Ask the average person to imagine the kind of place refugees live in and they’d probably picture somewhere with lots of tents or containers, like Jordan’s Za’atari camp.
But this image is far from the reality for most refugees. In fact, only 20% of the over 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan live in camps. This proportion is even lower for the region as a whole, at just 10%.
I’m in Jordan now, attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, which has the ongoing refugee crisis on its agenda. Given that any decisions should directly address the priorities of refugees – most of whom reject living in camps and opt for life in the city instead – we need to understand their perspectives if we’re to find appropriate answers to their challenges.
These challenges are many. I found myself talking to a group of young girls in Za’atari who dreamed of becoming engineers, teachers or poets, but struggled to see a future beyond the camp. One young girl spoke of Nobel laureate scientist Ahmed Zewail being her role model, but sadly there will be little on offer in Za’atari for her to continue her science studies and develop her skills.
Whilst at Za’atari’s Champs-Élysées, shopkeepers spoke of the problems they faced trying to make a success of their businesses, and of how people often end up working informally because of the cost of a work permit.
These stories echo what we’ve heard in Turkey and elsewhere in Jordan. People’s situations vary with their gender, age and wealth, but even so, there are patterns in the concerns and aspirations voiced by most Syrian refugees.
Living in limbo
In the Jordanian city of Zarqa, we interviewed refugees who found themselves torn between trying to get a work permit, working illegally without one, or not working at all and relying on assistance.
Even the seemingly positive measure of making more work permits available has caused anxiety among refugees who fear that it means they’ll soon lose their assistance. In any case, most refugees don’t think they will personally benefit from having a work permit.
Those with black market jobs risk getting caught by the Jordanian authorities, pushing them into working at night or over the weekend to avoid patrols. The fear of deportation is constant.
Employment-related anxieties are just one of the reasons why Syrian refugees feel unsettled. Few see a future for themselves in Jordan and most want to return home once it’s safe to do so.
Employment-related anxieties are just one of the reasons why Syrian refugees feel unsettled. Few see a future for themselves in Jordan and most want to return home once it’s safe to do so. As one girl compellingly put it yesterday: ‘We will learn, we will improve and we will rebuild our country’. Another said: ‘Even if we can’t go back, we’ll rebuild it from wherever we are’. Some feel drawn to Europe, despite the dangers and costs of the journey, fuelled by a commitment to build better lives for their families.
Families keep each other going
Amidst all this uncertainty, family and friends are bedrocks of support for refugees. Most of the refugees we spoke to in Zarqa moved to the city because their relatives were already there. Demonstrating the overriding importance of kinship, few said they were attracted by Zarqa’s industrial jobs and affordability.
People go to extraordinary lengths to support their loved ones, but families can’t do everything for each other. For a start, they simply don’t have the money. Neither can they apply to extend work permits or issue residency cards. With families doing all they can but still coming up short, refugees clearly need more support.
Time to reframe the response
Governments and aid agencies tend to provide emergency assistance when people are first displaced, which then eventually tails off. This assumes that refugees become increasingly resilient as time goes on, but this trajectory is uneven at best.
Refugees move in and out of crisis and can fall into considerable hardship even years down the line. They rack up debt. It’s difficult for them to access healthcare. If a breadwinner has an accident or a family member gets sick, they usually don’t have anything to fall back on.
Refugees need aid agencies and governments to diversify their response to the crisis by implementing long-term strategies that support livelihoods.
The humanitarian response needs to better reflect this constant state of flux and reassess the need for assistance on a regular basis. More importantly though, refugees need aid agencies and governments to diversify their response to the crisis by implementing long-term strategies that support livelihoods and go beyond short-term emergency measures.
Part of this would involve rethinking how we can help refugees find a future for themselves in Jordan’s cities. Rather than just odd jobs beneath their skill level, refugees should be helped into careers that benefit the economy of the country that hosts them, and its citizens too. Businesses have a critical role to play in generating these opportunities for refugees and Jordanians alike, if an employment crisis is to be averted and social cohesion is to be maintained.
Refugees want to do much more than just survive. They want to live in safety and dignity, and build a future for their families within a community they feel a part of.
Refugees want to do much more than just survive. They want to live in safety and dignity, and build a future for their families within a community they feel a part of. Decision-makers and businesses across the Middle East and beyond must use the opportunity of the World Economic Forum’s MENA Summit to find ways to make these fundamental aspirations a reality.