Empowerment through Development? Towards a Political Critique of the ‘Jordan Compact’

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

By Alexander Burlin

This paper examines the effectiveness of development-based refugee policy in addressing protracted displacement challenges by evaluating at the impact of the Jordan Compact, a 2016 multi-stakeholder policy agreement that promised to turn the Syrian ‘refugee crisis’ in Jordan into a ‘development opportunity’ through a series of macroeconomic schemes, access-oriented initiatives, and supply-side interventions. Three years since the Compact was issued, there are little indications that development strategies have contributed to refugee empowerment, and Syrians continue to suffer from extreme levels of socio-economic marginalization. While recent scholarship has pointed out the ‘decontextualized’ nature of the Compact’s development programs, this literature has largely reiterated the need for economic development in general, and that of formal employment in particular. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Jordan during summer 2018, I show how labour formalization is an inadequate tool to address the economic disempowerment of Syrians. While informal employment is part of the equation, the socio-economic marginalization of Syrians is a product of a larger set of legal and political challenges, most importantly the failure of the Jordanian host state in offering adequate refugee protection. To address the discrimination, abuse, and economic exploitation of Syrians in Jordan, policy makers will thus need to address the overarching structures that contribute to refugee disempowerment. This includes adopting a rights-based approach to displacement management that strives for increased levels of refugee protection as well as long-term durable solutions for all Syrian refugees.


Although the global refugee regime has traditionally looked to repatriation, local integration, and resettlement as the preferred ‘durable solutions’ to refugee crises, a growing number of refugee responses rely on ad hoc, temporary solutions that put refugees in a state of suspended displacement, what Sandi Hilal and Nasser Abourahme (2018) have called the ‘permanent temporariness’ of refugeehood [1]. By the end of 2018, 15.9 million refugees were in protracted refugee situations (UNHCR 2019a). As displacement crises have become increasingly protracted, development planning has emerged as a central feature of most humanitarian responses. Indeed, during the past decade the refugee regime can be said to have entered a new phase of displacement management, in which humanitarian assistance is seen as inseparable from development aid, and where refugee responses are to be organized around a ‘humanitarian-development nexus’ (Gabiam 2016: 383). Instead of humanitarian subjects in need of legal and political protection, refugees are increasingly seen as socio-economic agents in needs of market reforms, job creation, and economic growth.

As ‘the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time’ (UNHCR 2019b), the Syrian refugee crisis has played a critical role in instigating the development phase of the refugee regime, serving as a backdrop for some of the past years’ most important multilateral policy discussions and processes, including the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the 2016 New York Declaration and the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees. By acting as a laboratory for development-based refugee policy, the Syrian crisis has allowed donors, NGOs and host countries to experiment with new strategies and techniques for displacement management, which have subsequently been codified in the form of regional and national policy agreements. One such agreement is the Jordan Compact, a multi-stakeholder policy document that promised to turn the ‘refugee crisis’ in Jordan into a ‘development opportunity’ through a series of macroeconomic schemes, access-oriented initiatives, and supply-side interventions (Government of Jordan 2016b). The Compact was hailed as ‘a new paradigm’ in displacement management, and, following its issuance in 2016, it has been exported as a ‘globalized blueprint’ to be imposed on other refugee crises in the Global South, such as the Eritrean refugee crisis in Ethiopia (Lenner and Turner 2018: 76).

Despite the grand expectations on the Jordan Compact much points to it having had a limited impact for Syrian refugees, most of whom continue to suffer from extreme levels of marginalization, both in socio-economic terms and other wise. In view of this, this paper examines the effectiveness of development-based refugee policy in addressing protracted displacement challenges by looking at the case of Syrian refugees in Jordan. It begins by providing a history of the Jordan Compact and a summary of its results so far. It then moves on to a brief review of the academic critique that has been published on the Compact over the past three years. While this literature has pointed out some of the barriers that exist to the economic empowerment of Syrians, relatively little has been said about the interaction between development programming and the legal and political context of refugeehood. Here, I argue that Syrian marginalization is not just a product of ‘economic underdevelopment’, but more so the lack of a strong protection regime. The intersection of socio-economic, civil and political rightlessness for refugees in Jordan limit the benefit Syrians have gained from the Jordan Compact, which treats development and refugee empowerment exclusively in economic terms.

