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Amman, Jordan

Discriminatory development aid – a look at Jordan Syria Refugee Response

Amid persistent crises within and surrounding the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has risen as a leading global host for refugees. Collectively, the nation hosts over 3 million refugees and migrants originating from Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Palestine. Shaddin Almasri explores the differential treatment of migrants based on race and ethnicity within Jordan’s labor sector with a central focus on the Jordan Refugee Response Plan.



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Discriminatory development aid – a look at Jordan Syria Refugee Response by Shaddin Almasri

Fall 2023

In June 2023, eight Syrian refugees were killed in a traffic collision in Jordan while being transported from their agricultural work site on the back of an overcrowded truck. These dangerous commutes are a daily reality for farm workers, and a site where the lives of migrant laborers from Syria, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere intersect with those of poor Jordanians. Often packed in groups of twenty-plus in pickup trucks and driven on rough back roads to avoid police, commuting has become so dangerous that it’s now a focal point for labor organizing in the agricultural sector.

Despite these common hardships, Jordan has long been dubbed a ‘refugee haven.’ Home to many waves of refugee and labor migrations throughout the 20th century; Jordan hosts some 2.9 million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers. The most recent mass refugee arrival to Jordan was from Syria, and the initial years of the influx saw considerable aid injections from multilateral agencies and Gulf states. Then, in 2015, the so-called ‘summer of migration’ brought 900,000 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants (about half of which were Syrian) to Europe.

This wave of migration to Europe prompted a massive overhaul to the refugee response in Jordan, as EU governments struggled to keep migrants away from their own borders. It also created distinct classes of refugees whose benefits were based largely on their national origin. Aid was concentrated toward Syrian refugees and their Jordanian host communities, despite the presence of many refugees fleeing humanitarian disasters in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. Other vulnerable groups in Jordan, including long-standing refugee populations from Palestine and Iraq as well as migrant workers from Egypt, did not have a place in the newly reconfigured refugee response.

The Jordan Compact and development aid transitions

Donors claimed their new approach (implemented in Jordan through the 2015 Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis (JRP), co-led by the Government of Jordan and UN agencies) was designed to support refugee ‘self-reliance’. The stated focus was on broader structural issues like economic development and the long-term impacts on major host countries, which often suffered acute episodes of inflation and social tensions following large refugee inflows. In this respect, it was an acknowledgment of the protracted nature of Syrian displacement into Jordan and a willingness to transform programming to address this reality. In a darkly ironic twist, the Jordan Compact was agreed just two months after a mass deportation of Sudanese refugees.

The agreement, put simply, constituted the following: in exchange for monetary aid and improved trade relations with European countries, Jordanian authorities would facilitate the creation of 200,000 ‘economic opportunities’ for Syrian refugees, particularly in (but not limited to) the manufacturing sector. These relaxed terms of trade would apply to 52 product categories produced in factories placed across 18 designated industrial areas, known as ‘special economic zones’. They would ease export restrictions for Jordanian factories and aim to improve Amman’s trade imbalance.

Implementation involved both traditional humanitarian agencies and financial institutions  – including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. For the first time, and backed by European donors, Jordan (a middle income country) would have access to concessional financing at 0% interest, typically only made available to very poor countries. Subject to meeting benchmarks related to Syrian refugee economic, social, and educational inclusion, Jordan would now have access to some USD $1.9 billion in loans at a concessional interest rate.

While the Jordan Compact was initially met with considerable fanfare and support, criticisms quickly mounted over its approach, implementation, and exclusivity. Critics especially noted the transactional nature of the program, where refugees earned protection only in exchange for their economic productivity. It also focused on men largely to the exclusion of women, even though some 23% of Syrian refugee households in Jordan are female-headed. Other notable shortcomings included the lack of social protections such as access to unemployment benefits, maternity leave and pensions, and, as explored further in this text, its failure to meaningfully incorporate non-Syrian refugees and other highly vulnerable groups in Jordan.

