Thematic areas

Flagship Thematic Area: Migrants and refugees

Social protection for migrants, refugees and their families


  • Human mobility is increasing worldwide – According to ILO and UNHCR estimates there are 169 million international migrant workers, 26.4 million refugees and 4.1 million asylum seekers in search of decent work and/or safety. 
  • The mere fact of leaving their countries of origin has an impact on the ability of migrants and refugees to exercise their right to social security. Compared with workers who live and work in one country throughout their life, migrant workers, refugees and their families face a number of additional legal and practical obstacles to obtaining effective access to social protection benefits, including health care.
  • COVID-19 has caused many migrant workers to suffer job losses, unpaid wages, worsening working and living conditions. This has a major impact on their incoming and remittances, particularly in countries in which they have no access to social protection.

Key resources

Approach and Technical Support

The ILO promotes a holistic approach to the extension of social protection to migrant workers, refugees and their families, based on its normative framework and mandate to protect all workers. For this purpose, countries may consider the following policy options, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • establishing or extending comprehensive, adequate, gender-responsive and sustainable social protection systems for all, including migrant workers, refugees and their families;
  • ratification and application of relevant UN and ILO Conventions and Recommendations as a first step towards the domestication of the principles and standards therein;
  • conclusion and enforcement of social security agreements to ensure coordination;
  • inclusion of social security provisions in bilateral labour agreements or memoranda of understanding;
  • adoption of unilateral measures, including ensuring equality of treatment or the establishment of national social protection floors to extend social protection to migrant workers, refugees and their families;
  • complementary measures to address the administrative, practical, and organizational obstacles faced by migrant workers and refugees.

Social dialogue plays a key role in the development of social protection extension strategies and social partners should be actively involved in the planning, design and monitoring of all the above policy options.

The ILO provides technical assistance to its constituents in their extension strategies. In most contexts, ensuring that migrants and refugees have access to social protection in line with the principles of adequacy set out in ILO standards implies acting simultaneously on:

  • removing the legal and practical barriers for their inclusion in national social protection systems and ensuring the portability of benefits;
  • improving the adequacy of the benefits provided and the efficient functioning of the institutions responsible for the administration of such benefits

Therefore, the technical support offered under this thematic priority draws on other thematic priorities (especially those concerning health care; old-age pensions; the extension of social protection to the informal economy; and legal, statistics, financing and actuarial work) and in some contexts is closely linked to climate change and a just transition.

The ILO may offer technical advice/expertise and capacity-building to ILO Member States on:

  • the establishment of comprehensive social protection systems, including national social protection floors, based on social dialogue;
  • the drafting or revision of national social protection policies and legal frameworks that extend coverage, including to migrant workers and refugees and those in the informal economy and their dependants, in line with international standards and good practices;
  • the development, strengthening, implementation and monitoring of new or existing rights-based social protection schemes or mechanisms that enhance access or extend coverage to migrant workers and refugees (such as to provide access to health care, income security and so on);
  • the ratification and application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations;
  • the drafting and negotiation of social security agreements and other mechanisms to enhance coordination across social security systems;
  • the drafting and negotiation of bilateral labour arrangements and MoUs with provisions on social security;
  • the establishment of a knowledge base (including up-to-date statistics as part of the World Social Protection Database) on social security for migrant workers and refugees in order to support evidence-based policymaking and capacity-building; 
  • the costing and financing of social protection schemes and reforms (such as fiscal space analyses), including those related to the extension of social protection to migrant workers, refugees and their families, as well as those intended to improve the adequacy of social protection in host countries.

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Samia Kaziaoul
Clara Van Panhuys
Social Protection Officer
migrant workers Migrants and refugees