Middle East

Jordan’s Syrian Refugee Response and Discriminatory Development Aid


In June 2023, eight farm workers died in a traffic collision in Jordan. The workers were Syrian refugees who were being transported from an agricultural work site in Mafraq on the back of an overcrowded truck.

Workers harvest tomatoes in Ghor Haditha, Jordan, 2021. Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Dangerous commutes are a daily reality for farm workers in Jordan, where the lives of migrant laborers from Syria, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere intersect with those of poor Jordanians. During these commutes, workers are often packed into pickup trucks in groups of twenty or more and driven along rough back roads to avoid police because the trucks are unlicensed, or only licensed for the transport of crops and other goods.

While the conditions are equally unsafe for all precarious workers regardless of their national origin, programs like the agricultural work site are part of a refugee response that has increasingly focused on national origin and access to labor, pitting Syrian refugees against other refugee and migrant worker populations.

Jordan currently hosts some 2.9 million refugees and asylum seekers, including those registered with UNHCR and UNRWA. International donors and Jordan’s allies, like the United States, have long supported the monarchy’s security interests in exchange for its containment of refugee populations. Around 2015, the European Union entered the scene as a key player. Following the largescale movement of migrants and refugees, especially Syrians, to Europe, EU governments—in an effort to keep migrants away from their own borders—provided increased aid and incentives to Jordan for its cooperation in containment.

Containment was presented as a win-win situation: Jordan, a relatively small country in need of human capital could attract the support of EU governments in exchange for hosting populations and adding them to its workforce.

Notably, however, the policies that emerged from these negotiations with Jordan—embodied by the Jordan Compact, an agreement reached in 2016—focused only on Syrian refugees and their Jordanian hosts. In creating jobs and support for Syrian refugees, they have created distinct classes of refugees whose benefits are based largely on their national origin. Other vulnerable groups in Jordan, including long-standing refugee populations from Palestine and Iraq as well as migrant workers from Egypt, had no place in the newly reconfigured refugee response.

 

The Jordan Compact

 

In 2016, more than 70 heads of state met at the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference in London hosted by Britain, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations. Together, they developed the “Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis”—an aid funding tool, co-led by the Jordanian government and UN agencies and first designed in 2015 to support refugee “self-reliance.”[1]

The 2016 conference culminated in a new approach to containing migrants in Jordan. The so-called Jordan Compact, which emerged from these negotiations, claimed to be centered on broader structural issues like economic development and the long-term impacts of migration on major host countries, such as Jordan, which, in the 2000’s and 2010’s saw acute episodes of inflation and social tensions following large refugee inflows.

Put simply, the agreement stated that in exchange for monetary aid and improved trade relations with European countries, Jordan would help create 200,000 economic opportunities for Syrian refugees: mostly low-wage jobs in the manufacturing sector. The relaxed terms of trade would apply to 52 product categories produced in factories in 18 designated industrial areas, or “special economic zones” (zones designated for factories that benefit from a special tax status with reduced rates). The European Union would make it easier for these factories to export goods in an aim to improve Amman’s trade imbalance.

Indeed, for the first time, and backed by European donors, multilateral development banks including the IMF granted Jordan, a middle-income country, access to concessional financing at no interest, typically only made available to very poor countries.

In addition to humanitarian agencies, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund also helped implement the Jordan Compact. Indeed, for the first time, and backed by European donors, multilateral development banks including the IMF granted Jordan, a middle-income country, access to concessional financing at no interest, typically only made available to very poor countries. All Jordan had to do in order to receive some $1.9 billion in loans was to meet benchmarks set for the economic, social and educational inclusion of Syrian refugees.

Initially, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations greeted the Jordan Compact with considerable fanfare and support. But criticism quickly mounted over its approach, implementation and exclusivity. Scholars noted the transactional neoliberal nature of the program: Donor support for refugees was made conditional on their employment and containment in Jordan. Within Jordan, refugees were awarded clearer refugee status in exchange for their employment and potential economic gains from the Jordan Compact. In other words, refugees earned protection only in exchange for their economic productivity. Moreover, its emphasis on manufacturing and agricultural labor meant it focused on men largely to the exclusion of women despite the fact that in 2016, 23 percent of Syrian refugee households in Jordan were headed by women.[2]

 

Excluding Non-Syrian Workers

 

In an ironic twist, the compact was approved just two months after Jordan enacted a mass deportation of Sudanese refugees. This episode speaks to another major problem with the Jordan Compact: its failure to meaningfully incorporate non-Syrian refugees and other vulnerable groups. Jordan agreed to the compact amid rising unemployment, which jumped from 12.2 percent in 2012 to 17.9 percent in 2023.[3] Over this time, the government has continued to engage in active deportation and regularization campaigns aimed at reducing the use of migrant labor, even as it created more opportunities for Syrians.