The compact expanded the sectors with which humanitarian agencies interacted, and (unsurprisingly) came with added downstream impacts. For instance, labor inclusion of Syrian refugees (a key part of the aid response) left non-Syrian minority refugees outside of the ‘mainstream’ aid response, and pitted Syrians against other long-term migrant workers, mainly from Egypt. These other vulnerable groups would not be considered or included, despite the severe consequences the plan would go on to have for them. It also directly contradicted the government’s active deportation and regularization campaigns aimed at reducing the use of migrant labor in the face of persistent high unemployment rates amongst Jordanians.

Aid sector mainstreaming of a Syria-focused response

The new aid approach obscured the existence of other refugee and vulnerable migrant worker groups in Jordan. References to them in official documents are made only to highlight the scope of Jordan’s existing burden, not to lay out actions to address their deprivation. They were not even systematically documented until the UN World Food Program’s 2019 Comprehensive Vulnerability Assessment. It was in this year that non-Syrian refugees were included in the WFP’s flagship food voucher distribution program in Jordan. Before that the program had been restricted to Syrian beneficiaries.

In the initial Jordan Compact press release, explicit reference is only made to Syrians (and native Jordanians, as the host population). The World Bank’s support for economic inclusion in Jordan likewise only specifically mentions conditions and outcomes linked to Jordanians and Syrian refugees, not other groups. This means that these World Bank loans could only be acquired in the event that conditions linked to Syrians were met – incentivizing the government to concentrate its efforts at assistance and inclusion programs strictly for this group.

Programs to support refugees and host communities in Jordan thus continued to overwhelmingly target Syrians, and the government’s local aid project approval systems reflected this. For example, the Jordan Information Management System for the Syria Crisis (JORISS), an information management and project approval system for humanitarian and development sector funding, has only two possible beneficiaries under its data entry system. These are 1) vulnerable Jordanian host communities and 2) Syrian refugees, which de facto excludes any non-Syrian refugees. Organizations have also reported that their projects were more likely to be rejected if they included non-Syrian refugees only to be approved later by the Jordan Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation once these groups were removed from their proposals.

When non-Syrian refugees are included, it is rarely in projects that are associated with development or labor, such as the NGO-run short-term employment opportunities referred to as “cash-for-work” programs. Cash-for-work labor has been used across many Jordanian public works projects including the construction of reservoir dams, tourism infrastructure, and sanitation facilities. Obstacles to accessing either more permanent or private sector labor markets, and a major economic slowdown, meant these cash-for-work projects were incredibly critical. Yet non-Syrian refugees are excluded from these programs in practice because the structure of the Jordan Response Plan ‘livelihoods funding’ applies only to Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities. In mid-2020 Jordanian authorities went one step further to cement this exclusion into policy by requiring the issuance of work permits even for cash-for-work programs. This puts non-Syrian refugees in a Catch-22, as they must surrender their asylum seeker status before they can apply for legal work – a condition that does not apply to Syrians.

The results of these policies are clear: Only 37% of non-Syrian refugee households report a working household member, compared to 56% of Syrian households. Of households with a working member, non-Syrian households report earning an average of JD 172 (USD 243) monthly, against an average of JD 191 (USD 269) for Syrian families. The average Syrian refugee individual holds JD 343 (USD 484) of debt while the average non-Syrian individual holds debt more than twice that amount at JD 792 (USD 1117). Somali populations particularly struggle: 99% have reported taking dangerous jobs, engaging in child labor and child marriage, and withdrawing children from schools in order to make ends meet.

(Syrian) refugee labor inclusion?

The design of the Jordan Compact and its companion work permit program exacerbated existing partiality in the aid sector. The Compact’s explicit dedication to Syrian labor inclusion arguably extended a significant part of the humanitarian sector’s work into labor market interaction, where sizable groups of vulnerable migrants in Jordan labor under the infamously exploitative kafala, or sponsorship system. The kafala system gives employers, or sponsors, control over a migrant worker’s ability to seek other employment and control over their entry and exit from the country. They also frequently force workers to reimburse them for the cost of obtaining the permit. Essentially this is subcontracting state functions over migrant control to private employers, and ties a worker’s residency to their job status. The largest group that holds such work permits In Jordan are Egyptians, who labor formally and informally across the agriculture, services and construction sectors. The failure to consider existing migrant labor groups constituted a significant oversight – rising labor migration arrivals are documented in Jordan as early as the 1970s, particularly amongst Egyptians.

