Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Learning from the Jordan Compact

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Learning from the Jordan Compact

Article excerpt

The formal integration of Syrians into the labour markets of Syria's neighbouring countries was something of a taboo for the first five years of the Syria crisis. Middle Eastern governments steadfastly refused to contemplate it. Nor, typically, did they allow humanitarian actors to undertake livelihoods programming for Syrians. This changed in February 2016, at a donor conference in London, when Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey all publicly committed themselves to improving economic opportunities for Syrian refugees.

Jordan has gone furthest in seeking to make its general commitment a reality. The 'Jordan Compact', announced at the end of the donor conference, envisaged the provision of up to 200,000 work permits for Syrians over the coming years.1 It has since become a laboratory for livelihoods programming with refugees in protracted displacement. Just over 80,000 work permits were issued to or renewed by Syrians by January 2018, yet - almost two years in - the initial enthusiasm of humanitarian actors has given way to surprise at the challenges they face in implementing the Compact. The overall count used in official reporting is somewhat misleading - it includes not only renewals but also several thousand permits issued to the same people upon switching jobs, as well as a few hundred temporary (that is, nonannual) permits. The number of work permits valid at any one point in time is considerably lower than the overall figure (estimated at around 35,000-45,000), and there is a widespread perception among humanitarian actors that it will be extremely difficult to reach the 200,000 target by whichever metric. A number of lessons can be drawn from analysing implementation of the Compact.2

Lesson 1: Governmental approval is necessary - but not enough

Experiences with the Jordan Compact show that while the approval of governmental actors is crucial to shifting policy, effecting real change on the ground requires more than this. Implementing agencies have shown great sensitivity in scoping out what is politically acceptable in the given context, and have built strong cooperative relations with the Jordanian government. However, governmental positions do not necessarily reflect or fully account for the deeper dynamics shaping a state's political economy or labour market. Incorporating the rationales of other stakeholders is equally crucial for the success of any intervention.

This is illustrated by the strong initial focus on recruiting Syrians to work in the garment industry. In negotiations, government representatives emphasised employment in this sector because a) it is labour-intensive and could thus potentially absorb many Syrians, and b) the workforce is predominantly migrant labour, so 'substituting' them with Syrians would mean that Syrians were not 'competing' with Jordanians. This proposed substitution implies a disregard for the rights and circumstances of the existing migrant workforce in Jordan, and attempts to effect it have been unsuccessful to date. In spite of holding job fairs, and offering Syrians information sessions and invitations to visit factories, by the end of 2016 only 30 Syrians, out of a target of 2,000, were being employed in the garment sector.3 Employers did not consider that their existing workforce, of mostly South Asian migrant workers, would be easily replaced by Syrians since the working conditions - with long hours, low wages, long commutes - and lack of childcare made working in the factories very unappealing to most Syrians. These exploitative working conditions have been imposed on migrant workers in Jordan for many years, as human rights advocates have highlighted.4

A new round of recruitment began in the summer of 2017 when work permits were also introduced for camp residents. This time, with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) organising transportation and training, and since some of the camp residents' basic living expenses are covered by humanitarian actors, this has proven somewhat more attractive to employers as well as Syrians, thereby pulling more Syrians into this exploitative labour regime. …

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