A Working Solution

As part of efforts to ease the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Zaatari refugee camp has just hosted its first job fair.

By Nada Atieh

When Ahmad Qasim Ahmad and his family settled in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp in 2013 after fleeing the war in Syria, he knew he would be starting his life over again in a foreign country and had no idea what to expect. He lived a simple, quiet life as a farmer in Daraa and only hoped to find a stable occupation to support his young and growing family in Jordan.

Last month, Ahmad was pacing slowly and wearily through Zaatari’s first job fair, still searching for employment. His unwavering will guided his steps as he stopped at every other wooden desk and presented his ID card, conversed quietly with an employer, quickly jotted his name down on an elongated list of identities yearning for the same opportunities, and ambled along.

“Since coming here, I managed to find one job. I spent the freezing winter moving water barrels because it’s all I could do and I’ve been trying for two years to find a job now and nothing,” he said.

He was one of more than a thousand refugees who came to connect with employers at the job fair, which was organized by the European Union, UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the government’s Syrian Refugee Directorate. Present at the fair were nearly 50 national and international companies offering over 1,000 job opportunities in sectors related to agriculture, garment manufacturing, manufacturing, construction, and chemicals.

This job fair was coordinated after a recent decision by the Ministry of Labor to open the way for refugees in camps to work formally in cities across Jordan. According to UNHCR’s figures, the ministry has issued and renewed nearly 60,000 work permits and over 28,000 refugees currently hold valid work permits.

The Jordanian government estimates nearly 1.4 million refugees from Syria have settled in Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. About 660,000 refugees are registered with UNHCR and 20 percent of them are located in refugee camps.

As part of an effort to bring employment services closer to camps, the Zaatari employment office was inaugurated in August 2017 as a UNHCR and International Labor Organization (ILO) initiative to increase mobility of camp residents and provide employment opportunities.

A network of 24 Community Support Committees across the country mobilize refugees in urban areas and individual employers from companies committed to employing refugees contact the UNHCR office when they need to expand their workforce.

The job fair is only the first step in connecting refugees to work opportunities, said Patrick Daru, country coordinator and senior skills specialist at ILO. Names and information exchanged with employers at the job fair will allow employment officers to follow up with each registered job seeker and see how the tentative matches play out.

“We want to identify on a strategic level what are the bottlenecks to employment. What are the different issues that, for instance, women would be facing in joining the market? What type of working conditions do you need to ensure for people to go to work?” he said.

The campaign to expand employment opportunities to refugees began during February 2016’s Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London. There, the government of Jordan announced the Jordan Compact as a blueprint to reduce their dependence on declining aid and shift towards a development response to help refugees become more self-reliant.

In return for Jordan opening up its labor market to Syrian refugees, the Jordan Compact secured $1.7 billion in grants, low-interest loans, and pledges from the international community. The Kingdom has received almost $924 million in funding and improved trade conditions with the EU market through a 10-year relaxed rules of origin trade agreement, the first deal of its kind between the EU and any Middle Eastern country.

“The objective is to create new factories, new economic opportunities for everybody that will benefit both the Syrian refugees and the Jordanian workers,” said EU Ambassador to Jordan Andrea Matteo Fontana, who inaugurated the job fair.

Jordan will be providing at least 200,000 work permits to Syrians in exchange for access to tariff-free trade with the EU. Businesses located in 18 special economic zones (SEZs) throughout Jordan can unlock preferential access to the EU market by employing 15 percent of Syrians in their workforce in the first two years, and 25 percent after that period.

In the coming years, these measures could provide job opportunities for Syrian refugees while they remain in Jordan and contribute to the economy without creating competition with Jordanians for jobs, Fontana said.

Though this initiative provides a new avenue to increase employment opportunities and improve trade, the anticipated results haven’t materialized yet. Thousands of Syrians remain dependent on aid and low-paid work in the informal sector. “In terms of trying to understand the informal work sector in Jordan, it is quite a challenge,” said Laura Buffoni, UNHCR senior livelihoods officer. “We know that a lot of refugees, not unlike many Jordanians, find it easier to access the informal sector.”

UNHCR has been working together with the government to formalize the freelance work that takes place in the informal sector. In the agricultural division, where many refugees were working informally, work permits were provided to allow refugees access to work on various farms without linking them to employers, Buffoni said.

Syrian refugees, now like any other foreign workers in Jordan, are required to be paid the minimum wage of $311 per month, and entitled to social security.

Still, for many Syrians, the gains of formalizing freelance work and employment mean there will be losses. Humanitarian agencies reported some refugees fear losing access to monthly cash assistance and the opportunity to be settled in a third country.

Since the conflict in Syria began in 2010, Syria has become the largest displacement crisis in the world with 6.3 million people displaced internally and nearly 4 million people registered as refugees in neighboring countries.

Ninety-three percent of refugees in Jordan are living under the poverty line and one-in-five registered refugees receive cash assistance to help meet essential needs like shelter and food.

Ahmad depended on the monthly $30 cash assistance he received from NGOs but hopes that will soon change. As the morning sun heightened and the crowd dispersed, Ahmad’s wife, Iman Qambar joined him in his quest to be recruited in a company. Qambar said she doesn’t have much experience but would like to manufacture garments and heard that some factories will train employees.

She left her six children home with her mother-in-law and couldn’t pass up this opportunity. “All we want is to teach our children. For ourselves to be able to provide for them and give them a future,” she said.

The couple said they feel slightly dubious about the employment opportunities presented before them; though they are plentiful, the competition is sizable as well. Still, with an undiminished hope to improve their fate through the course of time, they strolled on with ID cards in hand, exploring their options.