Syrian refugee crisis requires complex rethink

Refugees who are able to support themselves financially will help decrease the burden they cause, writes Taylor Luck.

A Syrian refugee child is carried by her mother in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey.  Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
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As heads of state, the United Nations and civil society reassess how the world responds to crises, there is one trend that cannot be overlooked.

Amid the talk of conflict resolution, funding gaps and the blurred line between humanitarian response and development, there is one important right of refugees that has only just been acknowledged by parts of the international community – and that’s the right to work.

For nearly five years, the international community has been deploying the most advanced tools to respond to the unique challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis: biometrics-linked cash assistance, food coupon cards, specially tailored schools and permanent shelter trailers. But that is not enough.

The average stay in refugee camps is 17 years, according to the UN – while those integrated into society may spend decades in their host country.

There is only one way to support Syrian refugees and that is to allow them to support themselves.

Turkey was the first to take the plunge and allow its 2.7 million Syrians to enter the workforce. On January 15, Ankara allowed registered Syrians to apply for work permits. Meanwhile, Jordan is pioneering efforts to transform the refugee crisis into an economic opportunity.

Despite a 14 per cent unemployment rate and 30 per cent youth unemployment among its citizens, Jordan has opened its agriculture, construction and basic service sectors to its 1.3 million Syrians.

To lure Syrians out of the grey economy, Amman offered a 90-day grace period, during which the government will waive all permit fees and accumulated fines for Syrian workers.

The country has also unveiled an initiative to create 200,000 jobs for Syrians over the next five years.

Under an agreement with the European Union, Jordan will establish industrial zones across the country, staffed mainly by Syrians, to produce goods to export to Europe.

In return, the EU has pledged to allow all Syrian-made products from Jordan to enter its markets free of tax, customs and quotas.

The work schemes have not come without incentives.

The EU has pledged $3.3 billion [Dh12bn] to Turkey to offset the costs of integrating Syrians into its economy. The international community, led by Europe, pledged $2.1 billion in grants in February to help Jordan relieve pressure on its schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

Then there are the economic benefits. Licensed Syrians paying taxes and earning wages that will be spent in their community will stimulate economic growth and generate revenue for their host governments.

Still, the international community must do more.

Economists say the cost of creating 200,000 jobs in Jordan over five years will run to $5 billion, more than double the $2.1 billion in aid. Meanwhile in Turkey, work permit fees and 1,300 Turkish lira [Dh1603] minimum monthly wage requirements are proving a disincentive for employers – with only 2,000 Syrians applying for work permits as of April.

Then there is the case of Lebanon, home to more than one million Syrians. The country is replete with its own economic challenges brought on by the war. The Syrian conflict has ballooned unemployment to 20 per cent, driven 170,000 Lebanese into poverty and cost the Lebanese economy $7.5 billion, according to UN statistics.

Yet Syrians are worse off. Dwindling aid and lack of jobs have pushed 70 per cent of Syrian households in Lebanon below the poverty line of $3.84 per person per day.

The international community must find a way to stabilise Lebanon’s economy to allow the entry of Syrians into the labour force.

It will be no easy task. Such initiatives require billions of dollars in funding, changes in laws and cooperation between the public and private sector.

Most of all, it requires the political will – both by donors and host countries – to see the reforms through for years, no matter the growing pains.

Then there is the potential for social tensions.

Creating jobs for Syrians at the expense of local citizens could create resentment and is politically touchy. Jordan has attempted to work around this by opening up to Syrians sectors usually dominated by foreigners so Jordanians will not be squeezed out of the job market. Turkey has placed stipulations that prevent companies having more than 10 per cent of Syrians on their staff.

Cynics say such work schemes are little more than a ploy by Europe to wash its hands of Syrian refugees. Employ Syrians in the Middle East, so the thinking goes, and they won’t seek a better life in Europe.

Yet for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians unwilling or unable to migrate to the West, there is no other way.

In the 21st century, job growth and development are the new humanitarian response.

The choice is simple. Give a Syrian an aid package to feed his or her family for a month, or provide a job to feed the family for years.

Refugee workers are no longer the domain of the grey economy, something that occurs in camps and urban slums when aid-workers and government officials turn their backs.

Like housing, food and safety, work has become a refugee’s right. It is time the international community recognise it.

Taylor Luck is a journalist and analyst in Amman