Failing to Provide: An overview of the right to work in the context of Syrian refugees in Jordan

By Britanny Vanderhoof

Since the conflict in Syria began, over four million people have fled and are living as refugees in host countries. Humanitarian aid has been inconsistent and cuts to assistance programs have had devastating impacts on refugees. Refugees, although living safely in host countries, may face poverty, little or no access to medical care, and few educational opportunities. The situation is causing people to lose hope and forcing families to make the impossible decision of remaining in their current situation, risking return to Syria, or attempting to make the perilous journey to Europe. 

No one solution will address all of the challenges faced by Syrian refugees. However, allowing Syrians to work is one step that could help alleviate the stresses on families described above. Allowing refugees to work would reduce their reliance on aid and increase their ability to pay for services such as medical care. Despite the necessity and importance of allowing refugees to work, Jordan has instituted policies that prevent Syrian refugees from seeking legal employment. While Jordan is not the only host country to impose this restriction (Lebanon and Turkey have also instituted barriers to employment), this article will focus on the situation in Jordan as an example of problems facing the region.  

There are currently 630,776 registered Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Most do not live in camps but instead live in towns and cities. Camps provide shelter, food, and medical care to the residents but heavily restrict freedom of movement. Thus, many refugees choose to live in urban settings where they are expected to pay rent, grocery bills, medical care, and education costs. NGOs provide some help in the form of cash assistance, food vouchers, and goods but lack the resources to meet the demand. The inability to become self-sufficient through work, coupled with the limits on NGO assistance, has left many Syrians impoverished and desperate.

For many Syrians, the restriction on their ability to seek legal employment has not stopped them from seeking it. Syrians work without permission and as a result are at risk of being forcibly returned to camps or deported back to Syria and the dangerous situation from which they are seeking refuge. The restrictions on legal employment have also meant that Syrians are vulnerable to working in poor conditions for low wages with no recourse against their employers. Families have also made the choice to send their children to work rather than to school because the children are less likely to be caught, and if they are, the penalties are not as severe. Having to work to support their families prevents children from attending school.  

Refugees working in these conditions do not benefit the host countries because wages may be driven down for everyone and refugees are at risk of becoming victims of forced labor or human trafficking.

Jordan’s domestic law provides very few protections for refugees and the right to work is only recognized for Jordanian citizens. Lacking protections under domestic law, the next place to look is international human rights law. 

The right to work is recognized in a number of international conventions. Article Twenty-three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Similarly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural (ICESCR) rights also recognizes the right to work. The right to work is specifically protected for refugees in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This convention protects the right to work in three articles. Article Seventeen defines the right to wage-earning employment, Article Eighteen provides the right to self-employment, and Article Nineteen protects the right to liberal professions.

With all the recognition of the importance on the right to work in international law, why is it that Syrian refugees have little to no access to legal employment in the countries hosting them?

Unfortunately, the Refugee Convention in this context is of little use. Jordan is not a signatory to the Convention despite having a long history of hosting refugees. Currently, a memorandum of understanding is the basis for UNHCR’s work in the country. This allows UNHCR to register refugees and provide assistance but the legal protections and rights afforded in the Refugee Convention do not apply.

Jordan is a signatory to the ICESCR, and there are processes in place for the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to consider alleged violations of the Convention. Unfortunately, Jordan has not accepted the individual complaints procedure (which allows an individual to bring a complaint) nor has it accepted the inquiries procedure (which allows the Committee to investigate a violation based upon the receipt of information about a potential violation). States may also bring a complaint of a violation against another state, but this has never been done.

Relatedly, the high percentage of child labor and the inappropriate and often dangerous types of work in which children engage implicates another human rights treaty. Jordan is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article Thirty-two requires signatories to protect children from economic exploitation and any work that “is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” A recent report released by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children documents high numbers of Syrian children working long hours and in dangerous conditions or hazardous industries. Not only do many children work in dangerous conditions, but many children are exploited in commercial sex, organized child begging, and other forms of labor trafficking. The report also notes that many jobs children work have resulted in injury- in some cases very serious injuries. Because so many children need to work to help support their families, they cannot attend school and are at risk of becoming a “lost generation.” Jordan has not accepted the individual complaint procedure for alleged violations of the CRC.

Despite the recognition of legal protections, there is no real opportunity for Syrians to assert or seek redress for a violation of their labor rights. Unfortunately, the inability to hold states accountable for failure to fulfill their obligations under human rights treaties is not limited to the situations outlined in this article. This is a problem with the international human rights framework generally. Without a system for recourse, Syrians must rely on the Jordanian government to help them or for other countries to apply enough pressure to persuade the Jordanian government to lift restrictions on the right to work. This would alleviate burdens on families, and would hopefully reduce the reliance on child labor, although the failure to protect children from economic exploitation should also be specifically addressed. Until this happens, Syrians will continue to struggle to survive in Jordan and, if current trends continue, will continue to make the risky decision to return to Syria or attempt to seek refuge in Europe.