My analysis is largely based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Jordan during the summer of 2018. Over the course of two months, I completed semi-structured interviews with thirty-five Syrian refugees in Amman and Irbid. In addition to this, I completed eleven interviews with NGO workers and one interview with a government representative. My fieldwork was also informed by approximately 100 hours of participant observation where I would learn about the lives of with Syrian refugees in more informal settings. The majority of the interviews were conducted in Arabic, with a small amount being conducted in English, and most were sampled using a so-called ‘snowballing technique’. Whenever possible and appropriate, I would record these interviews on a tape recorder, provided that consent was given. When I was not able to record, I would take notes that were transcribed when the interview was finished. To protect the anonymity of my interlocutors, all names in this article are fabricated.

The Jordan Compact: From Idea to Implementation

Eight years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Syrian refugee crisis remains the world’s largest displacement crisis, accounting for more than 5.6 million refugees and 6.6 million internally displaced persons (UNHCR 2019b). Jordan has taken in the second most refugees per capita after Lebanon, and currently hosts more than 660,600 Syrian refugees (UNHCR 2019c) [2]. As a laboratory of displacement management, the country has become a site of contested visions and widespread policy debate. In the beginning of the refugee crisis, the international response was characterized by an emphasis on emergency relief, such as ‘the registration anddocumentation of new arrivals, basic protection, and life-saving activities’ (UNHCR 2013). As time passed, however, the growing scale of these operations would connect various discourses, practices, and geopolitical interests, leading to a shift in refugee policy. In 2015, security, economic, and political concerns over an ‘EU migrant crisis’ increased European stakes in managing the Syrian refugee crisis, and caused leaders to push for ‘non-entrée’ policies in the Mediterranean and ‘strategies of containment’ [3] in sending countries (Moreno-Lax 2018; Zaragoza-Cristiani 2017; Dahlman 2016). At the same time, Jordan began to put on heavier demands for increased levels of burden-sharing and more international aid, raising concerns of a growing ‘refugee burden’ at home. To prevent a systemic meltdown both in Europe and Syria’s neighbouring countries, the governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, and Kuwait announced the invitation for a two day United Nations conference to respond to the ‘needs of all those affected by the Syria crisis within the country itself and by supporting neighboring countries’ (Government of the United Kingdom 2015).

The London Conference, as it would later be referred to, was held in the beginning of February 2016. It sought to resolve some of the contradicting interests between Jordan and the EU – neither who were happy to host Syrian refugees – by facilitating what Rawan Arar (2017) has called a ‘grand new compromise’. The compromise was launched on February 7, 2016, in the form of a three-page policy document named the Jordan Compact. On one hand, the Compact represented a bargain over increased burden-sharing. The Jordanian government agreed to continue hosting Syrian refugees – as well as giving them more opportunities for work and education – in exchange for new international trade agreements and pledges of $1.7 billion in grants and concessional financing [4]. On the other, the Compact sought to ‘[turn] the Syrian refugee crisis intro a development opportunity’ (Government of Jordan 2016b). Drawing on the work of development economists and refugee scholars such as Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, the Compact promised a new paradigm in displacement management, moving away from short-term, humanitarian assistance, and towards ‘promoting economic development and opportunities to the benefit of Jordanians and Syrian refugees’ (Ibid). In doing so, there was also an expectation that development planning would help to keep Syrians from crossing the Mediterranean. As an article in the Economist noted, ‘if refugees have reasons to stay, fewer will risk the trek to Europe’ (2016).

