This story is part of a package that includes Turkey Sends Mixed Signals to Syrian Job Seekers, and a Fact File about Syrians’ Work Rights in Neighboring Countries.
AMMAN—After five years of study, Bilal Mohammed, 24, graduated from Philadelphia Private University’s Faculty of Civil Engineering here with a bachelor’s degree and a certificate of appreciation. But despite the eagerness with which he worked to achieve academic excellence, he is not spending much time looking for a job. He doesn’t think he will find one in Jordan.
“I hold Syrian nationality,” said Mohammed. “But while I have lived here for more than 13 years, since before the outbreak of war in Syria, I cannot get an official permit to work as an engineer.”
In Lebanon, Majd Yassin, a 29-year-old Syrian with a master’s degree in education from the University of Damascus, managed to find a job two years ago at an international organization concerned with refugee affairs. But she has to work as a volunteer on a temporary contract, getting only a small stipend for her efforts, because the organization has not been able to secure a permit for her.
In order to continue to live in Lebanon legally, Yassin was forced to enroll in a university so that she could get a student residence permit. “This is the only possible residence permit in Lebanon today,” she said. “Work permits can’t be obtained, since they require a Lebanese sponsor and the payment of a large sum of money.” The sponsor has to pay the government to get the work permit, and few Lebanese companies want to take on this difficult, bureaucratic and expensive responsibility. In addition, an aspiring Syrian worker is often forced to make a hefty “under-the-table” payment to the company to secure a permit.
Mohammed and Yassin are just two examples among thousands of young Syrians who earned university degrees in Jordan or Lebanon but are unable to work legally in their fields. Labor laws in both countries restrict their ability to get the work permits that would allow them to officially enter the labor market. Such restrictions discourage many Syrian youths from completing their higher education, regardless of whether or not they have a scholarship.
“The lack of horizons for Syrian youths is a big problem,” said Mustapha Jazar, the president of the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, which provides scholarships and support for Syrian students in Lebanon. He said many Syrian students are dropping out of scholarship programs that do not provide a stipend.
“Some students abandon their dream of completing their studies despite their academic excellence and having a scholarship, just to be able to work illegally and secure $200 a month for their families,” said Jazar.
In Jordan, work laws bar foreigners, including Syrians, from working in many professions. They can work in construction and agriculture, for example, but the law lists 18 other fields that cannot be pursued by non-Jordanians, including working in a warehouse, in a gas station or as a secretary. (The full details of the law can be found here.)
“Labor law gives priority to Jordanian citizens in the labor market, especially given the high unemployment rates in the kingdom among university graduates,” said Ghadeer Khuffash, the CEO of Jordan’s Education for Employment. But she believes the law does not restrict Syrians’ chances of finding employment in Jordan. “There is a great need for skilled manual laborers in Jordan, and Syrians are well known for their competence in this area, which is open to them,” she said.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Jordan today hosts 655,895 refugees, most of whom live outside the refugee camps. But the Jordanian government estimates the total number of Syrians in the country as considerably higher—more than 1.3 million, with about 150,000 working illegally. Last February, at a conference of international donors held in London, the Jordanian government announced that it would provide 200,000 jobs over five years for Syrian refugees in the sectors already open to them. Under the pledge, the Jordanian government said it would exempt such workers from work permit fees, which amount to about $700 a year. In return for its pledge, Jordan asked for a commitment from other countries and organizations of aid totaling $496 million.
So far, the Jordanian ministry of labor says only about 32,000 work permits have been granted.
“Syrian refugees in Jordan are treated like any Arab expatriate, but foreign workers should complete the local labor force rather than compete with it,” said Mohammed al-Khatib, a spokesman from the ministry. He also said many refugees wrongly believe that getting a work permit will bar them from also receiving aid from international relief organizations. A study issued by Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development-Legal Aid, a Jordanian nonprofit organization, confirmed that refugees who are receiving aid from other sources can get work permits, but need substantial documentation and the proper skills to do so.
The work permit situation for Syrians is also difficult in Lebanon. An agreement between the Syrian and Lebanese governments that guaranteed the freedom to live, work, and conduct economic activities for both countries’ citizens in Lebanon was suspended in 2015. Syrians find it difficult, if not impossible, to get work permits in Lebanon, except in sectors like construction, agriculture, and cleaning. Unlike in Jordan, the more than one million refugees registered in Lebanon with UNHCR are not allowed to work at all. Under Lebanese law, they can be sent back to Syria immediately if they are caught working without a permit.
According to an April 2014 report by the United Nations International Labour Organization entitled “Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and Their Employment Profile,” the average monthly income of a Syrian refugee working in Lebanon is $277, far below the minimum wage of $448. Ninety-two percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon work without official permits, the study found.
“I have been arrested, and beaten during my arrest, for working as a waiter in a café without an official permit,” said Nidhal, 32, a Syrian resident in Tripoli. “I was threatened with deportation, but the pressure imposed by civil-society organizations helped to get me released without being deported.”
Nidhal studied for two years at Baath University’s Faculty of Science in Syria, but he was forced to flee to Lebanon after his brother avoided compulsory military service. “We were afraid of being arrested,” he said, “so within half an hour, we made the decision to travel to Lebanon. I did not bring any official documents with me apart from my identity card.”
Today, Nidhal is not considering completing his university studies. “Studying is a distant dream that I do not dare to imagine,” he said. “I need to work and support my family.”
The need of Syrians to work, even if illegally, makes them vulnerable to exploitation and the threat of detention and deportation.
According to a study by Jordan’s Economic and Social Council, illegal Syrian employment also leads to the expansion of the informal economy and depresses the average wage for many professions. Syrian workers will accept substandard work conditions, long working hours, and lower pay, the study found.
Syrians suffer from what human-rights groups say are racist practices in several Lebanese cities, including special curfews, arrest, deportation, and raids. They are sometimes forced to clean the streets. Last November, a comedy series on the Lebanese television channel OTV, called “Haddi Albak,” aired an episode in which a Syrian worker named “Ahmad” was applying for a job at a karting track. He was ordered to strip and run around the track with a flag pole in his underwear chanting “there are no jobs … this is why my price is low.” (See other reports on discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon, including In Lebanon, Syria Refugees Face Growing Discrimination; Mounting Discrimination Against Syrians in Lebanon, and Attacks on Syrians in Lebanon: Scapegoating, Par Excellence).
At the root of this situation in Lebanon is a government decision about what Syrians in Lebanon are called. For historical and political reasons, they are called “displaced persons” rather than “refugees,” says Ibrahim Qassim, a Syrian lawyer based in Lebanon who previously worked at Ihqaq Law Firm, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization that supports Syrian refugees and Syrian-Palestinians. “But ignoring their legal status as refugees is the beginning of a legal suffering that deprives them of a range of rights, including the right to work legally.” The ability to work legally, he said, would in turn offer Syrians the protection of government regulations concerning work hours and working conditions, as well as access to government-mandated employee benefits.
Today, Mohammed, Yassin, and Nidhal dream of moving to Europe, because they believe their chances of being able to work legally in Jordan or Lebanon are almost nonexistent.
“All countries refuse to receive us today, and illegal emigration seems so difficult given the current restrictions on travel,” said Mohammed. “But it still seems more possible than finding work in the region.”