Organizations have anonymously reported that their projects would 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.

From the beginning, the initial Jordan Compact press release only referred to two populations: Syrians and their native Jordanian hosts. Indeed, when other migrant groups are mentioned in the official documents around the compact, it is only to highlight the scope of Jordan’s existing burden, not to lay out actions to address their deprivation. World Bank loans, too, could only be acquired if conditions linked to Syrians were met, incentivizing the government to concentrate its efforts at assistance and inclusion programs strictly for this group.

The landscape of laws and regulations governing refugee assistance and access to work is convoluted and difficult to navigate. Image by cartoonist Othman Selmi.

This focus left non-Syrian minority refugees outside of the mainstream aid response. 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: vulnerable Jordanian host communities and Syrian refugees. Non-Syrian refugees have no parallel system for project registration. Organizations have anonymously reported that their projects would 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.

Their exclusion also extends to “cash-for-work” programs. These programs are led by NGOs and offer short-term employment opportunities across many public works projects, including the construction of reservoir dams, tourism infrastructure and sanitation facilities. Obstacles, such as hidden fees, employer-anchored permits and occupational restrictions made it difficult for refugees to access more permanent work or jobs in the private sector. These constraints, combined with major economic slowdown starting in 2011, made cash-for-work projects a vital source of employment. Yet non-Syrian refugees are excluded from these programs in practice because grants awarded to NGOs organizing cash-for-work are issued under the structure of the Jordan Response Plan’s livelihoods funding, which applies only to Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities.

In mid-2020 Jordanian authorities went one step further, requiring that workers obtain permits even for cash-for-work programs. While Syrian workers were able to retain status as asylum seekers while obtaining permits, non-Syrian refugees were required to surrender their asylum seeker status before they could apply for legal work—a difficult trade-off many were not willing to make. As a result of these policies, only 47 percent of non-Syrian refugee households report a working household member compared to 65 percent of Syrian households.[4] The average non-Syrian refugee holds more than twice the amount of debt compared to the average Syrian refugee. Somali populations in Jordan are particularly vulnerable: 99 percent have reported engaging in negative coping mechanisms, including but not limited to taking dangerous jobs, engaging in child labor and child marriage and withdrawing children from schools in order to make ends meet.[5]

 

Transforming the Kafala System

 

The Jordan Compact’s emphasis on bringing Syrians into the Jordanian labor market was a significant departure when it comes to the country’s migrant labor policies.

With the exception of Palestinians, right to work has historically been limited for refugees. Many of Jordan’s migrant workers labor under the infamously exploitative kafala, or sponsorship system. Although kafala is not explicitly mentioned in Jordanian labor law, the country’s reliance on kafeel (sponsors) makes its labor policy, de facto, an example of kafala. Employers, or sponsors, control a worker’s ability to seek other employment as well as their entry into and exit from the country. This system essentially subcontracts migrant control to private employers and ties a worker’s residency to their job status. Moreover, sponsors frequently force workers to reimburse them for the cost of obtaining the permit.

The largest group that holds such work permits in Jordan are Egyptians, who labor formally and informally across the agriculture, services and construction sectors and have represented a significant portion of labor migration to Jordan, beginning as early as the 1970s.

It initially opened up work permits for Syrians across a number of sectors, primarily agriculture, manufacturing and construction—all of which already had a high level of migrant work participation through the kafala system.

The work permit program introduced by the Jordan Compact bypassed this long-standing migrant employment system. It initially opened up work permits for Syrians across a number of sectors, primarily agriculture, manufacturing and construction—all of which already had a high level of migrant work participation through the kafala system.

The Jordanian government de-linked work permits in the agriculture sector from employers, allowing Syrians to acquire work permits independently. This new category of non-employer specific work permit for Syrian refugees freed workers from the authority of their employers. Moreover, employers received a reduction in the processing fee they paid to the government when sponsoring Syrian employees. As a result, in 2016, about one third of the 36,790 permits issued to Syrian refugees were for agricultural work.[6] The same policy measure was implemented in the construction sector in mid-2017, nearly tripling the number of construction sector work permits for Syrians.