To address the refugee crisis the Jordan Compact called for the implementation of a specific set of development strategies. To stimulate economic growth and create new jobs, the World Bank Group (WBG) were to administer soft loans of concessional terms to ‘support Jordan’s efforts to improve the investment climate, attract investors, reform the country’s labor market’ (WBG 2016). Similarly, the European Union acceded to simplify its Rules of Origin [5] for businesses operating in certain Special Economic Zones (SEZs), in order to increase foreign export and economic activity (European Council 2016). As part of the Compact, the Jordanian government also promised to give Syrian refugees access to education and employment opportunities. A total of $181,196,240 were to be allocated to improving ‘formal education for refugees in both camps and host communities’ (Government of Jordan 2016a) and the government agreed to certain ‘administrative changes’ that would open up for 200,000 Syrian work permits in a five sectors of the formal economy (Government of Jordan 2016b) [6]. Finally, the Jordan Compact sought to improve the economic situation for Syrian refugees through a focus on supply-side interventions, such as new programs for ‘entrepreneurship development’ and ‘demand-based vocational training, job-matching, and apprenticeship [training]’ (Government of Jordan 2016b: 20, 106 [7].

Since the issuance of the Jordan Compact in February 2016, the Compact has helped facilitate increased levels of international aid, including earmarked funding for the Jordanian government and the host community. As part of the Compact, for example, the donor community agreed to finance the 2016-2018 Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis (JRP), in which approximately 40% of all international aid ($3,201,328,798) were to be allocated in the form of direct budget support (Government of Jordan 2016a). Similarly, the Jordan Compact increased the focus on, and financial support to, the Jordanian host community, emphasizing that the majority of the pledges made during the London conference were for ‘priorities outlined in the resilience component of [the JRP] targeting host communities’ (Government of Jordan 2016b) [8]. By opening up for concessional loans the Jordan Compact has facilitated another form of financial support to the government, including a $1.4 billion World Bank loan to mitigate foreign public debt (Jordan Times 2019). Initiatives led by other institutions, such as the Neighborhood Investment Facility (NIF) and the European Investment Bank (EIB), have also helped fund large-scale investments in Jordan’s infrastructure, including a €87.5 million loan to reinforce Jordan’s energy transmission grids and to strengthen the national power supply (Dodd 2016).

In terms of development programming, however, most of the Compact’s macroeconomic targets have not yet been met. The export-oriented schemes, for instance, have largely failed to increase the economic output of the SEZs. By July 2018, not a single Jordanian factory had scaled up exports to the EU under the revised trade agreement. Similarly, the Jordan Chamber of Industry (JCI) was not aware of any corporations having increased or initiated their activity in the SEZs between 2016 and 2018 (JCI Researcher, Interview, July 2018). As for Syrian refugees, an analysis of the standard of living points to a continued lack of socio-economic empowerment in the post-Compact period. As of December 2018, 85% of Syrians in Jordan lived below the poverty threshold of 68 dinars (approx. $96) a month and longitudinal data suggests no positive changes in the past three years (UNHCR 2018) [9]. In fact, household income has decreased for almost half of all Syrians since the Jordan Compact was adopted, and today around a quarter of all refugees suffer from severe food insecurity (Tiltnes et al. 2018: 48, 59). In terms of access to education, enrolment saw an increase for refugees aged 14-15 between 2016 and 2018, but there were no significant changes in secondary or higher education (Ibid., 10). Perhaps, the most successful program targeting Syrians has been the work formalization scheme, with the Ministry of Labour having issued 50,000-60,000 new work permits for Syrians by the end of 2018 [10]. Nevertheless, this number only represents around 25-30% of the initial target of 200,000 work permits, and as most of the issued permits have been given to formalize pre-existing jobs they do not indicate to an increase in employment per se (Buffoni, Interview, July 2018).

The Compact in Critical Literature

Although the Jordan Compact promised to turn the refugee crisis into a development opportunity, the impact of development-based refugee policy has been limited, especially when measured in terms of Syrian empowerment. In view of this, much of the recent scholarship on the Syrian crisis in Jordan has looked at whythe Jordan Compact yielded such ambivalent results. Echoing the works of development scholars such as David Mosse and John Brohman, this body of literature often attributes the Compact’s lack of success to an ignorance, or neglect, of the specific challenges posed by the local context. Katharina Lenner and Lewis Turner, for instance, argue that economic development programs have ‘neglected core features of Jordan’s political economy and labor market’, such as the dominance of the informal labour market (2018: 1). Similarly, Daniel Howden, Hannah Patchett and Charlotte Alfred’s (2017) analysis of ‘the Compact experiment’ argues that the revised EU-Jordan trade agreement underestimated specific challenges posed by the economic climate, and actually posed an economic burden on participating businesses. As both pieces indicate, there is a need to revise the Compact’s macroeconomic schemes for economic growth and job creation and make these more attuned to the reality on the ground.

