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Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered Into Illegal Jobs

Editor’s note: Two years ago Al-Fanar Media took a comprehensive look at the employment situation for refugees in three countries neighboring Syria—Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. In this report we seek to provide an updated perspective. In a related article, we describe new programs that encourage refugee entrepreneurs. Education has many objectives, but one of them, certainly, is employment.

After two years of trying, Sanaa Al-Ahmad, a young Syrian woman who sought refuge in Jordan in 2013, got a scholarship to study design at a private university in Amman. Design was not the subject she preferred, but it was the only available specialty for the scholarship. Her family and her academic supervisors convinced her she might be able to work as a freelance designer after graduation and avoid the work-permit labyrinth, which makes it difficult for any refugee in Jordan to pursue a professional job.

Sanaa was elated when she graduated, but her joy did not last long.

The city of Amman has clamped down on any job done at home, be it cooking, computer programming, translation, or design. Anyone pursuing such work risks heavy fines. That risk eliminates the ability to advertise on social media or do any other public promotion. In addition, any non-Jordanian, including a refugee, who wants to set up a new business needs a local partner and has to have at least $1,500 in capital.

“The decision is definitely bad for the Syrians, but that does not mean they will not actually work,” said Erica Bijl, a program manager at Spark, a Dutch nonprofit nongovernmental organization that supports refugee education and provides diverse training opportunities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. “They will work, but illegally.”

Illegal work exposes refugees to exploitation, such as lower wages and longer hours than locals.

At the beginning of the refugee crisis the focus of many aid organizations was to help refugee youth get entry into higher education. Now the focus for many organizations has shifted to helping graduates find jobs, to get vocational education, or to create their own small businesses. But the employment opportunities for youth, even those with newly-minted degrees, remain stubbornly the same in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, which host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees.

The economic situation does not bode well for long-term political stability in the region surrounding Syria. “Without decent jobs, the chances to move from fragility to peace and resilience are modest,” Ruba Jaradat, the International Labour Organization’s regional director for Arab states, said in a statement. She added it is important to focus on the quality rather that the quantity of jobs. “What makes the difference in the lives of Syrian refugees and host communities is creating decent job opportunities, not mere jobs.”

Jordan: Big Promises, Small Outcomes

In February, Syrian refugees register at the Azraq refugee camp job center in Jordan (Photo: Raad Adayleh, AP).

In June 2014, Jordan stopped allowing Syrians to come through any formal checkpoints, such as those in airports or on roads. In July of this year, it also blocked all refugees from arriving informally across its northern border with Syria. Those fleeing the conflict are stuck at camps in Syria.

Those Syrians already in Jordan face a very mixed picture: Work permits can be easier and cheaper to get than they used to be, but many refugees are forced to work in low-paying economic sectors, such as agriculture or construction. Professional work is discouraged. Non-Jordanians may not practice medicine, law, accounting, teaching, or engineering, and may not even legally work as drivers.

Many promises were made in a February 2016 conference in London on “Supporting Syria and the Region.” Only a few have been kept.

Donors pledged $1.7 billion over three years to support infrastructure projects in Jordan. Donors promised to make it easier for Jordanian companies to export their products into the European Union if at least 15 percent of their workforce was Syrian. But only three Jordanian companies have applied to export to Europe, according to an April 2018 report by ReliefWeb. The Jordanian government has asked the European Union to lower the proportion of Syrian refugees needed to get the regulatory break for exporting into the EU.

Jordan did end a requirement that Syrians needed a passport to get a work permit, bearing in mind many had fled their country without passports. The government did begin to allow those Syrians with identity cards issued by the kingdom’s Ministry of Interior to get a work permit. And Syrians were exempted from work-permit fees, which previously could rise to as much as 355 dinars ($500).

At the London conference, the Jordanian government also pledged to create 200,000 jobs for Syrians

Since February 2017, the Jordanian Ministry of Labor has approved work permits for Syrian refugees living in camps, allowing them to leave the camps to work and return within a period of a month at most. Later on, they can leave again. As of June, about 12,000 Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp have been granted work permits, according to Ministry of Labor statistics.

Overall, 105,404 work permits have been granted to Syrian refugees as of September 1, 2018, the government has said. As of late September, there are 671,428 Syrians registered with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, in Jordan.

An August 2017 survey supported by the Dutch organization Spark gave a snapshot of the employment situation of Syrians. Thirty percent of 501 Syrian respondents said that they were employed at the time of the survey. But 80 percent of respondents said they hadn’t gotten any training for their current or former occupation, indicating low levels of education, even at a vocational level. And 77 percent said they had not gotten a work permit.

