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Syrian refugees: Can Europe help Jordan turn a burden into a boon?

Path to progress

With investment from Europe, Jordan is reversing its policy of discriminating against Syrian workers. It's a bid to bolster Jordan's economy while encouraging the refugees to remain in the region.

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    Syrian Mohammed Salameh, who works illegally in Jordan, along with two of his five daughters in their apartment in Mafraq.
    Taylor Luck/File
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Syrian Mohammed Salameh risks being jailed every day.

His crime? Working.

“They say we aren’t allowed to work, but no matter what, we have to work,” Mr. Salameh says shortly before heading out from the border town of Mafraq for an afternoon shift laying cinderblocks in the northern Jordanian desert, work that pays $10 a day. “If we don’t work, we die.”

Salameh, who relies on odd jobs in construction to support his four daughters, is one of thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria who for years have been working illegally in Jordan, quietly toiling on farms and construction sites away from the arm of the law and the gaze of roaming police patrols.

Jordan initially barred Syrian refugees from working in order to protect its own workers, who face a 14 percent unemployment rate and a youth unemployment rate of up to 30 percent. Regulations prevented all but the wealthiest Syrians from opening businesses,­ pushing 99 percent of Syrian refugees into the gray economy, unregulated and unprotected.

Yet after four years, Jordan is dramatically reversing its policy, embarking on an ambitious program to register more than 200,000 Syrian workers like Salameh and create jobs for 200,000 more over the next five years. Once seen as a drag on Jordan’s fragile economy, the large numbers of refugees who fled across the Syria-Jordan border are now seen as providing a potential boost to its fortunes.

The Syrian workers program is part of the Jordan Compact, an agreement reached in February under which the international community pledged $2.1 billion in grants to Jordan and $1.9 billion in additional financing over the next three years if Amman agreed to open the labor market to its 1.3 million Syrians.

European and Jordanian officials alike admit it is a trade-off: improving the lives of Syrian refugees in host countries like Jordan so they do not seek greener pastures in Europe.

Central to the compact is the formation of special industrial zones across the country, staffed by Syrians and Jordanians, that will produce goods to be exported to Europe. In return, the EU has agreed to allow Syrian-made goods from Jordan to enter its markets free of tariffs, taxes, and quotas.

But even as the initiative is being held up as a model for other host countries, some warn it may have been implemented too late to stem the growing migration of Syrian families from Jordan to Europe and the West.

Nevertheless, Jordan sees the program as an opportunity to spur economic growth – which has stalled at 2.7 percent for 2016 – and raise badly needed revenue.

“We want to create jobs to be offered to Jordanians and Syrians alike,” says Mohammed Momani, government spokesman and minister of media affairs. “It will reduce unemployment, expand the size of the economy, and generate growth.”

Incentives for investors

Jordan is pushing to open five zones by the end of the year, with as many as 11 to be established to produce goods ranging from textiles to basic electronics.

To speed up the zones’ creation, Jordan is offering a 0 percent income tax rate and exemption from sales tax and import duties to interested investors. Officials hope these incentives, along with the lure of free access to EU markets, will be enough to sway international companies.

While Jordan is pushing for at least 30 percent of the zones’ workers to be Jordanian, government officials privately estimate that the bulk of workers on the factory floor will be Syrian, with Jordanians taking up administrative and managerial posts.

Jordan is also working on a second track: bringing hundreds of thousands of Syrian out of the shadows to become legal, licensed, tax-paying workers and business owners.

This second track could be costly for the some 400,000 Egyptians and other foreign laborers in Jordan, who could be pushed out and replaced with the newly licensed Syrians.

The government is slowly issuing work permits for Syrians in foreign-dominated sectors that employ few Jordanians, such as agriculture (7 percent Jordanian), construction (3 percent), and basic services (less than 1 percent). The vast majority of Jordanians’ private sector jobs are with small businesses, while others are employed by the Army and the bloated public sector.

“It is not as if we are kicking out Jordanians and hiring Syrians,” says Jawad Anani, economist and former Jordanian royal court chief. “There are certain jobs Jordanians simply do not do, by and large.”

A new approach

UN and aid officials have hailed the program as a long-needed shift in the response to the Syrian refugee crisis from a “humanitarian approach” to a “development approach.”

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says the program will help Syrians in Jordan – 90 percent of whom live below the poverty line of $87 per person per month – to become self-sufficient. The UN expects more than 78,000 to benefit in the next few months.

Looking to other host countries in the region, UN officials believe the program could be replicated in Lebanon, which is home to 1 million Syrians and requires arriving refugees to sign pledges not to work. Dwindling aid and a lack of job opportunities have pushed 70 percent of Syrians there below the poverty line of $3.84 a day, an “unsustainable crisis.”

Aid officials also have their sights on Turkey, which recently revamped its laws to open up the labor market to its 2.7 million Syrians but has met with limited success. Under their new labor regulations, Turkish employers must offer a guaranteed contract to a Syrian, pay minimum wage of 1,300 Turkish lira ($438) per month, and provide health insurance. But the stipulations have proven to be a disincentive for employers, and between January and March, only 2,000 Syrians had applied for work permits.

Rebuilding host communities

For many Jordanians, the town of Mafraq, where Salameh lives with his family, is a place of unfinished plans and dreams deferred. Since the start of the Syrian crisis, the desert junction town’s population doubled from 95,000 to 200,000, with Syrians now accounting for more than half of Mafraq’s residents. With the rise in population came a rise in unemployment. Experts say more than 20 percent of Jordanians in Mafraq are unemployed, while youth unemployment hovers at 40 percent.

After his father fell ill one year ago, Jordanian Walid Abu Huneiteh delayed his degree in engineering to work. His brother had to drop out of university all together. The setback prevented Walid’s family from completing construction on their two-room home.

But for months, Walid and his brother have been unable to find work, and the family of seven relies on the eldest son, Yahyah, who earns $350 per month working in a refrigerator factory. For Walid, the reason behind their struggles is evident.

“It’s the Syrians. They are able to work for half our wages, and we just can’t compete,” Walid says.

Walid worked first as a grocer and then as a barber, charging $4 for a shave and a cut. But Syrians opened up a shop charging $2.75 a customer, driving Walid, once again, out of a job.

Yet the teenager does not fault the Syrians themselves, noting that the only work available in the town pays less than $10 a day, is intermittent, and does not offer social security or health care.

The Jordanian government believes its work program is the answer, saying the zones will provide fair wages and benefits for all, and create a trickle-down effect that will benefit the whole area and lead to a construction boom.

Critically, the $2.1 billion extended by the international community will be invested in host communities such as Mafraq, rebuilding water networks, roads, health centers, and schools, government officials say.

Too late?

While many Syrians in Jordan welcome the work program, many say the “long-overdue” overture has come too late.

“I wish jobs were open to us, when we first came five years ago,” says Mohammed Hamsawi, who fled from Homs to Jordan with his mother, wife, and four children in 2011, and works illegally as a plumber.

“But there is no trust, and everyone is trying to leave.”

Current regulations prevent thousands of workers such as Salameh from obtaining work permits. Salameh himself has been arrested three times, released from custody after his most recent arrest in January only by signing a pledge never to work again in Jordan.

“If we don’t help refugees where they need help, we will need to provide help for them all over the world, even in the heart of Europe,” Mr. Momani, the government spokesman, warns.

“If we can’t go back to Syria, then we will go wherever we can live in dignity,” says Salameh.

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