New deal on work permits helps Syrian refugees in Jordan
AMMAN, Jordan – Hussein has been a butcher all his working life, having followed his father, uncle and brother into the family business back in Syria.
“I grew up with it. My father owned a butcher’s shop back home. First I used to help out after school, and then it became my profession.”
His future appeared secure and he had just returned home from a lucrative four-year stint working in the Gulf when conflict broke out in 2011.
By the end of 2012, the fighting in his home town of Daraa in the south of the country was so intense that he was forced to cross the border into Jordan with his wife and young daughter. “She was the main reason we fled, as the air strikes became unbearable for her,” said Hussein, 34.
They found themselves living in Zaatari camp, the largest refugee camp in the Middle East which is home to about 80,000 Syrians. With years of experience and eager to find a job, Hussein was dismayed to learn that opportunities to work formally were not available and permission was needed to leave the camp.
Hussein was forced to take a series of short-term jobs with different butchers so that he did not lose his skills. “I had no stability and I didn’t like working under these conditions, without a legal permit,” he said. “So eventually I just stopped.”
Jordan hosts more than 650,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, including almost 300,000 men and women of working age. Until recently, those who found jobs in the informal sector often had to endure poor working conditions and run the risk of exploitation.
”I told them all the names in both Arabic and English. They liked that.”
Last year there was a significant shift, however, when Jordan became the first country in the Arab region to ease the provision of work permits for Syrian refugees by waiving the usual fees and loosening the administrative requirements. Syrian refugees can apply for work permits in sectors approved for foreign workers, such as agriculture, construction, textiles and food.
The government pledged to create up to 200,000 opportunities over several years for Syrian refugees, in return for international loans, trade benefits and investment by the international community that would also benefit the local Jordanian population.
Ways of improving economic opportunities for refugees, reducing their dependence on aid and giving them a chance to use and develop their skills is one of the main issues that will be discussed at a two-day conference in Geneva on 17 and 18 October.
The meeting is part of a process led by UNHCR to develop a global compact on refugees. The High Commissioner was given the task by the UN General Assembly last year in its New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.
The Geneva gathering of government officials, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics and experts will discuss how to develop a programme of action that can support the economic inclusion of refugees in a way that also benefits their host community.
So far this year, Jordan’s Ministry of Labour has issued almost 30,000 work permits to Syrian refugees. It has also introduced rules enabling those like Hussein to work formally outside the camps in towns and cities across Jordan, allowing refugees with work permits to leave the camp for up to a month at a time before returning to renew their paperwork.
To take advantage of the new rules, UNHCR and the International Labour Organization have established the first employment office for Syrian refugees inside Zaatari, which organizes job fairs and advises residents on finding employment and acquiring work permits.
UNHCR also helps some prospective employers to match refugees’ skills to job vacancies. When French supermarket chain Carrefour approached UNHCR for help in finding qualified butchers, the agency searched its database for refugees with the relevant skills and Hussein was one of those contacted.
“They treated us like real professionals, I felt changed inside.”
He was invited to a supermarket inside the camp for a practical exam. “They asked us to cut and prepare the meat for different dishes and asked about the names of different cuts of meat,” he said. ”I told them all the names in both Arabic and English. They liked that.”
After receiving a job offer, Hussein and eight other successful candidates from the camp were given training in hygiene procedures and customer service, and received help in finding accommodation in Amman as well as travel expenses.
“They treated us like real professionals, I felt changed inside,” Hussein said. “I am learning a lot, as I am working for the first time with a big company, with more established procedures.”
Although he struggles with being away from his family for weeks at a time, he says overall the new job has improved their lives. “My relationship with my family has got much better because I am now relaxed and I have regained confidence in myself. I can provide what each father would like his children to have.”
Laura Buffoni, Senior Livelihoods Officer at UNHCR Jordan, said Jordan’s new rules on work permits for refugees were a welcome move. “Hopefully, this will encourage the international community and the private sector to get more involved in developing and investing in Jordan’s economy,” she said. “Offering Syrian refugees the chance to work formally will provide them with greater economic security and stability. We would also like to see more flexibility in terms of the sectors they can work in, and focus on job quality including opportunities for training and advancement.”