Reevaluating the Grey Economy for Refugees

The ILO and the Syrian Conflict: Finding Working Solutions

Even though the Syrian conflict seems to be finally drawing to a close, the UN’s International Labour Organization believes it will be dealing with the human fallout of the fighting for years to come. 

By Dina al-Wakeel

Since the eruption of the Syrian conflict in 2011, global charities and NGOs have played a major role in trying to ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of refugees that fled into neighboring countries, including Jordan.

The UN’s International Labour Organization has played a central role in this relief effort by helping to design and implement strategies that facilitate Syrian refugees’ integration into the labor market.

Now, with strong signs the conflict might at last be at an end, Maha Kattaa, the ILO’s response coordinator for the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan, outlines the impact her team’s work has had so far, and what it aims to achieve in the difficult days ahead.

Maha Kattaa, ILO Response Coordinator

Jordan has hosted hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since the beginning of the crisis. How much of a toll has it taken on the country’s economy and infrastructure?

The Syrian refugee crisis—and wider regional turmoil—has challenged the Jordanian economy, labor market, and services infrastructure. But it has also presented a number of opportunities, some of which Jordan is embracing.

Let us first look at the effect of the overall regional situation on Jordan’s economy. Turmoil in neighboring countries has created a substantial reduction of Jordanian trade with Iraq and Syria, and has consequently slowed Jordan’s economic growth. It is unclear at this stage when trade with these two countries will be able to resume in earnest. As a result of this reduction of trade activity, combined with a decrease in tourist activity, increased military expenditure for border protection and civil security, and accumulating interests from loans, Jordan’s gross public debt reached 95.1 percent of nominal GDP in 2016.

Regarding the refugee crisis, 1.3 million Syrians reside in Jordan according to the 2016 census; about half of them are registered with UNHCR as Persons of Concern. This large-scale refugee presence, 80 percent of which resides in communities outside designated refugee camps, has caused issues related to service delivery for health and education, as well as downward pressure on wages for low-skilled jobs. According to the World Bank, Syrian refugees cost Jordan over $2.5 billion a year, amounting to 6 percent of the country’s GDP and 25 percent of the government’s annual revenue. A total of 63 percent of the total costs are covered by Jordan, with the remainder covered by international donors.

But the refugee crisis has also presented some windows of opportunity for the Jordanian economy. One of the most important is reflected in the Jordan Compact, which the government presented at the February 2016 Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London. The ILO worked closely with the Jordanian government and stakeholders in the lead-up to presenting the compact, through intensive evidence-based research, policy dialogue and advocacy.

The compact made way for an agreement between the European Union and Jordan to open the Jordanian labor market to a specific number of Syrian refugees in return for increasing Jordanian access to the EU market and increasing European investment in the country.

The ILO has also subsequently been closely involved with Jordanian initiatives to ease refugee access to the labor market; from working with the government to reform work permit procedures, to helping Jordanian employers recruit the portion of Syrian labor required by the EU agreement, and setting up employment offices for refugees.

Let us also not forget a number of other benefits Syrian refugees present to the national economy and labor market. ILO research shows that Syrian refugees—who comprise only a fifth of non-Jordanian workers in the country—are consumers in the Jordanian economy, spending their wages inside Jordan rather than sending them abroad as remittances. Enterprises can also benefit from the reduced cost of recruiting Syrians in comparison to other nationalities, since they are already present in the country. The strong entrepreneurial and trades skills that many Syrians bring to Jordan are also economically beneficial.

The big question is how many refugees are leaving Jordan now that things appear to be settling down in Syria?

The number of refugees returning from Jordan to Syria remains modest at this point in time. According to our sister UN agency UNHCR, from January 2016 to the end of October 2017, a total of 13,590 Syrian returnees have been de-registered as refugees. This is the equivalent of 2 percent of the overall registered Syrian refugee population in Jordan. The returns are spontaneous and UN agencies neither facilitate nor promote them, as the conditions in Syria are currently not found to be conducive to voluntary return in safety and dignity.

The vast majority of the returnees during the indicated period both originated (66 percent) and intended to return (73 percent) to Dar’a governorate, with smaller percentages to Aleppo, Rural Damascus, Homs and Al Raqqa, according to UNHCR data. While the gender breakdown among registered Syrian refugees in Jordan is almost even between males and females, there are more females returning to Syria (55 percent). The main discrepancy between the genders is in the age group of the 18 to 59 years old with 10 percent difference. It is interesting to note that in the age groups below the age of 18, there are more males returning. This may likely be due to risks and fears associated with mandatory military service for males from the age of 18 years.

The main reason for returns during the indicated period is family reunification (71 percent). Of interest is that the second main reason for return is improved security (5 percent), which has only emerged as a main reason for returning to Syria since May this year. The third main category of reasons for returns are economic pressures in the country of asylum, such as living costs outside the camps, lack of income earning opportunities as well as limited access to assistance.

