The European Union (EU) Member States have grappled with how to respond to the many Syrian refugees arriving on their doorstep. While Syria’s civil war rages on, EU officials are engaging in their own policy battles regarding human security versus national security. The Jordan Compact, drafted on February 4, 2016, at a London donor conference, turns this political debate on its head by focusing on development rather than limiting itself to a discussion of borders. Specifically, the Jordan Compact aspires to benefit Syrian refugees, Jordan, and the EU by “[t]urning the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity” (Jordan Compact). Can this really be a win-win situation for all parties involved? This blog post analyses some of the benefits and challenges of the Jordan Compact for Syrian refugees.
Over five million Syrians have fled their home country since the civil war began in 2011, with over 650,000 of them resettling in Jordan. Initially, Jordanian law did not permit Syrian refugees to work; with an unemployment rate of 14 percent for Jordanian workers and 30 percent for its youth, Jordan focused on safeguarding jobs for its own citizens. Syrian refugees who worked did so in the informal sector with the fear of being caught. With the advent of the deal between the EU and Jordan, however, Syrian refugees can now register for work permits, thereby enabling them to earn a livelihood legally. The United Nations (UN) has applauded this deal, noting that it marks “a long-needed shift in the response to the Syrian refugee crisis from a ‘humanitarian approach’ to a ‘development approach.’”
So how will the Jordan Compact – officially signed in late July 2016 – enable Syrian refugees to work without jeopardising Jordan’s own labour force? The impetus for the deal came from two Oxford professors, Paul Collier and Alexander Betts, who recognised that a development agreement could mutually benefit both Jordan’s stalling economy and Syrian refugees who were limited with no legal employment opportunities. The Jordan Compact is a ten-year deal that utilises Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as a way to attract foreign direct investment (FDI); it also gives Jordan access to the EU’s market free of tariffs or quotas, as long as the products being exported are produced within the SEZs by a labour force that is at least 15 percent Syrian (with the goal of being 25 percent Syrian in the next three years). In addition to attracting foreign capital, SEZs are minimally taxed and face few bureaucratic hurdles. All of this amounts to the SEZ’s benefits quickly outstripping their overall costs. Thus, the idea is that Jordan would gain an economic boost from FDI and access to the EU’s market, while Syrian refugees are granted permission to work in the SEZs.
Benefits and Challenges for Syrian Refugees
A clear benefit of the Jordan Compact is that it will allow up to 78,000 Syrian refugees to be granted permission to work. However, this is easier said than done. As is common for any type of job application, Syrian refugees must provide a health certificate as well as an ID card in order to be eligible for work authorisation. Unfortunately, obtaining a government-issued ID card is no easy task; Syrians who fled from their home country without passports and identity documents (or who never owned a passport to begin with) do not meet the documentary evidence requirements of a government-issued ID card, effectively also making them ineligible for a work permit. Some Syrian refugees might benefit from the Jordan Compact if the types of documentary evidence required for a work permit are amended such that additional documents can be accepted as proof of identity. As of late July 2016, however, only 20,000 Syrians had been granted work permits.
Another challenge that the Jordan Compact poses for Syrian refugees is that the types of jobs created thus far have primarily targeted a particular demographic group – that of female Syrian refugees. A pilot programme found that most employment opportunities were for garment factories that required workers to live near the premises in exchange for a minimal wage. While this was only a pilot programme, one would hope that the SEZs produce a variety of employment opportunities that would be appealing (and feasible) for a wider demographic group, thereby ensuring that multiple categories of people can earn livelihoods.
An Economist article succinctly explains why the Jordan Compact is so important for how we think about responding to humanitarian tragedies such as Syria’s civil war. Foreign aid, whilst appreciated, is akin to throwing a few buckets of water on a raging forest fire – it alleviates the problem, but only temporarily. The Jordan Compact acknowledges this and elects a more sustainable, development-oriented approach that will expand Jordan’s economy while also providing Syrian refugees with the resources that they need to move forward with their lives. As such, if it can overcome the challenges set out above, the Compact may eventually produce a win-win situation for all parties involved, and may constitute a blueprint – or even an archetype – for future policy making in the fields of migration control and humanitarian aid.