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Addressing social protection needs of refugees and migrants in an irregular situation

Fragility, conflict and climate change have all contributed to more widespread migration and forced displacement. As of 2021, 27.1 million refugees were officially registered1, and the overall number of migrants was estimated at 281 million globally2.

Displacement and migration lead individuals and families to resettle, initially in their own country, and then in neighbouring countries. The vast majority of refugees (83%) are hosted in low and middle-income countries3, which face political, economic and social challenges as well as high levels of poverty.

Most host countries’ social protection systems are not mature enough to offer sufficient protection – even to their most vulnerable citizens. The survival of refugees and migrants in an irregular situation still heavily depends on humanitarian assistance and short-term social assistance, which is supported by the EU and other donors.


1. Refugees and migrants in an irregular situation have rights to social protection, but their access in practice remains limited.

Refugees and migrants in an irregular situation face specific risks and needs. They often lack knowledge of their basic rights while having to adapt to new socio-economic conditions. The right to social security, health care and work – for refugees and migrants in an irregular situation – is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights5 and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights6. SDG target 1.3 calls for countries to “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems for all.” In 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration further solidified these rights. However, some countries still lack conducive national policy and legal frameworks: they are either not signatories of international conventions or they have not translated them into national laws and policies. Even with favourable frameworks in place, the enjoyment of rights in practice varies for reasons ranging from political and financial concerns, to the absence of adequate social protection systems.

2. Integration into social protection systems could help refugees and migrants meet their basic needs and contribute to social cohesion and local development.

Refugees and migrants in an irregular situation have limited access to decent employment; and rely mainly on the informal economy as a source of labour and income. Lack of legal rights to work, as well as social barriers and the inadequacy of their skills and assets, can limit their access to the labour market. Integration into the local economy, formal labour market and social insurance schemes is hugely limited despite the contribution it could make to both their dignity and self-reliance on national economies. Integration into national social protection systems is mostly limited to access to health care and education services. Furthermore, social assistance still predominantly relies on short-term programmes and donor funding.

3. Integrating refugees and migrants in an irregular situation into national social protection programmes requires system adaptations and increased capacities, which are challenging for nascent and fragile social protection systems.

Integrating refugees and migrants in an irregular situation poses challenges to social cohesion and local economies when host countries are experiencing political, social and economic challenges. Most of the host countries' social protection systems provide limited coverage for their own national population. They usually offer a small range of contributory and non-contributory schemes, serving specific population groups. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought social protection to the forefront as a key policy adopted to respond to the socio-economic impacts of the crisis. However, the pandemic has not meaningfully shifted social protection approaches to refugees and irregular migrants, confirming the complexity of the issue.   

Emerging lessons learnt

The EU has deployed a wide range of programmes and partnerships with a twofold goal: first, to improve the access to, and the coverage of, social protection for all and, second, to foster the integration of refugees and migrants in an irregular situation into social protection systems. Although experiences and outcomes are still scarcely documented, some key findings are emerging:

  • The host country’s acknowledgement of the responsibility to protect refugees and migrants in an irregular situation, including through integration into national social protection systems, is essential. Integration also progresses when supported by strong partnerships and multi-stakeholder approaches and initiatives.
  • Joint approaches and financing, such as multi-donor trust funds, multi-stakeholder coordination and Team Europe initiatives, are particularly efficient. Similarly, long-standing strategic partnerships with international organisations with a strong policy and operational presence in host countries can be extremely valuable.
  • Integration is easier if it is part of cooperation strategies to develop broader and inclusive resilient national social protection systems and to expand national social protection coverage for the host population.
  • Developing operational capacities and solutions – such as setting adequate benefit levels, targeting criteria and case management systems – requires inclusive policy dialogue and technical assistance.


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DISCLAIMER: The information provided is based on the content of the thematic paper “Migration and Displacement: Addressing social protection needs” and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission. This article was produced in collaboration with the social protection expert Catherine Chazaly, author of the thematic paper.



1 For more information, read here.

2 For more information, read here.

3 For more information, read here.

4 These findings are drawn from a thematic paper produced for the Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG-INTPA) and EU Delegations – with support from the INTPA.D4-managed Methodological Knowledge Sharing (MKS) Programme – entitled “Migration and Displacement: Addressing social protection needs”. The paper is available to staff of DG-INTPA and EU Delegations.

5 For more information, read here.

6 For more information, read here.

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last update
13 December 2022

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