How many have been and will be resettled in third countries in the West?

There is a gap between the number of refugees who seek resettlement in Europe and North America and those who actually depart for resettlement. According to official UNHCR figures, a total of 76,979 Syrians residing in the MENA region and Turkey were identified for resettlement to Europe and North America in 2016, compared to 53,005 in 2015, with a total of 156,100 Syrian refugees in MENA and Turkey identified for resettlement and humanitarian admission since 2013.

In 2016, the largest number of resettlement submissions came from Jordan (30,181), Lebanon (23,498) and Turkey (16,682). The largest number of submissions was to the United States (34,469), Canada (16,892) and the United Kingdom (7,476).

Regarding actual departures of refugees for resettlement, 47,773 Syrians departed for resettlement from MENA and Turkey in 2016.

From these figures, it is evident that there are many more submissions for resettlement than actual departures. These figures also do not include refugees who have requested resettlement through other organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which carries out services for a number of western countries to resettle refugees.

Regarding future resettlement in Europe and North America, it is extremely difficult to predict future resettlement trends, especially in the context of today’s increasingly unwelcoming climate in many countries that traditionally admit refugees.

However, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants commits UN member States to “expand the number and range of legal pathways available for refugees to be admitted to or resettled in third countries,” including through the establishment of national resettlement programs. The ILO guiding principles on the access of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons to the labor market (2016) call on ILO members to allow refugees access to national labor markets and, with reference to the creation of more legal pathways, to “promote labor mobility as one of the pathways for admission and for responsibility-sharing with countries hosting large numbers of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, and include such pathways for admission in their national policies.”

What are the lessons that the ILO has learned from the Syrian refugee crisis?

The ILO has implemented a series of interventions to support the access of Syrian refugees to the labor market, and to training and livelihood opportunities in Jordan. A compilation of emerging good practices confirm that the ILO has gained experience in working together with humanitarian actors to promote the Decent Work Agenda for inclusive economic recovery in both fragile settings and emergency contexts.

There are a number of main lessons we’ve learned through working on the refugee crisis in Jordan and the wider region in recent years.

Working with our social partners—the government and worker and employer representatives—and through national institutions from the beginning of crises is fundamental. The approach of working through national institutions versus direct implementation by ILO staff and personnel is an efficient and effective way of working that ensures national ownership and sustainability.

Supporting national policy and securing national support is a central challenge in responding to the refugee crisis, as concrete actions on the ground cannot happen without such support.

We have learned to complement policy engagement at the national and local government level with concrete community level interventions. Working at both levels is a strength of the ILO, with our engagement on broader policy issues rooted in concrete experiences on the ground.

This “upstream/downstream” approach demonstrates the importance of Decent Work in responding to crises such as the refugee crisis. “Downstream” activities -projects that address immediate needs of both Syrian refugees and local residents at the community level-facilitate “upstream” activities for mid and long-term programming at the national and regional levels.

What role will the ILO play in rebuilding Syria?

The rebuilding of Syria has, to an extent, already started, even as processes are underway to end the conflict. The ILO can—and indeed aims to—contribute to the reconstruction of Syria in a number of ways.

Among them is combatting child labor. We are about to begin a program in Syria to address the issue of the many children who have, as a result of the conflict, been victims of the worst forms of child labor, including involvement with armed groups. The ILO will pilot models of intervention seeking to withdraw, prevent, and rehabilitate these children. For many this will include psychosocial support, in addition to re-insertion into the education system, vocational training, and placement in safe and age-appropriate employment for those old enough to work.

The ILO also aims to be involved in reconstruction through labor-intensive programs—or programs that involve providing jobs for a large number of workers. The destruction of physical infrastructure has been enormous over the last six years, and while the task of rebuilding which lies ahead is daunting, it also presents opportunities for job-creation through the use of labor-intensive methodologies. The ILO has a long experience with this type of work, both in post-conflict and post-natural disaster situations. We will build on this and on work done with vulnerable local communities hosting refugees, and with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria.

I would also like to mention that, as part of our work in Lebanon and Jordan, we develop workers’ skills to prepare them to take up jobs in Syria upon their return.

We also plan to be involved in rebuilding institutional frameworks. The years of conflict have put a serious strain on key public institutions serving the Syrian people. The social security institution is key in this regard, and the ILO will provide support to ensure its functioning post-conflict. This also goes for labor inspection as the main enforcement mechanism for labor legislation at the level of the workplace.

Social dialogue is key to peace-building and the ILO will –based on its tripartite structure which works with governments and worker and employer representatives, and based on its mandate and experience–help strengthen social dialogue in Syria as a means of rebuilding relations, and ensuring workers’ and employers’ participation in the social and economic development of Syria.