Putting Syrians To Work In Jordan Is Easier Said Than Done

09/27/2017 09:21 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2017
UNHCR headquarters in Amman, Jordan
Erol Yayboke
UNHCR headquarters in Amman, Jordan

Despite much fanfare, international and Jordanian policy changes have yet to produce the desired number of formal jobs for refugees - probably because many refugees don’t want formal jobs.

Though I’ve changed his name to protect him and his family, I will not change his story. Ahmad owned a factory just outside Damascus together with his siblings. He employed hundreds of people, making specially designed machines that were sold to manufacturers as far away as Algeria. He paid his taxes and, in his words, “tried [his] best to stay out of politics”. After Syria descended into chaos in 2011, he kept his head low, hoping that this too shall pass.

When a subsequent missile destroyed part of the factory and his adjacent family home, injuring him in the process, the decision to leave was no longer a decision at all. Within a couple of hours Ahmed, his wife, his son, and his daughter were on the road to Jordan.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, will tell you that there are 659,593 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan. Representatives of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan told me it was easily double that, though it’s unclear how many of the Syrians the government counts as refugees were in Jordan pre-2011 and how much, if any, the numbers are inflated for political purposes. Regardless of the actual figure, and even by the more conservative estimate, Jordan has the second highest per capita refugee rate in the world. As is the case in Turkey and despite a seemingly pervasive belief outside the aid community that all refugees live in camps (they don’t), a relatively small number of forced migrants live in refugee camps.

Jordan presents an enormous challenge to the international community. Jordan has done an admirable job over the years navigating stability and economic growth despite comparatively huge per capita refugee numbers, especially in a neighborhood that includes Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon. We tend to forget about the more than two million Palestinians living in Jordan, a number that is no longer listed as a ‘population of concern’ by UNHCR.

But when I visited last month, the signs of strain were already beginning to show. With each passing day of war back home, Syrians in Jordan – like Ahmad and his family – confront the prospect of indefinite displacement. Jordanians are also coming to terms with this new reality and are attempting to find mutually beneficial arrangements, the most common of which is gainful employment.

Every refugee I have ever talked to (and there have been quite a few over the years from Iraq to South Sudan and Somalia to Afghanistan and beyond) spoke to me of a need to provide for the family. Though grateful for life saving support and safe havens, they want to work and send their children to school. No refugee wants to live in a camp; most dream of an apartment or even a room, paid for by a salary from a steady job. Their dreams are, in many ways, no different than yours and mine.

As presented in Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s recent book, Refuge, the right of refugees to work is fundamental yet rare. It is also critically important from an economic development perspective. 84% of refugees (and a vast majority of the over 40 million internally displaced) live in the developing world. Finding productive ways of capitalizing on populations ready and willing to work could have huge economic development implications. This is especially true in the case of displaced Syrians, some of whom arrive with significant levels of education, skills, and even investment capital (though, admittedly, many of those in Jordan come from relatively poor, southern areas of Syria).

Ahmad ran a factory in Syria. Today he is one of the lucky few to be gainfully employed in Jordan, though as a low level worker in a Jordanian factory. Having obtained a work permit via his employer, he is legally allowed to work, though not in a supervisory role despite his experience. He considers himself lucky, though with little hope for advancement comes little hope of regaining any semblance of a previous life. He also deals daily with Jordanian colleagues and neighbors that are resentful that he, and not them, has this ‘Jordanian job’.

A pivotal policy moment in the quest for more jobs for Syrians in Jordan came in February 2016 at the London Donors’ Conference, known more commonly as the Jordan Compact. Pledging over $1.8 billion in grants and concessionary loans and favorable new trade terms with the EU, the one catch was that Jordan had to provide 200,000 work permits to Syrians in Jordan.

By the end of the first year of the Jordan Compact, only 35,000 work permits had been issued. What advocates in London perhaps failed to realize was that fulfilling the mutually agreed upon goal of increasing formal Syrian employment was easier said than done, especially from the perspective of refugees.

Ahmad and other refugees told me that many Syrians avoid work permits because they shift the power dynamics in the employer/employee relationship, creating a sense of being beholden to a company. In some circumstances, related to me by refugees and NGOs in Amman and Irbid, employers expected a form of indentured servitude for the year duration of the work permit, taking advantage of Syrians by withholding salaries and/or passports and threatening deportation. Though hard to corroborate these stories, it is telling that a recent third party compliance review in Jordan found that 41 of the 42 factories visited had violated at least one monitored labor standard. Although it is unlikely that employers actually have the power to deport, refugees often don’t know this and are typically unaware of their rights at all. They do know that employers can revoke work permits which would cause serious issues for them, up to and including deportation.

Another problem with the 200,000 work permits is that many Syrians, especially those living in border towns like Irbid, hope to return home when (if) the fighting ends. Even if they can’t return anytime soon, they fear losing monthly UNHCR assistance. As such, many forced migrants prefer to work in the informal sector (where they can often make more money quicker anyways) or, alternatively, in seasonal activities like crop cultivation. Informality comes with certain risks though, so some ultimately do seek the freedom and security of movement afforded them with a work permit.

Work permits in Jordan are mostly being issued in the agriculture and construction sectors, the former of which includes agriculture cooperatives which offer more flexibility to employers and employees; this aspect of the Jordan Compact seems promising and deserves more study. As for construction work permits, some Syrians have decided that the costs outweigh the benefits of formalization. I was told that Syrians hoping to work formally in the construction sector are required to obtain costly private insurance and produce a certificate of prior learning, both of which can be prohibitive. However, many forced migrants still prefer to work in construction, formally or informally, because of the comparatively high salaries. A recent policy change has allowed the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions to issue “non-employer and non-position-specific work permits for Syrian refugees” - this is a good sign that some are listening and learning from the problems of the initial compact.

Though the agriculture and construction sectors do provide some official outlets for refugees to be employed in Jordan, the schemes are far from ideal and do not fully capitalize on the economic potential of Syrians. When I visited last month, the much touted ‘special economic zones’ (a core part of Betts and Collier’s argument and the London Donors’ Conference) remained largely empty. A “bad business environment in Jordan” is keeping many potential employers away, despite the potential of ready labor and liberalized trade regimes with the EU. A good idea in theory, the SEZs in Jordan are yet to create the transformation originally envisioned.

Perhaps the most tragic element of the future of Syrian refugees in Jordan is one that exists for them in other countries as well. Many fear that formalization (via work permits, Jordanian citizenship, or otherwise) will disqualify them from resettlement programs which, alongside one day perhaps returning home, are seen as the ultimate goal for many Syrians. Ahmad’s sister lives in the Bay Area, where he hopes to take his family and what little money he has left to start a new life. “Maybe I’ll open a dry cleaner,” he told me. “Or a grocery store. Maybe I’ll even be able to one day be an American who employs other Americans. That would be a dream.”

In late 2015, Ahmad received a call that he and his family had been selected for resettlement in the U.S. After what can only be described as ‘extreme’ levels of vetting (his description of the medical tests alone were extreme, not to mention the extremely thorough security background check), he was informed by the International Organization for Migration (the primary international group managing resettlement) in September 2016 that they should pack their bags. The next phone call would tell him where to pick up the plane tickets.

As of August 2017, Ahmad has heard nothing from the IOM. They won’t even take his calls. In a world where almost everything is out of his control, the thing he almost had (not to mention the taxes he would contribute and the jobs he would eventually create here in the U.S.), he likely has no more. His family’s future is likely to be in Jordan, where the prospects are far from ideal.

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