In analyzing the continued disempowerment of Syrians, much of the critique of the Jordan Compact has also centered on the question of work permits, labor market participation, and the social, bureaucratic and economic obstacles to labour formalization. Writing on Syrian refugee women’s participation in the labour market, for example, Laura Buffoni (2018) notes that only 4% of all work permits have been issued to women. This is largely due to the fact that these permits are issued in male-dominated sectors, such as agriculture and construction, whereas Syrian women are more inclined to work in home-based businesses, including food production. A better approach, Buffoni argues, would center refugee women’s voices and interests in the design process to adequately cater to their needs. Similarly, Cindy Huang and Kate Gough have suggested that the Compact needs to ‘prioritize policies and programs that fit the local context and met the needs of refugee and host populations’, by, inter alia, ‘expanding the sub-sectors Syrian refugees are permitted to work in’ (2019). While Lenner and Turner (2018: 22) do not advocate for specific strategies to increase labour formalization, they do note that the lack of incentives for issuing work permits leaves Syrians suffering from precarious forms of informalized employment.

Although critical of the method of policy implementation, the academic literature on the Jordan Compact has largely reiterated the developmental dogma that formal employment and economic interventions will lead to refugee empowerment. To tackle the economic disempowerment of Syrians, policy makers should strive to accelerate economic growth, open up for new job opportunities, and increase the number of work permits. In making this critique, however, many scholars have overlooked or neglected some of the broader constraints upon refugee empowerment in Jordan. Thus, the remainder of this paper seeks to situate the Jordan Compact in the legal and political context of Syrian protracted displacement, by looking specifically at the relationship between job creation, labour formalization and economic empowerment.

Economic Marginalization as a Legal and Political Issue

Despite Jordan’s long history of refugee hosting, the country has not yet established a strong legal and political framework for refugee protection. On an international level, Jordan has failed to sign onto most agreements that govern the global refugee regime, and is not a state party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol. On a regional level, the Jordanian government has not entered into agreements with any other Arab countries for a joint protection and burden-sharing strategy. While there was an attempt to do so through the 1994 Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugee, the convention was never ratified by any of the signatory parties. Most importantly, however, Jordan lacks a domestic legal framework to deal with refugees and asylum seekers [11]. While there are occasional references to refugees in the Law No. 24 of 1973 concerning Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs, these are, for the most part, extremely limited in scope, and the law does not establish a framework for granting protection, asylum, or refugee rights. As areport by the International Labor Organization (ILO) states,‘Jordan avoids the official recognition of refugees under its domestic laws’ (2015: 11).

Without a clear set of economic, civil and political rights, Syrians’ access to the formal labour market has been, and still remains, heavily restricted. Facing a lack of legal employment opportunities, refugees are often pushed to illegal work to cover even the most basic expenses for food, water, and shelter. According to some estimates, two thirds of all Syrian workers are working without authorisation (Tiltnes et al. 2018: 114). As irregular workers, Syrian refugees face a constant risk of arrest, detention, and deportation. While international law prohibits the forced return of refugees under the principle of non-refoulement, a Human Rights Report released in October 2017 showed that Jordan has been deporting as many as 400 registered Syrian refugees per month (Human Rights Watch 2017). Moreover, the government has been known to regularly detain Syrians who are found to be engaged in ‘illegal activities’ – including irregular employment – in special detention camps such as Village 5 (V-5), a barbed-wire fenced enclave in al-Azraq camp (Jordan INGO Forum 2018: 13). Like one Syrian told me, ‘you say one word wrong, and they send you straight to Azraq’ (Mazen, Interview, June 2018).

