Northwestern University

Wed 12:00 PM

Equal Pay for Equal Work? UNHCR and the Violation of Refugees’ Rights in Ethiopia

When: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM  

Where: 620 Library Place, Conference Room, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public

Contact: Program of African Studies   847.491.7323

Group: Program of African Studies

Center for Forced Migration Studies (CFMS)

Category: Lectures & Meetings

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PAS Affiliates Lecture Series
*lunch served*

Equal Pay for Equal Work? UNHCR and the Violation of Refugees’ Rights in Ethiopia

Fiona McKinnon, lecturer, Northwestern University

Abstract: As numbers have increased in the last 20 years, the protection space for forced migrants has grown smaller.[1] Although refugees have an internationally recognized right to seek asylum outside of their home countries, there is no international consensus about the standard of care for refugees in host countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies a right “to seek and enjoy” asylum.[2] However, many state policies prevent refugees and asylum seekers from working legally, thereby inevitably violating the second part of this right and undermining any commitment to state protection for the persecuted.

The right to work is fundamental to many other rights—particularly the socio-economic. It it grounded in the idea that all people should be treated with dignity and “should participate actively in the realization of [their] rights and freedoms.”[3] As U.S. delegate at the drafting of the Refugee Convention, Louis Henkin said: “Without the right to work, all other rights are meaningless.”[4] The right to work empowers refugees to rebuild their lives, to feed their families independent of humanitarian handouts.[5]  

Ms. McKinnon’s research explores the current state of camp refugees’ right to safe and lawful employment in Ethiopia. Her work focuses on UNHCR’s own “incentive salary” policy, which has been employed throughout refugee camps worldwide.[6] This policy concerns refugees employed by UNHCR or an implementing partner organization and permits refugees to be paid salaries referred to as “incentives” which are much lower than the salaries of nationals performing the same work. The policy also appears to violate local and international law, as it permits refugees to be employed without reasonable limitations of working hours, without periodic paid holidays, without maternity leave, and without protection from compulsory labor or the right to collective bargaining.[7] The research focuses on how this plays out in Ethiopia, and how the stakeholders have reacted, i.e., how UNHCR justifies the policy; how the Ethiopian government allows this policy to be implemented on its territory (or does not); and how refugees and their advocates are opposing it.

Bio:Fiona McKinnon graduated from Harvard University and then obtained her law degree from University of Virginia. She was admitted to the Washington bar in 2008. Before graduating from law school Ms. McKinnon was a Haywood-Burns fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild in Boston, Massachusetts and interned at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in Budapest. She has lived and worked in Mexico, Hungary and Egypt. Ms. McKinnon began her legal practice in Washington, DC, practicing exclusively in the area of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization law with a focus on asylum. In 2009 she moved to Seattle, where she handled removal defense in the context of criminal issues as well as family- and employment-based claims. She was recently a Legal Advocate at Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance in Cairo, where she represented clients in Refugee Status Determination cases before UNHCR. Last year she returned to the United States, where she completed an LLM and began lecturing at Northwestern University. She has been visiting Ethiopia since 2005 and is currently engaged in research related to the right to work in Ethiopia’s refugee camps.

[1] See, e.g., Fatimah Mateen and Brian Tittemore, “The Right to Seek Asylum: A Dwindling Right?” Human Rights Brief 2:2 (2010), available at:

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A, U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess., 1st plen. mtg., U.N. Doc. A/810 (Dec. 12, 1948) [hereinafter UDHR], available at:

[3] Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, article 13, U.N. DOC. A/CONF.157/2312 (July 12, 1993), available at:

[4] Statement of Louis Henkin of the United States ECOSOC Ad Hoc Committee on Refugees and Stateless Persons, Summary Record of the Thirty-seventh Meeting (Lake Success, NY, 16 January – 16 February 1950) (16 August 1950), UN Doc E/AC 32/SR.37 12.

[5] Asylum Access, “Refugee Work Rights,” available at:

[6] M. Angela Buenaventura, “UNHCR’s Incentive Salary Policy Violates International Human Rights Law and Local Labour Laws,” Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter, 31 October 2011, available at: 12163988982/unhcrs-incentive-salary-policy-violates-international.

[7] Id.

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