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New Study: In Developing Nations, As Many As 2.1 Million Working-Age Refugees Live in Urban Areas Where Employment Opportunities Could Be Close By

June 18, 2018

“There are many barriers to employing refugees but companies should know that geography isn’t one of them. Our advice to multinational companies? Hire refugees if they can.”

Holly Shulman
Center for Global Development
+1 (202) 416-4040,

Washington –  A new study finds that as many as 2.1 million working-age refugees live in urban areas in developing countries where employment opportunities could be nearby – shattering the frequently used but inaccurate depiction of refugees living mainly in desolate camps.

The study from the Center for Global Development and the Tent Partnership for Refugees is the first of its kind and estimates that there are between 915,087 and 2,186,829 working-age refugees in major urban areas in developing nations, and that 38 percent of all working-age refugees in developing countries live in major urban areas – constituting a potential hiring pipeline for many multinational, regional, and local businesses.

The researchers analyzed 31 of the 37 developing countries that host more than 25,000 refugees and mapped where refugees in those countries live. You can find the interactive map here.

“Despite the misconception that most refugees live in rural camps, 60 percent actually reside in urban areas and the overwhelming majority are in low- and middle-income countries,” said Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees. “As Tent works to mobilize businesses to support refugees, these findings are critical for multinational companies and regional businesses that are looking to engage refugees where they live.

The study’s main findings include:

  • A large number of working-age refugees reside in major urban areas in developing countries. In fact, the report estimates that, among the 31 countries studied, between 915,087 and 2,186,829 working-age refugees live in major cities. 9 to 11 countries have more than 25,000 refugees in major cities, and 5 to 7 countries have more than 50,000 refugees in major cities.

  • Countries with significant numbers of working-age refugees have a large business presence. Most countries with significant overlap between urban areas and refugees are home to a substantial number of multinational corporations. In fact, the large majority of these countries have roughly 1,000 to 10,000 people employed by OECD multinational companies, suggesting viable opportunities for hiring refugees in these locations.

“There are many barriers to employing refugees but companies should know that geography isn’t one of them,” said Cindy Huang, the lead author of the study and co-director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development. “Our advice to multinational companies? Hire refugees if they can.”

The study also outlines the main barriers to employment for refugees, including laws that bar refugees from employment and owning a business, as well as discrimination and restrictions on mobility within a country.

“If refugees face legal and practical barriers to accessing formal employment, businesses may not be able to work with refugees, regardless of proximity,” said Huang. “There’s a real economic opportunity here, but only if policymakers reduce these barriers to employment and support new opportunities for refugees and host communities.”

Read the full report and view the interactive map here.


Related Experts

Photo of Cindy Huang
Co-Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Policy Fellow