As migration scholars long have pointed out, illegality and deportability facilitate social discrimination and economic exploitation (Castles 2011; Hiemstra 2010; Willen 2007; De Genova 2002). Without formal employment contracts, Syrian workers lack legal protection in the workplace and may easily become subject to different forms of labour exploitation. Many Syrians, for instance, complained to me about the persistent phenomenon of employers withholding salaries, either as a punishment, or as a way to slim down business expenses. Since refugees tend to live month-to-month with few savings on the side, delayed or missing wages often represent a source of enormous financial distress. When talking to a Syrian named Maher, he explained to me how the situation for refugees differ from that of Jordanians and ‘expats’ [12] who are legally employed:

"The situation is stable [for Jordanians and expats]… You know, it will be efficient. They will pay you on time. In the factory, maybe they will not pay you one month. They will say they don’t have money, and they’ll pay you later. But sometimes you don’t get payed for two months... I have a house, and need to pay for food. If I don’t get paid, what will I do?"(Interview, May 2018)

Knowing that many Syrian refugees lack legal protection in the workplace, employers will frequently force Syrians to work harder, longer and faster than their Jordanian counterparts. This practice has become normalized in many businesses to the point that most local workers expect Syrians to do their part of their job as well. A Syrian named Ibrahim, for instance, described how he had been working illegally in a local supermarket for the past three years. When I asked him whether or not he had faced labour exploitation, he told me how (Jordanian) colleagues would harass him for being Syrian, and force him to do their part of the work in addition to his own:

"Like he’ll sit like this, cross legged, and tell me ‘Do this’, ‘Work’, ‘Do that’. And he’s an employee just like me. But he just sits there and gives me instructions... [And] I do it! If I would say no, he would just go to the owner and say I’m causing a problem, and I would get fired. Because he’s from here (ʿashān huwwa ibn al-balad) he can do these things."

(Interview, June 2018)

Similarly, another Syrian man told me that refugees were discriminated against ‘in all jobs’, and that Syrians were often pushed to work to the brink of exhaustion by their local employers and colleagues:

"A Jordanian is hired and the workload increased for the Syrian! If you, a Jordanian, need to do five tasks, you’ll do one of them, and the rest you throw them to the Syrian. And you, a Syrian, do the work because you are frightened, you don’t have anything. The Jordanian is the one who takes the decisions. If he wants, he can tell you ‘Go home! We don’t want you, we’ll bring someone else instead.’ "

(Hazem, Interview, July 2018)

As illegal workers, Syrian refugees are regularly forced to work for wages well below the minimum wage, and can be paid as little as half compared to their Jordanian colleagues. Ibrahim’s younger brother, for instance, works 96 hours a week in a Shawarma restaurant in the outskirts of Amman, all for a meagre salary of 150 dinars (approx. $210) a month (Ibrahim, Interview, June 2018). Similarly, refugees who work in the gig economy face persistent issues with local contractors refusing to pay the agreed amount for their services. For instance, when I asked Abu Muhammed whether or not he had experienced abuse in his job as a construction worker, he nodded, and explained that it happens ‘all the time’:

"[Jordanians] will ask you to do work, and then not pay you the whole amount. They’ll tell you that ‘everything is wrong’, and they won’t pay you. For instance, we had a job for 150 dinars. We were working in this garden, and they wanted us to build some walls, and to do some repairs and such. After we finished the job, they didn't give us the money. He said we didn’t do it as agreed, we didn’t do this and that. But we finished everything according to what he had told us. He was just saying that so he wouldn’t pay us. We only got the 50 dinars which he gave us in the beginning to cover the materials. But the work we did, he didn’t pay us for. We tried talking to him afterwards, being reasonable. We said, ‘if you don’t like something, we can change it for free.’ But he refused. He insisted on ripping us off with 100 dinar (yaʾkul minna miʾat dīnār). He said, ‘if you keep talking back to me I’m going to call the police, now get out.’ "

(Interview, July 2018)

Economic disempowerment is not just a question of a lack of employment, but also what challenges Syrian refugees faceas employees. When Syrians are employed illegally they are often forced to accept whatever terms or conditions their employers impose; should they refuse, the latter can just ‘call the police.’ In this context, job creation is an inadequate strategy to combat Syrian marginalization, as it does not account for the negative impact of irregular and illegal work. In fact, while 75% of the Syrian labour force are employed in one way or another, the majority of these still live below the poverty line (c.f. Tiltnes et al. 2018: 11; UNHCR 2018). Although the relationship between illegality and economic marginalization have been noted in some of the aforementioned scholarship on the Jordan Compact – such as Lenner and Turner’s (2018) discussion of ‘precarious labour’ – most have assumed that this problem can be solved through labour formalization programs. However, as will be discussed below, illegality is a condition that extends beyond the absence of a work permit, forcing us to rethink the Compact’s developmental approach to economic empowerment.

