Published on Arab Voices

Jordan’s Syrian Refugees – what a difference a year makes

 Shutterstock l Melih Cevdet TeksenIn February 2015 a blog in these pages tried to draw attention to the plight of the Syrian refugees in Jordan. This was before the drastic cuts in aid over 2015 by severely underfunded humanitarian agencies and before the massive refugee influx into Europe. For Syria’s neighboring countries, Europe’s “refugee crisis” was only the latest stage of a much bigger crisis they had been weathering since  2011. That same blog had also called for greater outside support for Jordan and its host communities - as well as for the refugees - and there are encouraging signs on both fronts, even as the severity of the crisis continues to grow.

Indeed, the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan is now more precarious than ever . With their savings and humanitarian assistance dwindling, there is even a small, desperate exodus of refugees going back to Syria.  And barely 1/3 of the $3 billion Jordan needs to deal with Syrian refugees has materialized .

The exodus to Europe has not relieved much of the stress placed on host communities and the refugees. The total number of Syrians arriving in Europe in 2015 stood at slightly less than 500,000 , coming from neighboring host countries as well as Syria, Egypt and beyond. The numbers are significant but not a game changer for Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey with their registered refugee populations of, respectively, 1,070,000, 632,000, and 2.3 million. Actual numbers are higher in Lebanon and Jordan. The impact on vulnerable refugee populations has been even less.   Refugees going to Europe tend to be the better off who have the thousands of dollars  needed for the journey while 90% of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are poor .  

Turkey now requires visas of Syrians arriving by air and sea from third countries , so the only route to Turkey and then to Europe is via the perilous land crossings in northern Syria where visa free entry is available. This change in policy is linked to the November agreement between Turkey and the EU on limiting migrant access to Europe. Relatedly, Turkey will grant work permits to Syrians; for which the Europeans have promised over US$3 billion in support.

With the Syrian war showing no signs of ending and no real exit options for the 1.4 million Syrians in Jordan, of which a diminishing 15% are in camps, Jordan faces a protracted refugee situation requiring a comprehensive solution  addressing the demands placed on education, health and other basic services and the question of legalized livelihoods for refugees. 

The Jordanian economy has characteristics which facilitated the initial absorption of Syrian refugees. Jordan has a large population of foreign workers of perhaps one million or more . Most of this population currently works illegally, including an estimated at 160,000-200,000 Syrians. The International Labor Organization notes that “ Jordan has a very high population of non-nationals and over half the new jobs created annually are reportedly filled by foreign workers. Migrant workers…come primarily from Egypt, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, employed primarily in agriculture, construction, garment, tourism and hospitality and domestic work”. Syrians tend to mostly displace migrant workers – often Egyptians since they tend to work roughly similar jobs - except for the poorest 14% of Jordanians who rely on wages for half of their incomes and who often also take less than the minimum wage for these informal jobs. Hundreds of thousands of Asians, many of them women, hold jobs as domestics, etc. and constitute 75% of the country’s 55,000 garment workers - with wages hovering near the Jordanian minimum wage.  

The economy is highly dependent on these low wage, low skill workers and a powerful lobby within Jordan safeguards the interests of firms employing them. This probably accounts for the schizophrenic nature of Jordanian policies reflected in a rhetoric of “Jordanization” of the labor market versus lax enforcement of labor laws on foreigners. The law has special provisions for Arab workers and allows foreigners to work in certain sectors (and industrial zones) with notional quotas set aside for them. Currently, only 6000 Syrians have work permits in Jordan– they remain expensive  for employers and impossible to acquire for most refugees.

Debate continues over the impact of Syrian refugees on the Jordanian economy  with various studies citing the burden on the country while others note its positive impact on economic growth through downward pressure on wages serving as a stimulus to businesses, humanitarian goods bought in Jordan and cash assistance spent there, and Syrian investments. While the government is wary of any analysis showing the benefits for overall growth of the current crisis, the reality is that this growth does not automatically translate into better welfare for Syrian refugees or poorer Jordanians, or mitigate the depletion of scarce water resources or the burden on health, education and other services.  

A broader development-focused engagement is needed and there is growing consensus around this. The UN, UK, Germany, Kuwait and Norway who are convening the February 4, 2016 London Supporting Syria conference  pledged to “ address the longer term needs of those affected by the crisis by identifying ways to create jobs and provide education, offering all those that have been forced to flee their homes greater hope for the future”. Host countries seek engagements that are a win for both refugees and host communities. This will require significant funds with concessional financing. Donors are working on a variety of mechanisms, including an initiative from the World Bank, the UN and the Islamic Development Bank to  mix grants with loans, to buy down interest rates and provide concessional financing to the middle income countries in the region that are hosting the bulk of the refugees. Other schemes include creating job opportunities for refugees and host communities in “enterprise zones” with incentives and investments from the EU and others . In a sign of the growing confluence of the development and humanitarian agenda a joint World Bank-UNHCR report on refugee welfare notes that  what is needed is a medium term growth and development strategy for hosting countries and communities including expanded basic services, an enabling business environment, support to small and medium enterprises  and creating special economic zones.


Omer Karasapan

Regional Knowledge & Learning Coordinator

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000