Syrian refugees and the promise of work permits

Issuing work permits to refugees in return for donor support for jobs is seen as a “win-win-win” for refugees, host countries, and the international community. It would stem the flow of refugees to Europe, decrease the dangers of radicalization, and prevent the exploitation of refugees as a source of cheap labor. At last February’s “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference co-hosted by the U.K., Germany, Kuwait, Norway, and the United Nations, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called for a million work permits to be made available to Syrians, 200,000 each in Jordan and Lebanon and 600,000 in Turkey.

Turkey issued a decree in January 2016 allowing work permits for Syrians. Jordan also agreed to provide work permits for up to 200,000 Syrians over a number of years in exchange for aid and the opening of European markets to goods produced or special economic zones—all this to lead to jobs for one million Jordanians as well when other aid and spending is added in. Lebanon, whose fragile confessional politics makes the one million plus Sunni refugees a more palpable threat, has chosen not to issue work permits. Yet, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), “around half of (working age) Syrian refugees are economically active and just one-third have access to overwhelmingly informal and low-skilled employment.” That’s around 165, 000 employed informally. The number is around 160,000 in Jordan  with 1.3 million Syrians and over 400,000 in Turkey with 2.7 million Syrian refugees.  

In Turkey and Jordan, as elsewhere, work permits are tied to employers who apply on behalf of employees once residency, registration, and health requirements are met. In both countries, employers must pay the legal minimum wage and social security payments. The permits are renewed annually. But, for the majority of Syrians working in labor markets with an abundance of local and foreign low-skill, low-wage workers, the pay is nowhere near the minimum wage. As to the promised jobs in the special zones, those will take time to materialize, and we already know that, at least in the garment sector, up to 80 percent of the workers are young women from South Asia, largely residing in dorms but at least receiving the minimum wage. Whether Syrians can adapt to this model remains to be seen. In both Jordan and Turkey, there are certain limits on the percentage of Syrians versus locals in many manufacturing and services jobs; in Jordan there is some evidence that “ghost” Jordanian workers are used to get around this requirement.

Jordan already has over 240,000 foreign workers, mainly Egyptians and Asians, who have work permits, with the total number including those working illegally may be as high as a million. There is a move to get Syrians to replace the foreign workers with permits but that seems a bit uncertain. It seems unlikely that employers will be eager to replace employees, often of long standing and for whom they have gone to the expense of getting work permits.  In Turkey, with fewer foreign workers, many locals work informally, though they tend to get paid significantly more than Syrians. The chances of employers hiking up wages to legalize Syrian employees, whether in Jordan or Turkey, are slim and the record to date appears to confirm this.   

In Jordan, the government provided a three-month grace period for workers to receive permits free of charge. Less than 2,000 permits had been granted by April. An ILO survey in Jordan, which looked at workers in the construction and agriculture sectors, noted that while 90 percent of workers had heard about the grace period, none in the agriculture sector and only 85 percent in construction had work permits, though almost all knew that getting caught might mean detention at the Azraq refugee camp. And an inability to pay social security constituted a major barrier. Often a concern is to go through employers to get the permit.  

In Turkey, the numbers are not encouraging either: By May, only 10,000 had actually registered for work permits. Refugees International reports that Turkey’s work permit program may end up benefitting 40,000 Syrians or roughly 10 percent of those actually working. The government, though, thinks that the program will eventually help all those currently working informally.

The ILO, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Refugees’ International have praised the Jordanian and Turkish governments for granting work permits. The decision was not easy and was politically charged in both countries. But the political and psychological significance of providing an opening for Syrians to slowly integrate themselves and move towards a stable future is certainly worth pursuing, even if it doesn’t bring immediate rewards. Already, Turkey allows Syrian doctors and medical personnel to work in health centers serving refugees. Over 4000 Syrian teachers have received stipends from a Ministry of Education program funded by UNICEF and western donors. And agricultural workers no longer need work permits so long as provincial governors give their approval.

Eventually delinking work permits from employers will help, and the ILO urges Jordan to do so for agricultural and construction workers. In both Jordan and Turkey, lowering social security payments would also smooth the transition. More support to vocational training, health care, education for children are other ideas being pursued. While making work permits available is not the same as a blanket “right-to-work” law for refugees, a right protected under the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention but accepted in full neither by Jordan nor Turkey (however, the key international treaty that protects the right to work in binding form is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which Jordan and Turkey are signatories), this is an opening and one that the international community should monitor and support. Aside from the February conference, other agreements—such as the one between the EU and Turkey and the upcoming EU deal with Lebanon and Jordan—provide suitable platforms towards improving on this initial phase.