By Fatoun a-Sheikh and Avery Edelman

AMMAN: Syrian refugees in Jordan are pursuing informal “volunteer” work with NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations, seeking the income provided by stipends and transportation allowances, as they are barred from working in white collar jobs.

The pursuit of volunteer work comes despite recent efforts taken by the Jordanian government to encourage Syrian integration into to the country’s formal labor market.

Those efforts include measures taken by the Jordanian government under the Jordan Compact, a document announced at the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference which took place in London in early 2016.

As part of the Jordan Compact, the Jordanian government pledged to create 200,000 jobs for Syrian refugees in return for trade benefits with the European Union and investments from donor countries intended to bolster the Jordanian economy.

Nasser Judeh, former foreign minister of Jordan (left), spoke at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference in February 2016. Photo courtesy of DFID.

Accordingly, the Jordanian government suspended all fees associated with obtaining a work permit for Syrians starting in April 2016. Work permit fees can range from $170 to $1270, depending on the sector.

By the end of 2016, 35,000 work permits had been issued to Syrians. The number fell short of the stated goal of 50,000 permits, but nonetheless represented a significant increase from the approximately 3,000 permits issued to Syrians annually in prior years since the influx of refugees to Jordan began in 2011.

Despite efforts to integrate Syrians into the formal economy, some refugees say their situation remains unchanged, noting that most professions requiring a university degree are reserved for Jordanian workers only.

As an alternative, many of those seeking work in Jordan, especially those holding university degrees, have looked toward the informal economy, in which between 120,000 and 160,000 Syrians are reported to be working.

In particular, degree-holders are seeking out “volunteer” opportunities offered by aid organizations and NGOs operating in the country.

Those opportunities often provide suitable income to volunteers in the form of what are referred to as “stipends” or “transportation allowances.”

Syrians not permitted to work in certain sectors

According to Jordanian law, work permits for non-Jordanians are only provided for positions that are deemed not to “compete with Jordanians” and only in sectors that are open to non-Jordanian workers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Sectors permitted for non-Jordanians include construction, agriculture and manufacturing and even within those sectors the Ministry of Labor applies “migrant worker” quotas.

Meanwhile, a number of professions that require a university degree are restricted to Jordanians only, including medicine, engineering, administration and education.

A Syrian refugee works on a farm in the Jordan Valley. Agriculture is among the sectors permitted for non-Jordanian workers. Photo courtesy of UNHCR.

Mohammad Khateeb, a spokesperson for the Jordanian Ministry of Labor, told the Syrian Voice that the ministry restricts workers from certain sectors for two primary reasons: “Firstly, professions such as engineering and medicine are subject to trade union law, which enforces certain conditions that are often not met by Syrians.”

Those conditions include, for example, a requirement that foreign doctors requesting a Jordanian medical license be members of the Jordanian Medical Association (JMA), a group restricted to Jordanian citizens.

“Secondly, there is a large number of Jordanians who are unemployed in these sectors,” Khateeb said. “The ministry cannot open [those sectors] to non-Jordanians at a time when it cannot provide sufficient opportunities to [Jordanians].”

Unemployment in Jordan is 15.8 percent, according to the country’s department of statistics.

Ahmad Hariri, 28, is one of the Syrian refugees directly affected by the ministry’s labor restrictions.

Hariri fled from Syria to Jordan four years ago and, although he has since graduated from a Jordanian university with a degree in engineering, he is not permitted to work in the engineering field.

Instead, Hariri volunteers in Jordan’s Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees, where he works in the psychosocial support field.

Syrian refugees volunteer as part of a UNICEF project in Zarqa, Jordan.

As a volunteer, Hariri receives a “transportation allowance” amounting to 350 Jordanian dinar (JD) per month [$500.00]. He is not provided with health insurance, social security or a contract of any kind.

“My volunteer work was positive in that I was able to help many of my fellow Syrians [who are living] in the camp,” he said, “but in practical terms, my years are being wasted, as I’m an engineer working in a field far from my specialty.”

“I hope a day does not come in which I say I wish I hadn’t studied,” he added.

Amal Ibrahim faces a similar issue. Back in Syria, she worked as an Arabic teacher and lived comfortably. In Jordan, however, teaching is among the sectors reserved for Jordanian workers.

In order to provide for her family, Amal volunteers with the humanitarian organization CARE, processing beneficiary information.

Her position offers a stipend of 200 JD per month [$290.00], just below the nation’s minimum wage of 220 JD.

“Volunteering is the most suitable option,” she said, noting that it is “far from the difficult conditions that Jordan imposes on us in order to acquire [formal] work opportunities.”

“It helps us to support each other [while] in exile and makes us see the suffering of others,” she added.

Hussam Darwish, director of activities at the International Medical Corps’ (IMC) in Jordan’s Zarqa governorate also noted that “volunteer work is mutually beneficial” to both the volunteers and the organizations themselves.

“Organizations working to serve Syrians benefit from having Syrians as part of their teams,” he said. “Those Syrians can help [organizations] to better understand beneficiaries, spread awareness and better identify needs.”

Lack of work pushes some Syrians to seek asylum elsewhere

With limited access to the work opportunities they desire, some Syrian refugees in Jordan are eager to pursue refuge and a career elsewhere.

Anas Khalil, 31, worked as a lawyer in Syria before fleeing to Jordan five years ago.

Although he worked in the law field for seven years, Anas now works in data entry. He told the Syrian Voice that he is waiting for the nearest opportunity to request asylum in another country where he can legally work in his specialty.

He says he is looking for a place where he will have a “functional future,” something he has not found in Jordan.

A Syrian refugee volunteers with children as part of a humanitarian aid project in Jordan. Photo courtesy of Caritas.

The Jordanian government estimates that up to 1.4 million Syrians are living in the country, 659,000 of whom are registered as refugees with UNHCR.

According to a report published by the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies (BCARS), 95 percent of Jordanians “believe that Syrians had to some extent or to a great extent taken jobs that otherwise would have gone to Jordanians,” although there is a “lack of empirical evidence for this belief.”

The ILO nonetheless confirms that some competition does exist, as Syrians working in the informal market are found to “accept lower wages and harsher working conditions.”

Original Arabic article found here.