Palestine Refugees from Syria: Are Jordan’s Policies and the Right to Work Mutually Exclusive?
Jordan has neither signed nor ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and thus legally avoids most obligations under that instrument. The country is, however, still bound by international customary law, such as the Convention’s principle of non-refoulement, and has subjected itself to a limited protection regime under a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding with the UNHCR.
Jordan’s situation as a host country for Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) is unique. For one group of PRS, Jordan would serve as a second country of refuge: this group consists of Palestinians who originally fled for Syria from Northern Palestine in 1948 and the Golan Heights in 1967. Another group would consider Jordan as their third country of refuge, having originally settled in Jordan, only to be expelled to Syria following the Black September conflict in the early 1970s. Now, Jordan, along with Lebanon and Turkey, faces the onus of hosting upwards of 500,000 PRS.
According to Human Rights Watch, Jordan had permitted entry to at least 1,300 PRS prior to April 2012. These PRS were afforded the same protections as Syrian refugees, such as access to a “bailout,” which allows Jordanian nationals to sponsor a refugee’s exit from camps, and the right to apply for work permits. However, PRS entry has since dramatically declined, and in 2013 Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour publicly confirmed a policy against PRS entry.
PRS are usually denied entry at the Syrian border; others are detained in facilities like Amman’s CyberCity for years at a time. To circumvent the policy against PRS, individuals without Jordanian citizenship have entered undocumented or under falsified Syrian identities – which allows them to access Syrian camps like Zaatari, to receive UNHCR assistance and to enjoy rights under the Memorandum.
PRS, whether undocumented or admitted under false Syrian identities, cannot avail themselves of the right to work in Jordan. Undocumented PRS caught working are either deported or detained in CyberCity. Those claiming Syrian identity have been able to seek work and to take advantage of the bailout, but as Human Rights Watch noted in interviews with PRS in Jordan, these refugees often face economic exploitation by sponsors and employers aware of their true identity. Fearing exposure, these individuals have no legal recourse for work rights violations, forcing them to accept under-compensation and poor working conditions in the informal labor sector to deflect government scrutiny.
While Jordan’s economy has suffered due to the Syrian influx, the State has access to a powerful countermeasure: with a recognized right to work, refugees may become self-sufficient, increase tax revenues and introduce demand for new goods and services, thus stimulating economic growth.
Jordan’s current policy, however, is counterproductive. According to an International Monetary Fund study, Jordan’s annual economic growth rate should have been 1% higher than it was in 2013. Furthermore, with three quarters of Syrian refugees seeking urban accommodations, rental prices increased 7.7% that year (normal inflation would have produced a 2.7% increase) – the effect on undocumented PRS, who must obtain urban dwellings, has been devastating. The growth of a cheap but illegal informal labor market in Jordan has not only adversely affected tax revenues, but it has also strengthened an anti-refugee sentiment amongst Jordanian nationals, who are being crowded out of similar work in formal markets.
While Jordan must ultimately consider broader issues concerning the status of PRS, the merits of a uniform right to work and procedural challenges in the current work permit system, it must first implement policies affecting detained PRS, whose main fault is being the “wrong type” of refugee. As UNRWA – the UN agency providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees – experiences its own strains, CyberCity has become mired with illness and unemployment. One of Asylum Access’s mottos is “People with rights, not just needs,” and while the need is great in PRS detention centers, the right to work, whether presently or in the future, is just as great. Some form of work program and vocational training should be afforded to detainees, with as many as 180 having been held without the right to work for over two years.
Perhaps such policies would reduce Jordan’s economic burdens while providing PRS reasonable incentives to choose CyberCity over illegal labor and the threat of deportation to Syria.
Herman Bajwa is a Legal Services and Policy Advocate at Asylum Access. He has a JD from Emory University School of Law and received a BA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College. He has previously worked in the fields of post-conviction relief and patent litigation and attended the 2014 Annual Study Session at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.