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Middle East

Syrian refugees in Jordan find little benefit in working legally

Jordan said it would issue work permits to help Syrian refugees build lives. But advocates have been surprised by how hard it's been for the newcomers to land legal jobs - and they're not sure why, reports Bethan Staton.

Life isn't easy for the 1.4 million Syrians in Jordan, but 26-year-old Ashraf is making it work. Recently married after just over a year as a refugee, he found a job as a sales representative for a telephone company. Although the hours are long and he's overqualified, he considers himself lucky to have work. With little chance of support from the UN and in a country with high living costs, it's necessary for survival.

But something else about it bothers him: It's illegal.

Insecurity, a lack of legal protection, fear of raids and fines, and anxiety about being deported to a refugee camp exact a heavy toll on the 26-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous for this report.

"I want a [work] permit to protect myself," he told DW.

Baffling the experts

Jordan vowed to create 200,000 jobs for Syrians at an international donors conference in London in February and a raft of measures were passed to make that happen: Work permits were made available for free, some $700 million was pledged in international grants, and EU rule-of-origin laws were loosened for manufacturers employing at least 15 percent Syrian labor.

The efforts prompted an optimistic response. Permits, said UNHCR spokesperson Aoife McDonnell, give refugees "a chance to have an income legally, without fear of breaking the law, to feel they're contributing again to their family's well being." Legitimate work is essential if Syrians are to have a future independent of donor support.

But the roll-out of work permits hasn't met expectations. Around 35,000 of a projected 50,000 permits were issued this year, according to Maha Kattaa at the International Labor Organization. Many advocates are disappointed at the results of the permit efforts so far - and they're not sure where the obstacles to success lie.

"After the London conference, there was a vague sense about what was needed," said Susan Razzaz, an economist researching work permits with the World Bank. "But there was a realization then that it's not enough - that we need something more." The Jordanian government, she explained, assumed that Syrians would snap up permits if they were easily available, but that wasn't the case. Take-up dwindled after an initial increase - and figuring out why has been a process of "soul-searching."

Legality good for some

Ashraf's case illustrates the complexity of the puzzle. He can't apply for a work permit because sales - like other professions, including teaching and driving - is reserved only for Jordanian citizens. Compared to the low-paid work that's most accessible for refugees the job is a good fit for Ashraf, but it's unlikely to become legal for Syrians: With unemployment already high, opening restricted professions to non-Jordanians is a political minefield.

That's not the only barrier. Employers generally obtain permits for jobs that provide a year-long contract, the minimum wage and health coverage. For many Syrians, however, the most readily available work is less secure, based on casual, day-to-day jobs. Because employers may have more obligations toward an employee with a work permit, some may be reluctant to get them for their workers.

"If I have a Syrian with a work permit, I have to treat him within the law," Maher al Marouq, director general of Jordan's Chamber of Industry, said frankly. This might be a strong case for permits as a means to protect workers and uphold standards, but getting employers on board is a tougher ask.

Cultural differences

There are many reasons why some Syrians, too, are wary of formalizing their status. Some fear losing UNHCR assistance or their chance to be resettled abroad; others are wary of contact with authorities. In the past the government could send Syrians working illegally to a refugee camp, and many, like Ashraf, are still afraid of that. But the policy was suspended in April, so, for now at least, working doesn't necessarily mean courting disaster.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

Refugees who have moved from the camps dread being sent back

Another source of reluctance could lie in attitudes to work. "There's a thing with the employers here, especially with migrant workers," Linda Kalash, the founder of Tamkeen, a migrant worker NGO, said. "They consider the workers as property."

That's a troubling prospect for Syrians. Both employers and researchers interviewed for this article said that Syrian work culture tended to be more entrepreneurial than in Jordan, and that Syrian workers were more likely to value control over their labor and pay. And no permit, Kalash said, means they have are free to "leave at any time."  

The work for which permits are available isn't necessarily appealing to all Syrians either. This year the Better Work program - a partnership between the ILO and the International Finance Corporation - has worked to promote the garment sector as a viable source of employment for Syrian refugees, but the program so far has had limited success.

Work in the textile industry is long and repetitive, and wages are low. Because factories tend to be far from towns, workers' days often involve hours of travel. For Syrian women with families to care for, that's not an option. Only around 50 Syrians are employed in garment work in Jordan according to Better Work's Program Manager Tareq Abu Qaoud, who said he's found the reluctance to take up permits surprising.

"Syrians don't come to work in this sector because it's far from their houses," Linda Kalash explained, adding that the sector's average pay of 190 dinar (257 euros/$268) a month is simply not enough to survive in Jordan.

A question of survival

There's also a more fundamental difficulty when it comes to work for refugees: Jordan's unemployment rate currently stands at 16 percent.

The relaxed rule-of-origin laws - which make it easier for manufacturers who employ Syrians to export to the EU - are one step to boosting the kingdom's troubled economy. Though Al Marouq describes the agreements as a "dream come true," he says more is needed to have a real impact on the number of jobs, including a "clear investment map," promotion and training in the demands of the European market for Jordanian businesses.

Watch video 05:20

Jordan: Jobs for refugees

When it comes to boosting the economy while employing Syrians, most experts agree that it's too early to make any definitive judgments of success. The process, the UNHCR's McDonnell said, is challenging, and it's one that means constant revision and evaluation: Scores of town hall meetings, "millions" of text messages and extensive coordination with communities and employers are all part of the effort set to continue into next year.

But while formalizing those efforts is important to people like Ashraf, they're immaterial to whether the refugees work or not. For most Syrians in Jordan, employment is not about upholding the law; it's about dignity - and survival.

"I need a solution to this problem," Ashraf said. "I can't continue to live breaking the law, afraid of being returned to the camp."

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