MUWAQER INDUSTRIAL ESTATE, Jordan // A new trade deal with Europe, a rush of foreign investment and public works are to put 200,000 Syrians to work in Jordan in what has been described as a radical new approach to tackling the biggest refugee crisis in decades.
Shifting from handouts to helping refugees sustain themselves is now seen as the most effective way to deal with the fallout from a prolonged conflict that has defied a negotiated solution. The Syria war enters its sixth year later this month.
Up to now, humanitarian aid for Syrians has consistently fallen short because of the staggering needs of millions of displaced, forcing cuts in food and cash support, which helped trigger last year’s exodus of hundreds of thousands to Europe.
The new deal, described by the Jordanian planning minister Imad Fakhoury as “transformative”, was struck at the annual Syria aid conference in London last month.
Jordan is the main testing ground for job creation. Under the new pact, it will allow up to 200,000 Syrian refugees to work legally, an idea it rejected in the past because of high domestic unemployment.
In exchange, Jordanian products would win easier access to European markets, meant to create new investment and jobs. Jordan would also receive hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and cheap loans for development projects.
If successful, the scheme would probably mean replacing some of Jordan’s hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, mostly from Egypt or Asia, with Syrians.
A key element is a promise by the European Union to ease its “rules of origin”. This would allow Jordanian factories to bring in raw materials from other countries and still label the finished products as Jordan-made to qualify for duty-free trade.
Jordan’s free-trade agreement with the United States has boosted exports over the years, amounting to US$1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn) in 2014, or five times more than to Europe.
The EU will finalise the new rules before its summer break in August, said Andrea Matteo Fontana, the EU ambassador to Jordan.
Greater access to Europe is intended to encourage investment in five industrial zones in Jordan, but investor response is hard to predict. “At the end of the day, this is a business decision from the private sector,” Mr Fontana said.
The plan calls for 150,000 jobs for Syrians to be created in the industrial zones and 50,000 in labour-intensive projects, such as building schools and water cisterns, he said.
Creating all 200,000 jobs could take years according to the World Bank’s chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa, Shanta Devarajan.
Patrick Daru, coordinator of the International Labor Organisation in Jordan, said the target could be reached in two and a half years.
The ILO has prepared $10m worth of public works projects that could be launched once money is available, he said.
At the Muwaqer Industrial Estate in northern Jordan, home to 21 working factories and another 36 in the pipeline, a possible new trade deal with Europe was rare good news; businesses have been hit hard by the border closures.
International Technical for Metal Industries, which makes steel tubes and pipes, saw sales drop 40 per cent after Iraq closed its trade crossing with Jordan. Iraq made the decision, in part, to deprive ISIL of income from “customs” the extremist group imposed on trucks passing through border areas it controls.
The slowdown forced the factory to reduce its work force from 160 to 100, said manager Dirar Ahmad. All of those fired were foreign workers, most from India. He said he now employs 85 Jordanians and 15 foreigners.
If production were to pick up again, Mr Ahmad said he would prefer to hire Syrians because they speak the same language and follow the same traditions as Jordanians.
Jordan hosts about 635,000 out of more than 4.7 million Syrians registered with the UN refugee agency. The total number of Syrians in Jordan is more than 1.2 million, including those who arrived before the conflict.
Jordan’s labour ministry said about 90,000 Syrians currently work in Jordan, but fewer than 5,000 had permits, which are difficult to obtain.
Most Syrians hold low-paying jobs in construction and agriculture, competing with foreign labour in sectors Jordanians traditionally shun.
The ministry said it plans to issue 4,000 more work permits to Syrians in a pilot project, including for jobs on farms and in textiles.
Granting such permits remains politically touchy, and officials emphasise that Syrians will not crowd out Jordanians.
Mr Daru, the ILO official, welcomed Jordan’s willingness to allow Syrians into the formal labour market.
“Here you have a country that has decided that if we have a bigger pie, they are actually ready to share this pie with the refugees,” he said. “This is really a major shift in the thinking on how to accommodate the refugee population.”
* Associated Press