World Refugee Day: Standing Together

With its long and proud history of taking in the displaced and dispossessed, Jordan has more reason than most to mark World Refugee Day on June 20.

World Refugee Day once again gives us the opportunity to reflect on the vital role Jordan has played down the years as a safe haven for so many of the region’s traumatized and displaced.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled into Jordan since their country began to violently fall apart in 2011. On the whole, they’ve been made welcome. But the challenge remains of how to integrate them better to mitigate the strain their arrival has had on Jordan’s social and economic fabric.

For an idea of how best to move forward, Venture is publishing the following insightful article from UNHCR Representative to Jordan Andrew Harper.

Andrew Harper

Andrew Harper UNHCR

On June 20, we mark World Refugee Day in recognition of the bravery of the millions who have been displaced and to renew our commitment to do more to protect and assist them. This year’s World Refugee Day will be marked in the midst of an unprecedented global displacement crisis with record numbers fleeing armed conflicts. Over 50 million women, girls, boys, and men have been forced from their homes.

Almost 12 million Syrians are now displaced, either within Syria or as refugees in surrounding states. Half of those displaced are children, equivalent to the entire population of Jordan. Every day, more Syrians are being killed, displaced, and wounded, with the chance they will be able to return to their homes becoming more and more remote. After four years of conflict and destruction in Syria, it’s even more critical for the international community to renew and strengthen its commitment and support to the people of Syria, and to those countries generously hosting Syrian refugees. Jordan has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing conflict, but this generosity can only be sustained if the international community raises its commitment to match the increasing needs of refugees and Jordanian host communities.

In Syria, we are witnessing the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the past 70 years, and the response, in support of both refugees and of host communities, needs to match the exceptional nature of the conflict.

Given the unprecedented and increasingly protracted character of the crisis we need to not only renew our commitment to reinforcing the stability and security of asylum states such as Jordan, but also to invest in unlocking the potential of refugees to contribute to their host communities. The response needs to acknowledge the new demographic and economic pressures on the ground so that we address both the immediate and longer-term imperatives of the crisis. In the immediate term, the Syrian crisis has above all others served to illustrate the inadequacy of today’s development cooperation policies in a time of multiplying conflicts. UNHCR notes the support received by host communities accommodating large numbers of refugees falls well short of covering the costs, no matter the generosity of the humanitarian response. That’s why the UNHCR is today pressing bilateral and multilateral donors, and international financial institutions, to review existing criteria and priorities that exclude Jordan or Lebanon from accessing World Bank grants because of their status as middle-income countries. At the same time we recognize that the myriad of competing global crises is putting a massive strain on a finite international aid budget. Donors are demanding that we put in place a more sustainable strategy to support refugees, while at the same time protecting and reinforcing Jordan’s stability and security.

World ref day

In the longer-term, the UNHCR is advocating for a policy shift from short-term ad hoc interventions towards one that will be mutually beneficial for refugees and host communities, reflecting refugees as individuals who can contribute rather than as liabilities. For too long, the perception has been of refugees as “takers,” draining the resources of their hosts, when in fact the reality is more complex; one in which refugees are often not provided the chance to contribute or give back to their communities.

The UNHCR acknowledges that accommodating refugees represents a major cost to host communities, particularly during the initial phase of an emergency. But it’s also true that over the course of protracted displacement, the contributions of refugees to the economy tend to increase. Already tens of thousands of refugees are working without authorization in Jordan, leading to greater vulnerability, as they risk being exploited by unscrupulous employers who withhold payment or force them to work in unsafe conditions. A recent vulnerability assessment commissioned by the UNHCR indicated that 86 percent of refugees live under the official Jordanian poverty level. If we recognize there is a symbiotic relationship between prosperity and security at all levels, then we need to take these findings seriously. The challenge is to bring those working, or who have in demand skills, out of the grey or black market and into the formal workplace so that they can ultimately contribute to the revenue and tax base of Jordan.

Unlocking refugee potential is obviously extremely sensitive at a time of relative high local unemployment. But given the hundreds of thousands of other migrant workers present in Jordan, many of whom work under the radar, could we not give the same opportunity to refugees when they would only compete with other foreign workers?

Apart from the pure humanitarian considerations, this would result in a massive increase in capital retention. As many studies have indicated, much of what migrant workers earn is sent back to their country of origin in the form of remittances. For refugees, what’s earned is spent in the country of asylum. Given the importance of capital investment to Jordan, retaining and capitalizing to the maximum that investment is paramount.

In order to unlock the potential of refugees we must assess and agree on the areas where there’s no competition with the Jordanian host community, and allow refugees to plug existing gaps in the Jordanian labor market. Other measures may target skilled Syrian labor at the industrial zones in the northern governorates, or encourage Syrians to sponsor refugees to start their own businesses with additional incentives to employ Jordanians. Moreover, Syrians are known for being skilled artisans and as we have seen in the Zaatari refugee camp, if they are provided with the opportunity to support themselves, this not only reinforces their dignity but also provides valuable services and goods to their local community. A proactive approach would positively impact the local economy by increasing funds available to refugees to purchase goods and services from Jordanian businesses and farms, thereby bolstering jobs and investment. For the refugees, it would guide them away from the potential exploitation and abuse in the informal labor market and equip those who work to voluntarily return home, once this becomes possible, with the resources to do so. It would also mean that parents would not have to send their children out to beg, or send them to bed hungry every night.

The theme adopted by the UNHCR in Jordan this World Refugee Day is “Standing Together,” reflecting the resilience of the refugees and host communities in Jordan and the steadfast commitment of the Jordanian government in safeguarding the rights and well-being of refugees.

The UNHCR believes we can offer a new vision that supports the host community in offering sanctuary to those fleeing the horrors of war, while at the same time empowering refugees with the means to support themselves and give something back to their hosts. In providing the opportunity to refugees to contribute rather than to be the recipients of aid, we ask for no more than how we would like to be treated if we were in their situation.