Feb 08 2016

Guest workers in Jordan

Published by at 1:34 pm under Articles,Jordan

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By Daoud Kuttab

The preliminary results of the national census in Jordan show that Syrian refugees number around 1.3 million.

Along with other nationalities, non-Jordanians now compose what amounts to 31 per cent of the total population.

Of the 9.5 million people living in Jordan, 6.6 million are Jordanian citizens, according to the Census Bureau.

We are told by the census commission that among non-Jordanians, 634,000 are Palestinians. It is not clear if these Palestinians are the displaced Gazans who made it to Jordan in 1967 and who, unlike their West Bank brethren, never had Jordanian citizenship or if this number includes Palestinian passport holders who are living and working in Jordan, or both.

In addition to Syrians and Palestinians, Jordan today is also home to some 390,000 Egyptian (the real number is most likely higher because many are without work permits and probably avoided the census). There are also 130,000 Iraqis, 31,000 Yemenis and 23,000 Libyans.

These numbers are a clear indication of the depth of the economic difficulties that Jordan is facing as a result of its policy to host Arab refugees and will certainly play a role in the conference on Syrian refugees that will take place in London today.

The ability of any country with limited resources, such as Jordan, to provide for such a large population is not easy and the international community has a clear obligation to help share this heavy burden with Jordanians.

At the same time, Jordan has certain obligations and commitments in ensuring the basic rights of these guests among them heath, not least education and the right to work.

Often-repeated claims that allowing this large number of refugees to work will be at the expense of Jordanian workers are not backed by facts.

While the country has witnessed a huge increase in population, the census bureau has not shown any substantial increase in the number of unemployed Jordanians. 

At the same time, a number of studies showed that the economy of Jordan has benefited from the presence of refugees, and that in fact, the presence of Syrians and others is the main reason that Jordan is not in recession but has been enjoying an annual growth in its economy, albeit not large.

The question of allowing Syrians to work needs to be answered rather quickly.

Some Jordanian officials appear to be edging in this direction, but with strong hesitation.

The history of refugee crises tells us that even if the problem that caused them to move is solved, refugees are not likely to return very quickly.

While all eyes are on the talks in Geneva these days, few are naive to think that the refugees in Jordan will be returning to Syria very soon. The need to address some of their basic rights, including the right to work, cannot be delayed any longer.

One issue that surfaced recently is of allowing Syrian refugees to work in newly developed Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ).  This is not a good idea and will not solve the problem.

The current QIZs face problems, have faced them for a while, and so this proposal does not sound wise.

Furthermore, no matter how big these zones are and how much an investment is required for them, they will not solve the problem of 1.3 million Syrians.

A more logical and doable solution would simply be to allow Syrians to work throughout the country. 

They proved that they have entrepreneurship skills and will most certainly help create new jobs for their people and for fellow Jordanians.

How Jordan positions itself vis-à-vis foreign guests will be important in shaping the country’s future.

There are conservative forces in Jordan that are advocating the idea of keeping Syrians in camps and denying the right to work to the majority of those outside camps.

Not only is this a bad idea, it is not workable either.

At present, tens of thousands of Syrians are in fact working, without their work being monitored or regulated.

Knowing that they are not allowed to work allows employers to take advantage of them. Many are working under the national minimum wage of JD190 per month. Almost all are working without social security benefits and health insurance.

Many of these problems will be resolved once a decision is made to allow them to work and give them work permits. 

The challenge facing Jordanian officials in dealing with such a large guest population is enormous.

The international community must step up and help share some of the burden, but Jordan also needs to face up to the reality that these refugees are going to be here for years to come.

The sooner realistic, doable and humane decisions are made about their future the better for all concerned.

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