Digital Livelihoods: The Promises and Perils of Remote Work for Refugees

By: Dr. Philip Rushworth

On Friday, 12 June, we hosted a panel of researchers and practitioners at The Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement at Cambridge University to discuss remote work for refugees. This guest post covers some of the key themes from our discussion. You can watch the video recording of our full event here.

A version of this post was originally published on the Refugee.net website June 17, 2020.

Covid-19 and the onset of lockdown around the world has revealed and accentuated a number of existing faultlines and trends. One of these is discourses about “the death of the office” and an increasing shift to remote work. This promises a profound impact for many people, but it raises particular questions for those who face severe restrictions on their ability to work in their location. One such group is refugees.

It is therefore a good time to bring together an expert panel for a conversation about the opportunities and obstacles of remote work for forced displaced people around the world. Digital Livelihoods’ Dr Andreas Hackl joined host Dr Tugba Basaran from the University of Cambridge with representatives from organisations on the frontline of enabling remote work opportunities for forcibly displaced people: Sofiane Ammar, founder of Chams; Lorraine Charles, co-founder and director of Na’amal (UK); Marcello Bonatto, co-founder of Re:Coded; and Lydia Bassaly, Head of Recruitment & Translation Services at Natakallam. There were also first-hand insights and analysis from Ghaith Alhallak, a teacher at Natakallam, and Abdelnasser Alkhellow, a graduate of Re:Coded and a web-developer working remotely in Turkey, both of whom have been displaced from Syria.

The promise of remote work for refugees is well-known. At a time when millions of people have been forcibly displaced and confront barriers to work in local job markets, the digital economy and its opportunities for decent remote work is booming. The charities and social enterprises represented in the panel all work to realise this promise, but what are the challenges?

The challenges of remote work for refugees

For all the potential of remote work and the seductive “techno-optimist” discourse that it doesn’t matter who you are to work in the digital economy, in reality “it matters a lot who you are”, according to Andreas. Obstacles offline can all too often find expression online. In Lebanon, for example, refugees are not officially able to open a bank account, making receiving payment for online work without an intermediary very difficult. They have their IP addresses blacklisted by platforms, and they can lose a considerable amount of their salary through exchange rates as the Lebanese economy falters.

These challenges are familiar to Abdelnasser, who works remotely in Turkey for a Canadian company: “Every month bank transfers are a headache”, he told the meeting.

But the situation does vary. In Jordan, where Na’amal and Chams collaborate, home-based work is permitted and therefore offers a real opportunity to circumvent protectionist labour markets. Even here though, as Lorraine explained, remote work “is no silver bullet”. It depends on what she identified as a mindset shift.

This involves a shift for individuals who need to learn the soft skills for work in the digital gig economy – something that Na’amal teaches. But a mindset shift also applies to clients: the need for businesses around the world to see forcibly displaced people as potential remote workers, like anyone else. Lydia drew attention to what she has observed in her experience at Natakallam as “the consistent doubting of the skills that refugees can offer”.

Re:Coded aims to mitigate some of the obstacles facing refugees by working with partners. But the challenges of working remotely to achieve decent digital livelihoods are not reserved to refugees: “Working remotely is challenging by any standards”, Marcello cautioned. The goal of Re:Coded is therefore more holistic. It aims to go beyond teaching people to code in order to find a job, towards promoting skills such as “learning to learn” as the basis for forging future careers.

For all the challenges however, there is hope. Covid-19 has been devastating in many respects, Ghaith reasoned, but it has brought more attention and understanding of the potential of remote work, and with it more remote working opportunities. One beneficiary of this is Natakallam – or more specifically the forced displaced conversation partners who use the platform to earn a living – which has seen business double in the past few months.

Learning from failure

While the challenges facing forced displaced people to access decent remote work are many and varied, the conversation turned to what the organisations have learnt in the process of setting up and offering their programmes and services.

Sofiane cited the challenge of retaining female coding students at Dadaab camp in Kenya, where there is not a widespread expectation of women to work (see Dr Ann-Christin Wagner’s chapter in our report for discussion about a similar question in Jordan). “The culture is something we need to co-create.”

At Re:Coded, they are constantly reflecting on how to improve their programmes. They have learnt that it is more effective to have shorter programmes – 6 months rather than 8 months – and smaller class sizes – 20 students rather than 40 students. But this raises a bigger question for Marcello: the lack of a “failure culture” in the sector, and the continuing presence of a “donor mindset” in which mistakes need to be avoided at all cost. This is problematic because it is in the “DNA” of the sector to make mistakes and to shift – remote work, after all, is still in its infancy.

Added to this, Andreas reflected on the importance of continuity in programmes for teaching digital skills based on his research with organisations in Lebanon. Without initiatives such as a mentorship programme there is a risk of leaving students without the resources, network and skills to navigate finding work in the remote digital economy.

Thinking about scale

As the sector grows, particularly since the dramatic changes wrought by Covid-19, the potential of remote work for displaced people inevitably raises the question of scale. There are approximately 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world: can many people expect to benefit from digital livelihoods?

It is possible to scale the educational initiatives, not least as online teaching becomes more common in the context of Covid-19, but is employment scalable? Marcello asked sceptically. “You cannot train 1000 developers and get them all jobs.”

Even scaling education initiatives is challenging, Sofiane added. In his experience, funding from NGOs goes to “sexy brands” such as food and health: education simply does not get the same funding. This is why NGOs offering education often need to become social businesses, in order to have a sufficient income. What we need, Lorraine added later in the conversation, is “a Bill Gates of education” to draw in publicity and funding.

The question of scaling up can also present problems in and of itself. The success of some remote work initiatives is their ability not to draw too much attention to themselves in contexts where remote work is not permitted, such as Lebanon, Andreas explained. “Scale can create visibility.”

On the other hand, from a top-down perspective there are challenges in many contexts to scaling-up, such as the blocking of IP addresses in certain countries. Lorraine added: “Scale is very difficult without support for refugees to have the right work anywhere in the world.”

The question of scale is also applicable to clients. The success of remote work for displaced people depends on the private sector in large markets such as the United States hiring diverse staff and people from “non-traditional” backgrounds. In most instances, remote workers will be limited by companies to people within 50 miles of the company. For Lorraine, this is not “real diversity” if it is not extended to people from a different country.

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This conversation introduced the state of play in remote work opportunities for forcibly displaced people. It oriented around the relationship between a powerful and seductive promise – that remote work offers opportunities to refugees who often face barriers to work in their local contexts – and the complexity “on the ground”. It is clear that to realise this promise requires a shift among workers themselves who need to learn the technical and soft skills to be competitive, among clients who need to broaden their hiring practices, and among governments who can go a long way to making such work feasible or not.

One thing missing in this picture, at least for gig workers, is the role of platforms as critical intermediaries between workers and clients: a question for the next conversation.

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