‘Economic hardship affects not only refugees, but host communities as well’


October 31, 2013

October 31, 2013

Jordan’s Ministry of Labor recently issued a decision threatening to deport any Syrians and other illegal workers who lack a permit, yet Syrians remain unable to legally attain work permits in Jordan.

Coming amidst intense competition for work, housing and resources between Jordanians and the estimated 550,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, the Ministry of Labor’s decision highlights the pressures on international humanitarian organizations to holistically support Syrian refugees in Jordan and other host countries as the war in Syria drags into its thirty-first month.

Syrian refugee

The IRC extends assistance to displaced Syrians as well as refugees in four neighboring countries. Photo courtesy of the IRC. 

The International Rescue Committee, a New York-based NGO, is working inside Syria, Jordan and other countries where Syrian refugees have congregated by providing health care, cash assistance and social services to refugee families.

Syria Direct’s Kristen Gillespie spoke with Ned Colt, the IRC’s Regional Media and Communications Manager in Amman about his fears of humanitarian fatigue and tensions between refugees and the host population.

Q:  How is it possible for the international community and host countries to sustain millions of Syrians who are not working? What are your thoughts about calling on host countries to allow refugees some sort of temporary work permits?

The IRC wants to see more support for cash assistance and livelihoods programs. These types of programs enable refugee heads of households to feed their families, pay rent, and purchase other essentials.

We also see that economic hardship affects not only refugees, but host communities as well. We’ve seen the impact of this already in Lebanon and Jordan, where both communities are struggling to find employment, and wages are being driven down. It’s one reason why the IRC ensures that both communities have access to our programming.

Q: The IRC report from earlier this year notes: “Many [refugee] children exhibit violent and aggressive behavior.” I saw this myself in Zaatari.

Can you discuss the implications the IRC sees for children who do not learn to process the traumas they have witnessed? What do their futures look like? What are you seeing from children who are missing their third year of school?

The IRC considers psychosocial support to be lifesaving. Many Syrian children have faced family upheaval and have witnessed horrifying sights; while we constantly hear about the resilience of the young, they need immediate help.

While we do believe that access to that support is improving, much more needs to be done.

A start is ensuring that children can return to school, where they can enjoy a positive routine again, providing a sense of normalcy. We all also need to do better at providing psychosocial support for Syrian children, both inside and outside the country.  

Q: The welcome that host countries have extended to Syrians is wearing thin. Yet the UN, IRC and other organizations operating on the ground note that the humanitarian crisis is intensifying. How do you reconcile these realities? Open borders, with Jordan at least, is not likely. Rather than asking what you hope will happen, what do you actually see happening?

Tensions between refugees and host communities escalate as competition increases for scarce resources like jobs, housing, access to school. While there are no easy solutions, one way to reduce these tensions is by providing similar support to both communities.

In the short term this can take the form of job training and cash assistance. But given that this will be a protracted humanitarian crisis, the international community needs to begin longer term planning. This might include supporting basic infrastructure programs (education, health, utilities and others) that reduce the competition for increasingly scarce resources. 

Q: Do you feel the scope of the humanitarian crisis is understood in the West and that it is being taken seriously?

Sadly, there is always concern about “humanitarian fatigue.” We see it in a number of the conflict and post-conflict countries and regions where we work.

Humanitarian support for Syria must be the priority. With 7 million Syrians in-country needing support, and more than two million refugees, it’s no wonder that the IRC is calling for a “humanitarian surge.”

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