Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Jordan has come to host large numbers of Syrians seeking refuge in the neighbouring countries and elsewhere. According to the UNHCR latest updates on 4 November 2020, 661,997 Syrians are registered as people of concern in Jordan. Following Lebanon, this figure shows that the country has the second-highest share of refugees per capita in the world with a total of around 1.3 million Syrian asylum seekers, according to official government statements. Besides Syrians, Jordan, a country with limited natural and economic resources, also hosts tens of thousands of refugees from other countries, including Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, among others, and has a historical experience with hosting Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
Jordan’s economy and infrastructure have been strained with the arrival of a large number of Syrians in a short time period and during the disruption of regional trade and tourism due to the protracted war in the neighbouring country. To shoulder the costs involved in responding to the refugees’ needs, the government of Jordan closely collaborates with donor organisations, United Nation (UN) agencies (mainly the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), international and national humanitarian organisations, community-based organisations and host communities. Nevertheless, many problems in the fields of health, higher education, security (of unaccompanied and separated children, women and youth) continue to challenge the well-being of Syrian refugees and put a strain on the public and social policy spheres.
The employment of Syrian refugees is the most salient issue for the Jordanian government, host communities and Syrians. Most of the Syrian refugee population (83% are self-settled), live among the Jordanian population, primarily in urban areas such as in Amman, Mafraq and Irbid, with 47% of them of working age. Syrians’ access to livelihood is primarily maintained by employment, alongside the monthly cash assistance delivered by UNHCR to most vulnerable refugees residing outside the camps, including 30,000 Syrian, 2,000 Iraqi and 700 refugees of other nationalities. They spend most of their cash assistance on rent. Around 78% of Syrian refugees outside camps live below the poverty line.
It is a general trend that unemployment and underemployment among refugee communities are likely to be much higher compared to Jordanian citizens and other immigrants, a phenomenon known as the refugee gap. The pattern in which unemployment and underemployment of refugee population are higher than those among the native population is observable in Jordan where the unemployment rate is already very high among Jordanian nationals, around 20-23 per cent, with this figure almost doubled for Syrian refugees.
Since their arrival, Syrians work in the broad informal Jordanian labour sector, mirroring the majority of Jordanian working age group. In 2016, following the London Conference on Syria and the issuance of the Jordan Compact with the European Union (EU), the Jordanian government committed to allowing the refugees’ access to formal work opportunities, granting them the right to obtain work permits in a number of sectors that are open to foreign workers, i.e. agriculture and construction as well as manufacturing in Jordanian special economic zones. In return, the EU granted Jordan concessionary loans and tariff exemptions and donors continued their financial support to refugees and vulnerable host communities to bolster resilience and support infrastructure in the education and health sectors. Also, the government waived work permit fees for Syrian refugees and facilitated the documentation requirements. Employment offices were also set in the Zaatari and Azraq camps in 2017 and 2018 respectively with the financial support of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The international community considered the Jordan Compact an innovative pilot project adopting an approach of economically empowering refugees to fix the broken global refugee regime.
The project had mixed outcomes. Out of 200,000 work permits, over 138,000 of them were issued for Syrian refugees only from 2016 to June 2019. Vocational training and consultancy programs have been implemented to allow refugees the opportunity to work in more desired sectors. However, the majority of occupations that are legally open to Syrians are for those unskilled, semi-skilled, or technical, and are concentrated mainly in the agriculture and construction and, limitedly, in the manufacturing sectors. Despite some efforts, refugees are struggling to find jobs because few employers are eager to proceed with official permits for some of the “allowed sectors”, e.g. “garment, plastic and metal industries in the designated special economic zones. Often these jobs do not match the skills Syrians have” and working conditions (e.g. long hours, distance, low wages, short term contracts) are found quite difficult by Syrians who have never worked in this work environment. This causes the dissatisfaction of company holders and employees and forces many Syrians to continue being limited to the construction and service sectors where obtaining work permits is a struggle. As such, Syrian refugees find themselves working illegally without permits which put them liable under the Jordanian law and subject to deportation or encampment.
Despite the improving conditions under the Jordan Compact, restrictive regulations and practices limit the refugees’ opportunities for formal employment and self-employment. Being unskilled and with no work permits, Syrian refugees experience poor working conditions, such as job insecurity, short term contracts, poor working conditions, workplace discrimination and low wages. Highly skilled refugees, such as doctors, engineers, academics, and lawyers, are equally disadvantaged as they are not allowed to access work permits due to the barriers in the Jordanian law that may grant some privilege to foreign nationals, particularly in the education, health, engineering and public service sectors. They also struggle with the lack of a merit-based recruitment process and face severe identity-based discrimination in the labour market as many Jordanians believe that the flow of refugees has negatively affected the already-fragile Jordanian labour market. More specifically, Syrians are accused of the rise in competition in lower-skilled jobs, downward pressure on wages and child labour. Refugee women face additional challenges due to prevalent gender norms and cultural sensitivities, hence many avoid seeking job opportunities outside their homes and are only left with domestic duties such as childcaring, cooking and sewing.
Thus, Syrian refugees in Jordan and potentially elsewhere not only need further facilitation of work access but also the realisation of labour rights and labour protection. The implementation and monitoring of these rights and social protection policies can have a positive impact on the refugees’ sense of independence, self-worth, dignity. In turn, this will impact their overall wellbeing including their health and access to sustainable livelihoods. These may equally help them to mediate their on-going negative experiences of temporality, instability and low aspirations about their future.
About the Authors
Dr Ayat Jebril Nashwan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Yarmouk University, in Irbid, Jordan. She was the Director of Refugees, Displaced Persons and Forced Migration Studies Centre at Yarmouk University from 2018 to 2019. Dr Ayat received her PhD in Social Work from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Social Work, and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Sociology from the University of Jordan. Dr Nashwan’s main research interest area for her is social work with immigrants and refugees and her current research focus is on longitudinal studies of Arab families, with a current focus on women, girls, and adolescents. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Dr Nashwan has worked in leadership positions with Disaster Health Care clinics that serve Syrian refugees in and outside the camps, presented research at several international human service workshops, and served as an expert panellist for a variety of professional workshops, presentations, and broadcasts.
Dr Zeynep Şahin Mencütek is an associate researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion and awarded Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers (June 2020-Nov.2021). Previously, she held an international fellowship at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg (2019-2020) and still hold the position of an Associate Senior Fellow. She was a Senior Researcher for the Horizon 2020 project titled ‘RESPOND: Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond’. Dr Mencutek served as an assistant professor and achieved the rank of Docent in International Relations in Turkey. Her PhD is in Politics and International Relations, completed at the University of Southern California, USA.
Her research examines the governance of migration, foreign policy-migration nexus, comparative policies and politics in the Middle East, and diaspora politics. Dr Mencutek’s book, Refugee Governance, State and Politics in the Middle East (Routledge, 2018) explores how refugee governance differs across countries and why they diverge, focusing on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as three of the world’s top refugee-hosting countries. She published several articles in internationally refereed journals, chapters in international collected volumes, encyclopaedia entries, book reviews and policy reports.
The opinions expressed in the guest blogs are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Middle East and North Africa Social Policy (MENASP) Network or the University of Bath.