‘The Work Permits Were Useless’: The Limited Impact of Employment Formalization

As discussed above, the economic disempowerment of Syrians is intimately linked to the absence of refugee rights. In theory, the Jordan Compact partly addresses the issue of economic rightlessness through a work permit initiative. While the scope of this program is limited (giving Syrians sector-specific permits rather than comprehensive economic rights), supporters have argued that labor formalization will contribute to economic empowerment by granting Syrians increased protection and mitigating unfair labour practices (see e.g. Huang and Gough 2019; Lenner and Turner 2018). Nevertheless, despite meeting with many of the beneficiaries of the work permit program, no Syrian I spoke to had been able to testify to experiencing any economic improvement after employment formalization. As one Syrian told me, ‘the work permits were useless’ (mā istafadna shī minhum) – the only reason Syrians had gone to get them was because ‘the government made them free of charge’ (ʿIssa, Interview, June 2018). For many Syrian workers, their employers would continue with previous patterns of exploitation, discrimination, and abuse even after receiving a work permit, treating their Syrian employees as if they were illegal workers. Abu Muhammad, for instance, described how the issue of withheld payments had continued after he had acquired a permit: ‘It’s all the same, permit or no permit it doesn’t matter (mā byikhālif)’ (Interview, July 2018).

The more time I spent around Syrian workers the more I began to understand that a lack of economic rights was not the only factor that contributed to the economic disempowerment of Syrian refugees. On the contrary, concepts like ‘informality’ and ‘illegality’ were inseparable from the broader context of social, legal, and political marginalization in Jordan. As Sarah Willen (2007: 11) has pointed out, ‘illegality’ is not just a ‘juridical and political status’, but also as a ‘sociopolitical condition’. Once, for instance, I asked Abu Muhammad whether or not the issue of withheld payments could be solved if he began to draft formal contracts with his contractors. Since he possessed a work permit, and was thus a legal worker, I resonated that this would allow him to bring contractors to court should they fail to pay the agreed-upon fees. My ignorance was quickly affirmed by Abu Muhammad, who laughed and told me that ‘even if we had a contract, we don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and if we did hire a lawyer, it wouldn’t help. [The contractors] are Jordanian, so they will get the lawyers to take their case. They have connections and money, we don’t. We’re Syrians’ (Interview, July 2018). For Abu Muhammad, it did not matter whether he had a formal permit, contract, or other papers that could ensure the legality of his work. These documents would not be able to provide adequate protection in a context where Jordanian employers and contractors wield socio-economic, legal, and political privilege that no Syrian refugee could possibly acquire. 

Another story was told to me by Jaʿfar, a Syrian refugee living in East Amman. Through a job-matching service by the ILO, he had been lucky to find employment in a factory for which he had then acquired a work permit from the Ministry of Labor (Interview, June 2018). One day, a personal engagement had forced him to take a day off, which he was entitled to according to his work contract. When it was time for his salary to be paid, however, the factory had deducted one day’s worth of wages. He subsequently raised a complaint to his Jordanian supervisor and reminded him of the terms of his contract, which specified that employers were entitled to 14 days of paid vacation. Jaʿfar’s complaint had infuriated the supervisor. He had told Jaʿfar that he ‘should know his place [as a Syrian]’ and forced him to sign a paper that he was leaving the job. When I asked Jaʿfar why he didn’t resist, he shrugged his shoulders: ‘As a Syrian, what can I do?’ As his boss knew, his ‘Syrian-ness’ made him vulnerable. By treating illegality as a conditionrather than a status,we can see how it is a product of a structural relation of power, and not a lack of a work permit.

