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Deeply Talks: Inside a Critical Experiment on Refugee Jobs

In a major global economic experiment, billions of dollars in aid and concessional loans have been promised to Lebanon and Jordan to create jobs for Syrian refugees. In our latest Deeply Talks, we discuss our investigation and answer community questions on the compacts.

Written by Charlotte Alfred, Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A Syrian worker sorts finished clothing on a factory floor at Jerash Garments & Fashions in Jordan. Alisa Reznick

Nearly two years ago, one of the world’s most important economic experiments for refugees began in Jordan.

Following a major donor conference in early 2016, Jordan was to receive $1.7 billion in grants and concessional loans, as well as exemption from E.U. trade barriers, in exchange for opening up its labor market to over 1 million Syrian refugees in the country. A later deal with vaguer terms tested some of the same ideas in Lebanon.

The “compact experiment” was the result of a convergence of progressive and conservative political interests – finding more effective ways to help refugees struggling to survive years into the Syrian war, while encouraging them to stay in the region instead of traveling to Europe.

As we approach the second anniversary of this deal it has produced some unexpected and often misunderstood results, as documented in Refugees Deeply’s recent quarterly: The Compact Experiment: Push for Refugee Jobs Confronts Reality of Jordan and Lebanon.

In our latest Deeply Talks, we discussed the impact of the compacts in Lebanon and Jordan, the obstacles they confronted and their wider lessons for policymakers and economists. We received so many insightful community questions during the talk that we have answered those that we didn’t get time for below.

Listen to the whole episode of Deeply Talks: The Refugee Jobs Experiment:

Q: Is there concern about corruption in the work permit program? In issuing the permits, attaining work or “selling” contracts to others?

(Sarah A. Tobin, Senior Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute)

A: It depends on what is meant by corruption. There is historical evidence of secondary markets in permits. Migrant workers have long used permits meant for farm labor to be able to move freely in Jordan. The government estimates that more than two-thirds of holders work in other sectors. Egyptian migrants used them to enter Jordan and then go to work for more money on construction sites or in restaurants. On the black market, farmers could sell the permits for $1,400 a piece.

Q: Are you seeing any new efforts by the Jordanian government or donors like the World Bank to engage directly with Syrian refugees in order to better match the investments in meeting the compact’s goals with refugees’ needs?

(Katelyn Gallagher, Bank Information Center)

A: There are numerous efforts from UNHCR job centers to NGO-led matchmaking of refugees and surveys of skills in the refugee population. There is also an active micro-lending community in Jordan and a host of experiments on everything from home-based businesses by refugees to gig economy pilots. Some of these could doubtless be better coordinated.

Q: Can you please speak to this section of the article? “Zaatari, Jordan’s biggest refugee camp, held its first jobs fair in October, a joint effort by the ILO, the E.U., UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Jordanian government’s Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate. Pervaiz attended, hoping to find more Syrian women like Jumana. He left disappointed: ‘I didn’t see a single female.’”

(Karla Hoover)

A: A UNHCR survey found that more than two-thirds of refugee women in Zaatari do not want to leave the camp to work. Attitudes to work differ among different communities from Syria. One commonality is that transport and childcare remain major obstacles to many Syrian women, hence the interest in supporting home-based businesses.

Q: Couldn’t many of the failures/setbacks of the compact have been avoided if any critical local expertise (outside that of government) had been included from the start, e.g., political economy experts who know about the labor market and the role of different migrant groups? Was this a problem of trying to create a universal blueprint, rather than something that actually works in Jordan and/or Lebanon?

(Dr. Katharina Lenner, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Bath, U.K.)

A: Local experts were involved in Jordan, some of whom, like Susan Razzaz, we quote in the piece. Most diplomats, World Bank officials and the government of Jordan argue that the newness of what was being attempted meant a degree of “fixing the plumbing” was inevitable. Even those who understood the limitations of the jobs market would not have argued for slowing down the compact when it was a way of channeling much-needed development support to Jordan. Some of the assumptions about how Syrians would fit into the Jordanian labor market, which we address in an annex on the garment sector, could have been tested and improved earlier than they were.

In Lebanon, the political and regulatory obstacles to Syrian work were well-known and the compact was modest in its ambitions. It has resulted in limited regulatory reforms on paper, although these have yet to be consistently implemented or reverse soaring poverty levels and lack of legal status among Syrians.

Q: The report highlights very well that the work permit target is “slightly off metric.” Albeit being a “reachable one” it says nothing about job creation, revenue generation and overall economic improvement for a Syrian refugee household. What indicator/target would the authors and economists recommend for the government of Jordan and donors to really assess the progress of the Jordan Compact?

(Mathilde Vu, Advocacy Policy & Communications Coordinator, Jordan INGO Forum)

A: The simple answer is jobs. A more complete answer would be jobs plus a detailed Syrian household income survey, one of which is due to report later this year. More broadly, efforts are underway to look at supporting job creation in informal settings and there are supporters of this kind of thinking even in the multilateral lenders, like the World Bank.

Q: Why is the work scheme targeted to Syrian nationals only? Obviously, it is the largest refugee population in the region and this focus is steered by donors, but have there been efforts to include, for instance, Yemenis, Iraqis and Somalis?

(Mirjam Twigt, Research Assistant, University of Leicester)

A: While Jordan has a large historical Palestinian refugee population and received large numbers of Iraqis during conflicts there, the scale of the Syrian refugee arrivals have made them a priority in a way that dwarfs the smaller refugee groups. In Lebanon, the contrast is even greater, with about 1.5 million Syrians expanding the country’s population by around a quarter (while a recent census found around 175,000 Palestinian refugees remain in the country).

Persuading governments with high domestic unemployment to open up labor markets is complicated enough in any setting, which is why countries like Jordan and Uganda are considered pioneers. Pushing them not to make an exception for Syrians but for all refugees might risk feeding local fears that the country will become a dumping ground for refugees.

Deeply Talks is a regular feature bringing together our network of readers and expert contributors to critically examine the latest developments in refugee policy and examine emerging trends in displacement. To join future #DeeplyTalks, make sure you are signed up to our newsletter below.

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