• Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan remain largely excluded from the employment market in those countries.

• The pandemic has hit the informal sector, where many are forced to make a living.

• Host countries must lift legal barriers, and international community increase donations.

With the conflict in Syria now having entered its 10th year, 7.1 million Syrians remain displaced in neighbouring countries, and the crisis has become one of the largest anywhere in the world. Today, the international donor community, host governments and UN agencies will meet at the fourth Brussels “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” Conference to once again work towards finding a political solution to the crisis – and pledge further support for those whose lives have been torn apart by it.

In 2016, five years after the conflict in Syria began, the first iteration of today’s conference took place in London, where world leaders met to raise funds and set ambitious goals to support refugees caught up in the Syrian crisis as well as the countries hosting them.

Two countries of particular focus were Jordan and Lebanon, which between them host 2.8 million Syrian refugees. Concrete agreements, known as “compacts”, were reached with both countries, and $12 billion in funding was pledged over five years. These compacts were a potentially game-changing combination of funding provided through grants and concessional loans that, linked to national policy reforms, would increase jobs, protection and education for Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities.

A new report launched by the International Rescue Committee, A Decade in Search of Work, shows that while global support for Jordan and Lebanon continues, the ambition of the compacts to increase refugee inclusion has not yet been fully realized.

As things stand, 78% of Syrian refugees in Jordan and 73% in Lebanon live below the poverty line, and the majority rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. Restrictive laws and policies in both countries limit their ability to enter employment – and, though some steps have been taken by both governments to address these challenges, they have not yet gone far enough.

Syrian refugees in Jordan have limited work opportunities
Syrian refugees in Jordan have limited work opportunities
Image: UNHCR

For example, work permits are a requirement for refugees and they are extremely hard to come by. Permits need to be sponsored by a national employer and are restricted to a very limited number of sectors, due to the high levels of unemployment among the host populations. This is only one obstacle among many that exist for refugees to reap the benefits of what is outlined in the compacts.

Though it was a positive step in 2018 when Syrian refugees in Jordan were given permission to start home-based businesses in certain sectors, very few have so far registered due to the need for a valid passport – which 95% of them do not have. There are also limitations to starting businesses outside the home, including the need to enter into a joint venture with a Jordanian partner.

In Lebanon, refugees are not permitted to start a business without legal residency – and the vast majority do not have this. Businesses in both countries therefore largely remain informal, and owners are limited in their ability to access formal financial assistance meaning they can neither grow their business, nor protect it.

To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide curfews have meant that many refugees, often operating in informal sectors, have had to close businesses, lost work opportunities and are unable to earn enough to support their families.

The distribution of Syrian refugees in Lebanon
The distribution of Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Image: UNHCR

To enable the full potential of refugees and to enhance their contribution to boosting each country’s economy, the IRC report outlines three key things that need to happen.

First, the international community should increase its financial support to both countries, and continue to tie it to national policy reforms that improve labour market access and entrepreneurship opportunities – for both refugees (of all nationalities) and vulnerable host communities.

Second, Jordan and Lebanon should remove legal barriers and extend livelihood opportunities to increase the self-reliance of both refugee and host populations. This has become even more urgent with the COVID-19 pandemic. National policy reforms must be implemented in both countries to address the legal barriers refugees face in accessing jobs and business opportunities.

Third, donors must provide additional funding to support refugee and host populations who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. This should be in the form of immediate cash assistance for those most in need, including cash grants for entrepreneurs to cover fixed costs while they are out of business. Additionally, long-term, multi-year livelihoods funding for NGOs is required to enhance economic recovery, grow small businesses and support refugees to become self-reliant.

Most refugees want to return home to Syria in the long-term, but the vast majority cannot do so in the foreseeable future. As the global focus is fixed on events in other parts of the world, refugees remain stuck in a system that continues to hold them back; there is a real risk that they will be forgotten about – despite their needs continuing to grow. With the economic effects of the pandemic, they are being stretched beyond their limits, and many have already reached their breaking point.

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Today’s conference is an opportunity to address this. Now more than ever, donors and refugee hosting governments should urgently take action to prevent them from being plunged further into poverty, and support refugees and vulnerable host communities to navigate their way towards sustainable economic recovery.