Humanitarian agencies like the International Labor Organization praised Amman for introducing non-employer specific permits and for pushing measures to reduce exploitation of Syrian refugees. But non-Syrian refugees did not benefit from these changes. Indeed, the agriculture sector has the highest rate of worker permits for migrant labor, making it a target of the Jordanian government for curbing migrant work.

In 2016, the same year the agriculture sector was open to Syrian refugees, the Jordanian government imposed a ban on all non-Syrian foreign recruitment in the sector. Jordanian farmers objected to the ban given their dependency on foreign workers, and the decision was reversed. In 2017, however, Jordanian authorities more than doubled the permit fees farmers must pay to employ non-Syrian workers, essentially reinstating some of the burden they had previously lifted. Farmers often illegally force workers to repay these fees.

The new fees also came with a requirement for employers to provide a bank guarantee of 5,000 Jordanian Dinars if recruiting between six and 20 foreign workers—an amount unaffordable to most small farmers. Work permit fees were amended in the years following and have since increased again. They now cost 850 Dinars ($1198) for all non-Syrian workers. Egyptian workers, in particular, have suffered as a result of these new regulations. In 2015, Egyptians made up 61 percent of the formal migrant workforce, with the bulk of their work permits issued in the agriculture sector.[7]

 

The Labor-Oriented Model Beyond Jordan

 

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 the expansion of aid programs, the landscape has become more restrictive for non-Syrians, leading to the creation of distinct classes of workers based on national origin.

After five years of advocacy from civil society organizations and volunteer groups, aid programs finally began to consider non-Syrian refugees. For example, non-Syrian refugees were added to the World Food Program’s flagship food voucher distribution program in Jordan after being included—for the first time—in a 2019 “Comprehensive Vulnerability Assessment” report. Previously, the program was restricted to Syrian beneficiaries.

Notwithstanding these small gains, in recent years, donor fatigue has set in and the Jordanian government’s incentive to expand support to all refugee populations has declined: The Jordan Response Plan is the least funded it has ever been. Following a peak of 64.85 percent of requested funds in 2017, it was only 33.4 percent funded in 2022.[8]

Yet, European donors continue to rely on a labor-oriented development aid approach in other crises, despite its uneven effects on the host country.

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. Yet, European donors continue to rely on a labor-oriented development aid approach in other crises, despite its uneven effects on the host country. Today, as in Jordan, there are nationality-based refugee policy approaches in Turkey.[9] The implementation of the UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework in Ethiopia have also been limited mostly to Eritrean refugees.

While the longer-term effects of these transformations remain unclear due to the comparatively smaller scale of refugee work permit uptake, if Jordan’s experience is any indication, these interventions will have unintended consequences, especially for the populations they overlook.

This article is part of IMPOP, a MERIP collaboration with George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies.

 

[Shaddin Almasri is a postdoctoral researcher at the University for Continuing Education Krems with a background in labor and refugee governance in MENA and East Africa.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1]The Jordan Compact: Three Years on, Where Do We Stand?,” Relief Web, March 11, 2019.

[2] Caroline Krafft, Maia Sieverding, Colette Salemi and Caitlyn Keo, “Syrian Refugees In Jordan: Demographics, Livelihoods, Education, and Health,” Economic Research Forum Working Paper Series, no. 1184 (2018), p. 13.

[3]Jordan Unemployment Rate 1991-2024,” (Data source: World Bank), macrotrends.net.

[4]Population Survey of Refugees Living in Host Communities: Jordan 2022,” UNHCR, June 20, 2022, p. 154.

[5] Ibid, p. 14.

[6]WP figures as of 31 Dec 2022,” UNHCR Operational Data Portal, December 31, 2022.

[7]Annual Report 2015,” Jordanian Ministry of Labor, p. 42.

[8]2017 Financial Status,” Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation; “JRP shortfall measured $1.51b in 2022,The Jordan Times, February 9, 2023.

[9]Why is Syria a War but Not Afghanistan? Nationality-based Aid and Protection in Turkey’s Syria Refugee Response,” Refugee Survey Quarterly, February 20, 2024

 



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