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Out of reach: legal work still inaccessible to refugees in Jordan

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Jordan is one of the countries most affected by the Syrian crisis, now in its eighth year. A country of fewer than 10 million, Jordan hosts more than 750,000 registered refugees. The vast majority are from Syria, but Jordan also hosts tens of thousands of refugees from other countries, including Iraq, Yemen, and Sudan, and many more who are not registered.

In February 2016, the government of Jordan, the European Union (EU), and the World Bank agreed on a compact designed to turn the challenges of hosting a large number of Syrian refugees into an economic opportunity. One of its aims is to improve the lives of both Jordanians and the Syrian refugee population by giving them greater access to the labor market.

During a June 2018 research mission to Jordan, Refugees International (RI) found that the situation for refugees in the country is bleak and in many ways worsening. Underfunded United Nations (U.N.) agencies have reduced financial and food assistance; refugees are struggling to make ends meet, given the high cost of living; and few have legal employment. The vast majority – close to 85 percent – of Jordan’s refugee population lives outside of refugee camps. Rents outside of the camps are high and public transportation is poor, pushing many families into debt. In addition, in early 2018, the Jordanian government suddenly cut health subsidies to Syrians from 80 percent to 20 percent, and the increased costs of medical care and medication present a huge additional burden for them.

Although the Jordan Compact has somewhat improved refugee access to labor markets, the fact remains that in Jordan most professions are closed to non-Jordanians, including refugees. Open sectors include agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. According to official figures as of June 2018, the government had issued 104,000 work permits to Syrians. However, that number includes renewals of existing permits. Therefore, the actual number of Syrians legally employed in Jordan is likely to be much lower. In reality, the majority of refugees who work do so in the informal sector, where wages are low and conditions are often difficult and physically taxing. To make ends meet, many families send their children to work instead of school.

Women and girls represent more than 49 percent of Jordan’s registered refugee population. Many refugee women shoulder the responsibility of providing for their families, yet they face particular challenges in accessing employment. One-third of Syrian households in Jordan are headed by females. Women whose husbands are not able to find work because they are too old or unfit for manual labor have also had to step in and find work if they can. It is common for Syrian women in Jordan to sell food they prepare at home or handicrafts they make.

However, in early 2018, the Jordanian government issued instructions that have made it almost impossible for Syrians to register these home-based businesses.

Registering a business means working legally and being able to advertise and market products freely without fear of being caught and punished. The obstacles to registration of home-based businesses have a major impact on women, many of whom prefer to work from their homes due to a lack of child care and transportation, as well as social and cultural norms that oppose women’s work outside the home. Only 4 percent of the work permits issued by the Jordanian government to Syrians have been obtained by women. The Jordan Compact’s failure to deliver meaningful results for women is one of its greatest failures.

Although the vast majority of refugees in Jordan are Syrian, tens of thousands of refugees from Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and other countries live in a difficult environment but are left out of most humanitarian assistance programs aimed at Syrians. Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa face racism and discrimination because of their skin color and are more easily identifiable when working informally than Syrian refugees.

Even though Jordan’s economy faces many challenges, the commitments made by the Jordanian government and the international community in the Jordan Compact provide an opportunity to improve the lives of both refugees and their host communities, and set an example for other countries facing similar challenges. Key stakeholders need to take steps to improve refugees’ access to legal work and better livelihoods to make the compact a success. These steps would make a huge difference in the abilities of refugee women and men to support themselves and live in dignity in Jordan, and allow their host communities to benefit from the skills and experience they bring. Opening up opportunities for refugees to work legally and establish formal businesses would also help the government and the international community deliver on their commitments.