While Syrian refugees would often speak of their economic marginalization in terms of interpersonal employer-employee relations, many of those I interviewed pointed to the fact that this experience is rooted in the lack of adequate protection offered by the host state. Abu Muhammed, for instance, initially described exploitation as a symptom of fraudulent contractors, but later extrapolated how this dynamic is rooted in the structural marginalization of Syrians in the Jordanian court room. Indeed, many Syrians described a sense of profound vulnerability vis-à-vis all government bodies, none which could be trusted to safeguard refugee interest. Consider, for example, the following story about the Jordanian law enforcement, told to me by Ahmed, a young Syrian living in Amman:

"Me and some [European] friends had all been to Wadi Rum, and were going back in a bus. At one point, there’s a police checkpoint, and they go and check the identity of the people on board. They’re all from different nationalities. Everyone gets a pass until they come to me and my brother. They understand that we’re Syrian, and they tell us to come off the bus. They say, ‘You’re Syrians, you’re not allowed to go to Aqaba’, assuming that’s where we had come from. We say, ‘We aren’t going to Aqaba. We have been in Wadi Rum and we’re on our way back.’ They say, ‘It doesn’t matter, if you’re Syrian you shouldn’t leave the camp.’ We said, ‘We don’t live in a camp, we live in Amman.’ They replied, ‘In that case, you’re not allowed to leave Amman.’ We tried to explain that we’re students, and we went on this trip with visitors...  He said ‘You are not a student here. You are a refugee. You know I can take you to Zaʿatari [refugee camp] any time.’ We said, ‘But we haven’t done anything wrong.’ He said, ‘You don’t have to do anything, I can take you to Zaʿatari anyway.’ We were stunned, we didn’t know what to say. We didn’t want to say anything wrong, so he would take us back. When it was four in the morning, they let us go again."

(Interview, July 2018)

As Ahmed’s story makes clear, ‘illegality’ can be arbitrarily produced for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Whether standing in front of judges or police men, there is no guarantee that refugee rights will be protected – in fact, the opposite is often the case. For Syrian workers, this means that the legality of their work is often irrelevant. Legal workers still face the threat of arrest, detention, and deportation, enabling employers and contractors to decide the terms, and value, of their labour. In this context, it is not just job creation that is an inadequate solution to economic underdevelopment. The same goes for employment formalization. Since the economic exploitation of Syrians is facilitated by a structurallack of legal and political agency, it cannot be solved by technical and limited interventions for employment formalization. As Hannah Arendt argues, refugees suffer not so much from ‘the loss of specific rights’, such as the right to work, but more so from ‘the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever’ (Arendt 1976: 297). To address the discrimination, abuse, and economic exploitation of Syrians in Jordan, policy makers will need to address the overarching legal and political structures that contribute to refugee disempowerment, such as the absence of a strong protection regime.

Conclusion: Building a Political Critique of the Jordan Compact

As this paper has demonstrated, we need to think critically about the effectiveness of development-based refugee policy in ameliorating protracted displacement crises. We also need to think critically about how to best leverage a critique of displacement management that centers the legal and political marginalization that often accompanies protracted displacement. While criticizing the decontextualized implementation of the Jordan Compact, most scholars have reaffirmed the dogma that – if done properly – economic development will translate to refugee empowerment. If done properly, however, has often come to mean increasing formal employment, thus overlooking some of the critical legal and political factors that contribute to the marginalization of Syrians in Jordan. In this context, migration scholars should look closer at how development-based refugee policy is experienced by Syrians as humanitarian subjects, rather than economic agents, and point out the relationship between legal and political marginalization, economic disempowerment, and protracted displacement. Instead of a call for enhanced versions of what the Jordan Compact currently offers, one should point out what the Compact does not offer – increased refugee protection.

A lack of protection is not just a concern for Syrian refugees in Jordan, as similar structures of refugee marginalization exist across the Middle East. Other major host states for Syrians – Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt included – have all failed to establish strong regimes for refugee protection (see e.g. Howden et al. 2017; İçduygu and Diker 2017). Similarly, too, they have increasingly relied on development-based refugee policy to address refugee disempowerment. In this context, the management of the Syrian refugee crisis is a regional issue. Nevertheless, the management of the Syrian refugee crisis is also a globalissue. As this paper has indicated, the Jordan Compact was first and foremost a grand compromise between the EU and the Jordanian government – with neither wanting to offer long-term protection for the majority of Syrian refugees. To strive for tangible refugee empowerment, all actors within the global refugee regime – donor countries and host countries alike – need to make a concerted effort to find durable solutions to the refugee crisis. While part of this involves increasing refugee protection in the region of origin, another part involves a commitment by the EU and other states in the Global North to take on their share of the ‘refugee burden’, including by facilitating refugee resettlement and post-conflict reconstruction in Syria to make voluntary repatriation more sustainable.

