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Syrian refugees’ economic plight deepens as Jordan lifts COVID-19 restrictions

Though Jordan is lifting its coronavirus restrictions, Syrian refugees still find themselves out of work and struggling to survive.

12 July 2020

AMMAN — Every day, Muhammad spends hours looking for a job in Jordan’s capital city, Amman. After searching “to no avail,” his mother Umm Muhammad told Syria Direct, he returns home to share with his parents “the worries of finding a way to secure our daily expenses, and fear of financial difficulty that could cause us to be thrown out of our[rented] home.”

Since arriving in Jordan in 2013 after fleeing the city of Moadamiyet a-Sham in Reef Dimashq province, Umm Muhammad’s family had lived in good financial circumstances, compared with other Syrian refugees in Jordan. But recently, due to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the family lost its two sources of income: Umm Muhammad’s husband’s work at a tourism and travel company and her son’s job at a sweets factory. While the family receives some support from UNHCR, “food aid amounting to 75 Jordanian dinars [$105],” said Umm Muhammad, “it is not enough to cover our needs.”

In the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, Adnan Basheer, who sought refuge in Jordan after leaving Syria’s southern Quneitra province, faces similar economic circumstances. Since losing his job this past March, the 35-year-old father of four has been unable to find another, and had received no compensation from his boss during the period of the lockdown, he told Syria Direct. Basheer is not covered by a program run by Jordan’s Social Security Corporation (SSC), Musaned, that was launched by the government to support unemployed, non-Jordanian workers. “I am not enrolled in the SSC” said Basheer, “and I don’t have a work permit in the first place.” 

Nonetheless, he expressed sympathy for his former employer. “His calamity is bigger than my own. I lost a job, but he closed his store and lost his investment during the current crisis.”

According to the UNHCR representative in Jordan, Dominic Barch, “the percentage of refugees in need of direct financial support has greatly increased during the latest months as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.” A UNHCR survey revealed that “one-third of refugees who were working previously are now out of work,” Barch added. 

A source from a Jordanian civil society organization that works with Syrian refugees warned that the impact of the COVID-19 is “so large that it is not possible to measure or know its scale until now.” Speaking to Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to the media, the source said that their organization is still “at a stage of sharing data with other organizations and analyzing it to learn the extent of the crisis.” 

Refugee camps

The Jordanian government has allowed Syrians in refugee camps to work outside of them since 2017. Before that, scores of Syrians worked outside the camps illegally. 

But on March 15, as part of government measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, all movement into and out of the camps was banned. As a result, Ibrahim al-Hourani (a pseudonym), who has lived in the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan since 2012, lost his job at a metalworking shop in the nearby city of Mafraq.

Although the estimated 120,000 Syrian refugees living in official camps in Jordan receive housing and free services such as healthcare and humanitarian aid, the ais “is not enough to meet our daily needs,” said Hourani, a 32-years-old father of two. “Anyone who doesn’t work, even inside the camp, can’t secure his family’s needs,” he added. Since losing his job, al-Hourani has resorted to borrowing money to cover daily costs, as “finding a job inside the camp has become a fantasy.” 

Rahaf Adel (a pseudonym) was better off than her peers in the camps, as  she was able to continue her work as a teacher online during the months-long lockdown imposed by the Jordanian government in mid-March. But at the beginning of June, Adel was notified by the international organization that implements the educational project she works on that it was “unable to renew my contract for reasons related to reduced support and a lack of organizational capacity to renew the project,” she told Syria Direct. Adel has been officially out of work since the beginning of July. 

As is the case for most refugees, Adel, who used to receive 120 JD ($170) per month, shares her suffering with others, as she is the only provider for her family of five. For those in a refugee camp, “it is not allowed for more than one person to work on a single UNHCR document,” she said. 

“The cash for work program is a voluntary program implemented in the camps that stipulates that one family member works, to provide work for everyone in the camps,” Muhammad Hawari, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Jordan, told Syria Direct. However, “work permits in the Jordanian job market are not limited to only one person per family. Any individual who is of legal age can enter the market and get a permit within the conditions of the Jordanian Ministry of Labor,” Hawari added. 

Still, even though Jordan began to ease its precautionary measures in early June—by opening more economic sectors and allowing movement between the country’s provinces—the ban on leaving and entering the refugee camps, according to multiple sources confirmed, remains in effect.  

But “even if exiting the camps was allowed, there are still other challenges for workers living there,” one official at an international organization told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. Workers living in the camps “are allowed to leave with a work permit. But for dozens of them, their work permits expired during the lockdown or are about to expire,” the official added. 

Beyond economic impact

Umm Muhammad’s life as a refugee had always resembled her life in the past, as she continued to manage the household with her husband. But her family’s financial situation did not use to occupy as much of her thinking as it does today. Her husband and son losing work placed her “in the center of the problem,” as she described. “Alongside my family’s deteriorating financial conditions, which is also reflected in my husband’s health,” said Umm Muhammad, “I find myself compelled to find a solution, but at the same time unable to do so.”

In addition to being forced to “go without meat and fruit,” Umm Muhammad added that what is most difficult is to stand helpless before the requests of her daughter, who is five years old. 

Rahaf described similar helplessness in the face of her children’s needs. She also referred to another important aspect of the lack of permission to leave the camp. This “deprives children of the option of visiting relatives outside the camp, or spending time away from its atmosphere,” she said. 

In this context, Basheer believes that “the impact of job loss goes beyond the economic ramifications, as its impact on the family and psychological conditions may be more serious.” 

Despite all of that, it does not appear that there is any desire among refugees to return to Syria, according to UNHCR representative Barch, who considered this position understandable. Although approximately 79 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan—with 657,287 registered with UNHCR—lived under the poverty level even before COVID-19 pandemic, “the reasons that drove them to flee their country remain, and have not changed much,” according to Barch. 

For Umm Muhammad, whos husband was previously detained in the regime’s prisons and she fears now compulsory military service for her son if they were to return to Syria, there is no solution but to “get an opportunity to be resettled through the UNHCR [in a third country], so that we can live with dignity.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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