Indeed, to date, the legally allowed work opportunities for refugees, such as food, beverage and retail jobs, do not require any academic qualifications. There is little indication that this situation will change. Overall, Jordan’s economy is in a “low-growth scenario,” according to the World Bank, with annual GDP increases of about 2.5 percent expected for the next two years. Unemployment is at 18 percent. Jordanian employers have their own challenges if they want to hire refugees. Jordanian labor law sets strict rules on the proportion of Jordanian employees to foreigners.

“I have no problem hiring Syrians, but the government’s employment procedures would require me to increase the number of Jordanian workers,” said Zaid Khreisat, an owner of a medium-sized textile factory in northern Amman. “This would mean an increase in wages and insurance expenses, something I am not in need of.”

Saleh, a 33-year-old Syrian, left his country to avoid obligatory military service and arrived in Jordan in 2013. He has only been able to work illegally.

“I worked as a cashier in a grocery store, then as a delivery boy, then as a guard at a retail store. Each time I had to hide my Syrian accent, as my employers asked me to do, to avoid being arrested.” Saleh said that his employers were sympathetic about his situation but clear that they wouldn’t seek a work permit for him and couldn’t help him if he was arrested. He has little hope of finding legal employment. “I do not have another option,” he said.

Erica Bijl, from Spark, understands the reasons behind the Jordanian government’s decision to close a large number of professions to refugees. Any country wants to give first priority to its citizens, she said. However, she hopes that Jordan will come to consider refugees to be a productive labor force that can serve the country and get the skills to build their own country when they return.

“Syrians with higher education are very creative and can create jobs themselves if they have the opportunity,” she said. “We are interested in training them to set up and run private projects. We hope they will have the opportunity to work and prove themselves here.”

Syrian women working as seasonal workers in Lebanon, harvesting and drying tobacco (Photo:

Lebanon: Pro-Return, Anti-Employment

Since January 2015, the Lebanese government has adopted a sponsorship system for the employment of Syrians on its territory, which requires a Lebanese citizen to sponsor and guarantee the entry, residence and activity of the Syrian national. The Lebanese sponsor is legally responsible for the Syrian and has to pay fees, usually from money given to them from the Syrian they are sponsoring.

As a result, most of the 976,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR in Lebanon and the hundreds of thousands believed to live in Lebanon without being registered are forced to work illegally if they are old enough to work and want to work, despite the risk of being deported or imprisoned. (See a related article, “For Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Precarious Life“).

Last July, Lebanon’s General Security Directorate demanded that the sponsors and institutions that employ Syrian refugees should file an application jointly with the refugees at regional offices of the agency. Those offices review the applications and check to make sure the employment exists as stated. These measures are aimed at preventing Syrians with work permits from working in fields that they are not authorized to work in. Work sponsorships are limited to very restricted sectors such as construction, agriculture and cleaning, which in general do not require any academic qualifications.

“I just barely managed to convince my Lebanese neighbor to sponsor me last year to fix my residency status in Lebanon,” said Samer, a young Syrian fine arts graduate from the University of Damascus, who has been working in Beirut since 2013 as a freelance web designer. “I paid the sponsorship fee and paid twice as much for my neighbor to agree to sign papers stating that I was working as a guard at his farm,” he added. “However, with the latest changes he asked me for $5,000 to renew the guarantee that would expire three months later, which was a big amount. If I had that much, I would not hesitate to find a smuggler to get me to Europe.”

A Syrian carpenter working in Lebanon (Photo: Natheer Halawani)

The latest restrictions are accompanied by the Lebanese government’s demand that the international community help finance the return of Syrian refugees to their country. The government’s position is that military conflict has ceased in most regions in Syria and that thousands of Syrians want to go home, although no comprehensive political solution to the conflict is on the horizon. International humanitarian and human-rights organizations are unified in opposing the forced return of Syrians to their country, and only a few hundred appear to have actually gone back. Most say they are returning only because conditions in Lebanon are so difficult, not because they are eager to go home now. Thousands of Syrians have been evicted from informal settlements. The large number of roadside checkpoints in Lebanon and the difficulty Syrians have in keeping their residency legal makes freedom of movement impossible for many.

