights. These findings suggest that promoting refugee norm compliance relies upon creating incentives at both national and local levels.

Original publication




Journal article


Oxford Review of Economic Policy


Oxford University Press (OUP)

Publication Date





514 - 530