The work permit program introduced by the Jordan Compact subverted this long-standing migrant employment system. It initially opened up work permits across a number of sectors, primarily agriculture, manufacturing and construction – all of which already had a high level of migrant work participation. Relying on a 2001 workforce cooperation agreement with Syria as a legal basis, the permit program instituted fee waivers for employers of Syrian refugees. However, while Syrian refugees demonstrated interest in obtaining work permits, there was little incentive to be bound to a single employer, particularly for work that is seasonal or temporary in nature, such as agriculture or construction. In response, the Government of Jordan de-linked work permits in the agriculture sector from employers, thus allowing Syrians to acquire work permits independently. In addition to freeing up workers from the authority of their employers, the latter received a reduction in the processing fee they paid to the government when sponsoring Syrian employees.

The de-linking of agriculture sector permits from employers for Syrian refugees created a category called ‘non-employer specific’ work permits. By 2016, about 1/3 of the 36,790 permits issued to Syrian refugees that year were for agricultural work. The same policy measure was implemented in the construction sector in mid-2017, resulting in nearly tripling the issuance of construction sector work permits for Syrian refugees, year-on-year.

Labor replacement and migrant marginalization

For Syrian refugee labor these programs showed some level of success – and Jordanians and Syrians were jointly working together on job sites and cash-for-work projects. However, this largely came at the expense of migrant workers, who were confronted with additional restrictive measures coming from the government, in effect formulating an attempt at merely replacing migrant labor with Syrian refugee labor.

While humanitarian actors praised Amman for introducing non-employer specific permits and advocated for measures to reduce exploitation of Syrian refugees, other migrant and refugee groups in the market now faced additional restrictive measures. Egyptian workers were especially targeted in this process. In 2015, Egyptians made up 61% of the formal migrant workforce, with the bulk of their work permits issued in the agriculture sector. The agriculture sector also makes up the highest rate of permit issuance, often making this a target for curbing migrant work.

While the agriculture sector was open to Syrian refugees throughout 2016, in the same year, the Government of Jordan imposed a ban on all (non-Syrian) foreign recruitment in the sector. Farmers objected to this due to the agricultural sector’s dependency on foreign workers and, in response, the decision was reversed the following year. However Jordanian authorities then proceeded to increase the permit fees paid by farmers to employ those (non-Syrian) workers, essentially reinstating some of the burden they had previously lifted. Prior to this, agriculture permits had been the cheapest to acquire at JD 120 (USD 169). Now, permit fees could cost up to JD 700 (USD 987). This decision more than doubled the fees for agriculture work permits, which farmers often (illegally) forced the workers to repay, in addition to the fees paid to intermediaries that recruited them. The new fees also came with a requirement for employers to provide a bank guarantee of JD 5,000 if recruiting between 6 and 20 foreign workers – an amount largely inaccessible to small farmers. Work permit fees were amended in the years following. However, they have since increased again – work permits in the agriculture and construction sectors now cost JD 850 for all non-Syrian workers.

This differentiated policy has had clear impacts on labor market stratification, creating distinct classes of workers based on national origin. Egyptian workers particularly have experienced further informalization in areas where they compete with Syrian refugees. This is likely linked to government targeting of their (legal) work in Jordan, in line with aforementioned aims to reduce dependency on a foreign workforce and divert attention from high unemployment and other economic grievances of Jordanian nationals. Despite grandiose promises from the donor class, support for refugees and migrants in Jordan has been surprisingly zero-sum: While the Jordanian government promoted more inclusive measures for Syrian refugee labor and expansion of aid programs, this simultaneously became more restrictive for non-Syrians. Because funding outcomes were exclusively associated with Syrians, the incentive was to meet milestones and benchmarks by excluding equally vulnerable refugees and migrants from elsewhere.

Across the region (and indeed, the entire globe) the racialization and targeting of certain populations of migrants and refugees – as seen recently in Tunisia – is a sign of increasingly volatile politics and desperate governments. This is worrisome, as calls for a Turkey Compact similar to that implemented in Jordan illustrate the tendency towards the diffusion of such policies.



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