The Lebanese authorities plan to speed up the return of Syrian refugees was first developed in October 2017. The plan included strict border security, mass registration, arrests, restrictions on humanitarian assistance and legal measures against Syrians residing and working illegally in the country. Although the proposed plan has not been officially endorsed, many of its details are being implemented.

In April, hundreds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were forced to leave their homes and were expelled from a number of Lebanese cities and towns. Human Rights Watch condemned the measures in a special report confirming that “at least 13 municipalities in Lebanon forcibly deported at least 3,664 Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them from the municipalities, apparently because of their nationality or religion.” Human Rights Watch called the expulsion by municipalities “discriminatory and illegal.” (See a related article, “A Haven No More: The Closing of Aassoun Tower“).

The precarious security situation of the Syrians in Lebanon and the lack of the possibility to work in professional jobs is driving many young people away from considering university. In addition, many Syrians are not able to complete earlier levels of school to reach university.

Yasser A., a 23-year-old Syrian, has lived in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli since 2014. He works in a small grocery store to help his family of six, who still live in a small village west of Homs, in Syria. Yasser never thought of completing his education, because it did not seem useful. “I need to work to feed my family and myself,” he said. “My university studies, even if they were cost-effective, would not help me pay for my family’s expenses. It would not help me to be a doctor or an engineer here because I would work illegally anyway.”

Turkey: An Open Market, With Limits

Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. The refugees include more than 3.5 million Syrians, according to the most recent UNHCR count. As of March 31, 2018, the Turkish government has issued 19,925 work permits to Syrians registered for “temporary protection” with the Turkish government and 20,993 to Syrians who have long-term residence permits, according to a document prepared for European Union conference, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region,” held in Brussels last spring.

A Syrian refugee, Mahmut Rihan, poses while working at a restaurant, in Gaziantep, Turkey (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP).

Employers in Turkey have to apply for approval to hire Syrians, and the foreign workforce of any Turkish company cannot exceed 10 percent. University students registered for temporary protection can obtain work permits. The Turkish government has generally excluded Syrians from working as health service providers, including as doctors and nurses, unless they obtain the prior permission of the Ministry of Education or the Higher Education Council, which check non-Turkish degrees to make sure they are equivalent to Turkish ones.

In practice, many sources say that the government agencies, including some city governments, can be quite flexible in letting Syrians work in health care and some other professions. The Turkish government has also decreed that employers may not employ Syrians at salaries below the minimum wage for Turkish citizens, which currently is 1,603 Turkish liras, or about $260, per month. But this ruling has been applied in a few cities only.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that his country will grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees, especially professionals, to allow them to work legally in the Turkish job market.

“Turkey will benefit from the Syrians’ experience after they become naturalized,” Erdogan said in May in an interview with Turk Press, an independent Arabic-language news website in Turkey. “They have a variety of expertise, including doctors, engineers and specialists in various fields.”

Still, the Syrians face difficulties in getting decent jobs because they usually need to learn Turkish. Government restrictions also force them to work only in the governorates where they are registered. Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces, near Syria, have high numbers of refugees and high unemployment rates. (See a related article, “Turkey Sends Mixed Signals to Syrian Job Seekers”).

Rami Sharrack, deputy executive director of the Syrian Economic Forum, an independent Syrian think tank and based in Gaziantep, in southeastern Turkey near the border with Syria, confirms that the conditions of residence and work for Syrians are much better in Turkey than in other countries.

Many laws have been adopted to support the Syrians, and the Turkish market is large, active and capable of absorbing Syrian labor, Sharrack said.

“There are also great opportunities for independent work and decisions that support starting small and medium-sized enterprises,” he said, explaining that his organization has started a project called “My License” or “Ruhsatim“, which seeks to help small and micro business owners to license and register their companies in Turkey, assist them with paying government fees and minor start-up expenses, and help them comply with government regulations, to make sure they stay open.

“We have so far succeeded in assisting 310 Syrian projects in Gaziantep,” he said. “In the project’s third phase, we aim at assisting and registering more than 200 Syrian investments in Istanbul by the end of 2018.”

It’s unlikely the Turkish approach to Syrians will be repeated in Arab countries. The Turkish economy and population dwarf those of Lebanon and Jordan. But some analysts would like to see refugees treated more as an economic opportunity and not just as a liability, as in Lebanon and Jordan.

“We need to adopt a development methodology that generates comprehensive economic growth and rich in job opportunities,” said Jaradat, of the International Labour Organization. “Refugees and host communities need jobs that build on their ability to cope with crises and ensure a productive and meaningful future.”


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