Are Refugees Located Near Urban Job Opportunities?

Overlap Between Refugees & Major Urban Areas in Developing Countries & Implications for Employment Opportunities & MNC Engagement

By Cindy Huang and Jimmy Graham

With over 22 million refugees around the world, displaced on average for over 10 years, there’s a need for more sustainable solutions to refugee crises. This study and interactive map highlight the significant overlap between refugees and job opportunities in the developing world, where 85 percent of the world’s refugees live.

In recent years, governments, donors, and private sector actors have been finding innovative ways to include refugees in labor markets, thus enabling them to become more self-reliant, reducing the cost of hosting refugees and creating economic benefits for hosts. Multinational corporations (MNCs) are emerging as important partners in the push to expand refugee employment and entrepreneurship. As market leaders with global reach through hiring and supply chains, policy influencers, and innovators, MNCs have distinctive capacities for engagement that do not exist within the traditional refugee response community. MNCs are also well positioned to participate in broader jobs and livelihoods initiatives that support both refugees and the communities hosting refugees, which often struggle with high unemployment and limited economic opportunities.

To help demonstrate where MNCs, regional and local businesses, and other actors are best positioned to expand economic opportunities for refugees, we created an interactive tool to map the locations of refugees, and analyzed the extent to which refugees overlap with major urban areas in 31 of the 37 developing countries hosting at least 25,000 refugees. When refugees are located in urban areas, where economic activity and MNCs cluster, they have a much greater likelihood of being in close proximity to potential employers.

Using estimates of UNHCR-registered refugees living in countries’ most populous cities and those living in cities with over 300,000 people as lower and upper bounds for the number of refugees in or around major urban areas, we find that across the 31 countries:


working-age refugees

live in or around major urban areas in 15-17 countries


working-age refugees

live in or around major urban areas in 9-11 countries


working-age refugees

live in or around major urban areas in 5-7 countries

In total, we estimate that there are between 915,087 and 2,186,829 working-age refugees in or around major urban areas in these countries.

Countries with significant overlaps of refugees and major urban areas are located in a variety of regions, and most of the countries with substantial overlap have a significant MNC presence: the large majority have at least 1,000 people employed by MNCs with OECD home countries, and about half have more than 10,000. And the number of MNCs is just the tip of the iceberg. With their deep supply chains and market leadership, MNCs can shape the local market and policy environment as well. These findings indicate there are opportunities for MNCs and regional and local businesses to engage with refugees.

Our interactive map – below – is a powerful tool that can be used to identify where these opportunities are located.

Locations of UNHCR-recognized refugees in relation to major urban areas in 31 developing countries

The boundaries and names used on this map do not imply the expression of any opinion or acceptance by the authors.