Academic journal article Emory Law Journal

"What's a Sundial in the Shade?": Brain Waste among Refugee Professionals Who Are Denied Meaningful Opportunity for Credential Recognition

Academic journal article Emory Law Journal

"What's a Sundial in the Shade?": Brain Waste among Refugee Professionals Who Are Denied Meaningful Opportunity for Credential Recognition

Article excerpt


Ahmed, an Iraqi refugee, is a baggage handler at the Wilmington Airport in Delaware, where he works 10-hour-long shifts loading and unloading cargo.1 Back home, Ahmed was a physician-specifically, a pathologist-for over thirteen years. He was eager to resume his career in the United States, but his Iraqi medical degree is not valid in Delaware. To obtain a medical license, he would have to complete a foreign medical graduate certificate, a qualifying medical exam, and at least three years of post-graduate training, as well as submit a verification of his physician license directly from his Iraqi governorate, which had been ravaged by war.2 There are limited resources to help Ahmed with his medical re-credentialing. With his cash assistance from the resettlement agency3 running out, he was forced to accept the agency's advice that recredentialing was impractical and took the "appropriate[] offer of employment"4 at the Wilmington Airport.

Ahmed represents a hidden class of refugees in America, a class whose size is unknown,5 but comprises highly skilled and educated professionals who spent many years honing their craft and are denied "the simple dignity of doing the work [they] were trained to do."6 For example, 60% of Russian refugees who arrived in the United States between 2009 and 2011 had at least a Bachelor's degree.7 These refugee professionals are suffering because their foreign educational credentials-that is, their coursework, examinations, degrees, training and experience-are not being recognized in the states where they resettle.8

This problem is exacerbated because no national framework or regulatory standard exists for recognizing refugees' foreign credentials. Rather, each state legislature sets the requirements for refugees, or foreigners generally, to become re-credentialed or licensed to practice regulated professions within its jurisdiction.9 The state regulatory bodies that administer re-credentialing laws are called professional "licensing and regulation boards."10 It is their regulations and practices for credential recognition that form one of the first and most formidable barriers to refugee professionals' workforce integration in the United States.11

Non-recognition of foreign credentials denies the legal right of refugees to practice liberal professions as enshrined in Article 19 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention)12 and its Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Refugee Protocol).13 The 1951 Refugee Convention codifies international refugee rights in Articles 2 through 34 that establish minimum standards of treatment for the assimilation of refugees who are entitled to claim the benefits of these rights.14 Thus, "refugees are the holders of rights exercisable in relation to state parties to the [1951 Refugee Convention]."15 By signing and ratifying the 1967 Refugee Protocol, the United States is legally obligated to grant refugees a catalogue of rights, including Article 19's right to practice liberal professions.16 Notably, refugees' right to practice professions is separate from their right to engage in wage-earning employment (i.e., the right to work), which is protected under Article 17.17 Specifically, Article 19 calls on the United States to protect the right of refugees to not only have their credentials recognized by having their special degrees recognized, but to also practice liberal professions.18 These two considerations-credential recognition and exercise of liberal professions-are crucial to understanding and enforcing refugees' right to professional practice, as distinct from their general right to work.

Although the United States formally recognizes refugees' general right to work, a gap remains between the de jure and de facto enforcement of Article 19-that is, the legal right of refugees to practice liberal professions and their successful integration into U.S. professional labor markets. …

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