Social protection

Social protection is a universal human right and an economic and social necessity for development and progress. The extension of social protection towards the attainment of goals 1 and 3 of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development applies to all, including forcibly displaced populations and refugees. Social protection is the set of policies and programmes designed to reduce and prevent social risks throughout the life cycle – and displacement - such as poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion.

It ensures access to health care and income security for all along the life cycle. It provides for households when affected by events that affect their needs in terms of access to health care and income, for example being sick, unemployed, injured, pregnant or too old to work. The most recently adopted standard, the ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202), reflects the global tripartite commitment to guarantee at least a basic level of social security to all in the form of a nationally defined social protection floor, and to ensure progressively wider scope and higher levels of protection.

Access to health care, including prenatal and postnatal care, is the first guarantee of social protection floors for all. The ILO strategy towards universal access to health care addresses the gaps in coverage and financial barriers to access through the development of efficient and effective public social health protection systems. This aims to ensure that persons in need will not face hardship and an increased risk of poverty due to the financial consequences of accessing essential health care, and is directly relevant to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 1.3 on universal social protection and 3.8 on universal health coverage.

ILO Instruments

ILO instruments such as the Equality of Treatment (Social Security) Convention, 1962 (No. 118) and the Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205) acknowledge the importance of ensuring that displaced persons and refugees are covered by social protection mechanisms. The ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102) defines nine life contingencies for which all members of society need to be protected along the life cycle through a rights-based approach: health care, sickness, maternity, unemployment, disability, death of the breadwinner, employment injury, old age and maintenance of children.

With the people at the center and through efforts aligned behind government‐led efforts, the Global Compact on Refugees provides an important mechanism to work towards universal social protection coverage in contexts of fragility and forced displacement.

Social protection for refugees

Under the umbrella of PROSPECTS, the ILO and partner governments are looking to work across humanitarian and development processes using social protection systems to provide predictable and sustainable support for displaced populations and host communities beyond the short-term intent of international humanitarian assistance. The integration of refugees into national social protection programmes can provide sustainable and cost-effective solutions to move out of humanitarian assistance, particularly in protracted situations. Establishing sustainable social protection systems in countries of origin can further facilitate refugees’ voluntary return and re-integration. ILO’s approach to strengthen social protection systems generally benefits both refugees and host communities. Solid social security systems act as strong economic and social stabilizers in the region and at the country level.

Refugees by definition do not enjoy any protection from their country of origin, which is why they should benefit from international solidarity and protection. Granting refugees access to social protection benefits both host communities and refugees as it:
  • reduces social tensions between host communities and refugees (no parallel systems - when refugees have access to health care in camps provided by NGOs for example, while national health care services are lacking for local population);
  • increases the number of social security contributions (better risk-pooling); and
  • can strengthen the system itself, can lead to more investments in institutional capacity and delivery mechanisms
In practice, numerous barriers hinder the inclusion of refugees in the national social protection system, some of these include the legal exclusion in national legislation, their temporary status and unpredictable length of their stay, lack of access to the formal labour market, low social protection coverage of national host population in certain countries and the complexity of administrative procedures/ difficulty to access information.

ILO-UNHCR partnership: Extending social protection

Since 2014, the ILO and UNHCR are collaborating on the extension of social health protection to refugees, with a view to identify current pathways to care and possible government-led options for coverage. These joint studies have enabled the development of country’s policies and progress on social health protection and its extension to the informal economy and the agricultural sector.

Applying the lessons-learned from the ILO-UNHCR partnership informs the strategy in the eight PROSPECT countries, where situations vary greatly in accordance with the maturity of each country's social protection and social health protection system as well as the socio-economic and living situation of refugees and the political openness for inclusion.

It is therefore important to develop new strategies in line with the humanitarian-development nexus and national efforts to extend social protection. The integration of refugees into national social protection schemes thus demands the development of tailored strategies that are closely tied to the improvement of refugee livelihoods and their economic inclusion. Refugees in countries supported through this Partnership are working in the informal sector and the agricultural sector, mostly without decent work conditions and no social protection. The inclusion of refugees in social protection mechanisms is therefore closely linked to the extension of social protection to the informal economy in line with empowerment and economic integration programmes.

Read the lessons learned exploring public options of social health protection for refugees in West and Central Africa
Read more about the Partnership