Alexander C. Burlin is a Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi studying forced displacement, legal protection, and the humanitarian-development nexus in the Arab World. He has previously worked as a refugee social worker in Sweden, and completed a traineeship as an adviser in humanitarian affairs and migration at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN. He received his B.A. in Arab Crossroads studies, summa cum laude, from NYU Abu Dhabi. He is also the founder and current Editor-in-Chief of Afkar: The Undergraduate Journal of Middle East Studies. 


[1] In developing this concept, Hilal and Petty draw on Zygmunt Bauman idea of the ‘frozen transience’ of refugeehood (2007: 46).

[2] The reported number of Syrian refugees differ drastically in Jordan depending on the source. According to UNHCR, there are 662,010 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan as of June 2019. The Government of Jordan, however, has reported that the number of Syrians in Jordan amount to over 1.2 million. This number has been highly contested by NGOs and scholars, some of whom argue that the Jordanian government has consciously inflated the number of Syrians for political and economic purposes.

[3] For a discussion of this concept, see Hyndman 2000.

[4] Here, burden-sharing is defined as ‘sharing the costs and responsibilities associated with the protection of refugees, alleviating the pressures on States that are hosting large number of refugees, and the recognition that refugee protection is a global responsibility’ (Ineli-Ciger 2019: 119).

[5] Rules of Origin (RoO) can be defined as ‘the criteria needed to determine the national source of a product’, where ‘their importance is derived from the fact that duties and restrictions in several cases depend upon the source of imports’ (World Trade Organisation 2018).

[6] Syrian refugees are limited to work in either: agriculture; accommodation and food service; manufacturing; wholesale, retail trade and car repair; and construction (Tiltnes et al. 2018: 113).Initially, the Compact called for 200,000 ‘work opportunities’, but this was later changed to ‘work permits’.

[7] These policies were promoted through the financing of the 2016-2018 Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis (JRP).

[8] Moving forward, the JRP stipulated that approximately half of all development programs were meant to cater to Jordanians rather than Syrians.As such, the resilience component of the Jordan Compact amounted to $2,483,123,101, approximately 48% of the total JRP Programmatic Response.

[9] For instance, the Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis 2016-2018 notes that ‘in the first half of 2015, 86 percent of refugees were living below the Jordanian poverty line of 68 JOD per capita per month’ (Government of Jordan 2016a: 14). Studies of UNHCR data shows that this number has largely remained consistent over time.

[10] Although the Ministry of Labour claims having issued 122,224 work permits between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2018 (Government of Jordan 2018), this number includes work permit renewals and do not reflect the amount of active work permits at any given time. According to Laura Buffoni, a senior Livelihoods Officer at the UNHCR, the amount of ‘active permits’ do not amount to more than 50,000 (Interview, July 2018).

[11] In the absence of an overarching juridical framework, the Jordanian government has largely relied upon ad hoc legal agreements to structure its policy for refugee management. Following the influx of Iraqi refugees in 1998, for instance, Jordan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with UNHCR (Stevens 2013: 10). The memorandum is one of few legal agreements signed by the government that have been made available to the public and details some of the duties and rights of refugee hosting. Today, however, it is widely acknowledged that the 1998 MoU is no longer active. Several revisions have been made over the course of the past twenty years, the last which supposedly took place in 2014 (IHRC 2015: 36). Yet, as none of the revised MoUs have been published, the details of legal protection remain unclear for Syrian refugees, and the Jordanian government seemingly uses this to their advantage.

[12] Expats (expatriates) is a term colloquially used to refer to foreign workers of a high socio-economic status. For a more in-depth discussion of the terminology surrounding expatriate workers, see Gatti 2009.


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