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Deprived of Right to Work, Refugees Struggle to Subsist Outside Syria

Barred from legal work, many Syrian refugees are forced to labor in the informal economy for little pay.

As masses of Syrian refugees continue to flood Europe, paranoia is running high. Hungary built a fence designed to repel the newcomers, and a transnational brawl has ensued over how many of these forced migrants should be accepted by whom. Even in the United States, just how much of a welcome the refugees should receive is hotly contested. Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump brazenly told one audience, “I’m putting the people on notice who are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back.”

Trump’s outrage is a bit laughable given that the United States has received only about 1,500 Syrian refugees to date – compared to more than 1 million each in Lebanon and Turkey and 629,000 in Jordan. Meanwhile, Germany has received 98,700 applications for asylum and Sweden has received 64,700.

Also see: “Economic Migrants” Getting Bad Rap in Refugee Debate

One of the most common objections is that refugees and migrants rob already established citizens of jobs and income. As a result, politicians frequently lobby to build walls and, once immigrants are in, to prevent or limit them from working. For example, the United Kingdom bars refugees from working while their cases are processed, which can take years. If they work even informally and are caught, refugees lose their benefits. Other countries, like Australia, place newly arrived migrants in mandatory, offshore detention centers (a policy that, by some estimates, costs the country more than $1 billion a year, or about $119,000 per asylum seeker).

Meanwhile, in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, on the receiving end of the true brunt of the Syrian mass exit, refugees are not allowed to work at all, forcing them to find jobs “under the table” in the informal labor market. The International Labor Organization estimates that 92 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are working “informally”; 88 percent are forced to take unskilled or semiskilled jobs; and 56 percent find work only on a seasonal, weekly or daily basis. Their average monthly income: $277.

Syrians Flee From Violence to Poverty

Consider the situation of Dalia Swaid, her husband Abdullah and their three sons, Hadi, now 13, Mohammed, 12, and Taym, 6. Dalia Swaid’s WhatsApp profile reads, “I left my soul there.” Her photo is of a peaceful backyard garden in Homs, Syria, not too far from the northern border with Lebanon. In fact, on clear days, she can almost make out where her small farm used to be from her gloomy little room in Bire.

The family used to have a comfortable life. Dalia taught school and Abdullah, who had retired early from the military, raised chickens. Her garden and grapevines were her pride and joy. Then the civil war broke out, and in July 2013, she traveled to Lebanon to visit relatives with her youngest son. “It was getting so hard there, we just needed a break,” she recalled.

Ten days later, however, Abdullah called and said, “Don’t come back.” She knew why. Dalia could see and hear the bombing. Several other men in town still served in the military and had decided not to report for duty. The Syrian Army retaliated. Fortunately, friends warned Abdullah and he was able to bribe his way across the border with their other two sons. “Most of the people in our village could not afford to pay and died,” Dalia said.

At first after arriving in Lebanon, the family stayed in a cramped shelter with 21 other people. Their situation improved a little when a sympathetic Lebanese man hired Dalia informally (without a contract) to teach English in his private school. Dalia teaches the Lebanese students during the first shift for $200 a month, then teaches Syrian refugee children in the afternoons and early evenings for free.

She is one of the few fortunate Syrians to work in a decent job. However, the family is always scrambling for money because her husband infrequently finds work doing construction. The only other income they receive is a “nutrition card” from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees worth just $13 a month per person. Compare that income to their expenses: rent of $250 a month and an estimated $400 a month for food for her family of five and Abdullah’s elderly parents, who live in a concrete-slab room nearby. The elderly couple passes their days in a depressed haze, after learning that one of their sons and a grandson, who had stayed behind in Syria to try to protect their farm, were killed in a random bombing.

“Sometimes we go many days without even a dollar,” Dalia said.

Making their situation even worse is the fact that their permits to live in Lebanon have expired, and seeking renewal would mean signing a pledge not to work.

“They don’t want us here, even when we die,” she said. “Abdullah’s uncle just died. He was old and sick. But [the authorities] said Syrians are not allowed to be buried here! What were we to do? Finally, a little village far away agreed to take him.”

Is Working a Right?

A right to seek employment is clearly laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stated,

Restricting the rights of refugees and delaying the attainment of durable solutions for years causes frustration and tension among refugees and in the host community. In such situations refugees … become more vulnerable to various forms of exploitation such as trafficking and forced recruitment, and may develop a long-term dependency on humanitarian assistance. Often, the result is the marginalization and isolation of refugees, which can lead to an increase in irregular movements and even to security and stability problems for the host state, as well as for other states in the region.

Beyond that, however, it’s also in receiving countries’ best interests to allow refugees to work. As Erik Jones, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, told The Washington Post, “It might seem counterintuitive, but the countries that take the longest to process refugees and have the tightest restrictions on them end up paying the most per refugee.” He and other researchers insist that refugees have a far better impact on the local economy if they are allowed to work – and quickly. Countries like Lebanon, however, have not learned that lesson.

Consider the Palestinians, refugees who have been “warehoused” for the longest period in history: more than 60 years. A 2010 survey by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the American University of Beirut found that only 38 percent of working-age Palestinian refugees are employed and, largely as a consequence, 66 percent of all Palestinians in Lebanon are so poor they cannot meet their basic needs (compared to 35 percent of Lebanese). Even those who secure jobs (half of whom are employed by another Palestinian and a quarter, inside the refugee camps) are largely confined to retail and construction or are underpaid. Fifty percent of Palestinian workers make less than $360 a month.

Why is this? Although 90 percent of Palestinians of working age in Lebanon were born in the country, they are subjected to legal regulations governing foreign workers. Thus, permits are legally required for Palestinians to work (although, since they are commonly waived for “under-the-table” jobs such as construction, only 2 percent of Palestinian employees have them), and benefits such as health care are not provided. In addition, Palestinians are prohibited from practicing 25 professions – including medicine, engineering and law (except for inside refugee camps) – due to membership restrictions imposed by national syndicates. Palestinians also are prohibited from starting their own businesses outside the camps, forcing them to work for Lebanese employers.

Consider the case of Zeinab Hajj, who lives in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp and is one of the fortunate, professionally employed Palestinians. Hajj supports both her mother and two sisters on her salary as an assistant secretary at an aluminum extrusion company. Initially, Hajj worked “informally,” without a permit. When government inspectors would visit, she was forced to hide. However, as the quality of her work led to increasing responsibilities and value to the company, a permit was eventually secured. What did not change, however, is her title and pay band. After 10 years on the job, Hajj is doing the work of an executive secretary, but she can rise no further than the ceiling imposed by her status as a Palestinian refugee.

“I have no chance for promotion, despite the fact that I am already doing a higher job,” she said. “But what can I do? I have to live.”

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