Solving the Refugee Employment Problem in Jordan: A Survey of Syrian Refugees

Co-authored by Grant Gordon & Scott Cara

The Syrian conflict has driven roughly 5 million refugees from their homes and into neighboring countries. In Jordan, which now has the second highest per-capita proportion of refugees in the world, there are over 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, the vast majority of which are unemployed.

In the face of this crisis, the international community has turned its attention to creating jobs for refugees and host communities as a means of generating durable solutions for protracted displacement. The Jordan Compact, a landmark partnership between the international community and the Government of Jordan that aims to provide 200,000 jobs for refugees in Jordan by offering preferential trade access to the EU market and conditional financing from the World Bank, is one such effort.

Despite the Compact’s incentives and lofty goals, little progress has been made towards getting refugees to work: as of January 2017, only 9 firms have applied to export to the EU and only 37,326 work permits have been issued to refugees with 4% going to women.

To understand why progress has been slow, we launched an original survey of the obstacles Syrian refugees face in accessing the Jordanian labor market. Our new report, Solving the Refugee Employment Problem in Jordan, uncovers these barriers, illuminating the complex web of challenges refugees face and busting a set of commonly held myths.

Here’s what we found.

First, refugees lack clear and credible information on employment opportunities and the consequences of taking on formal employment. It’s difficult for refugees to find jobs and many fear that they will lose their access to humanitarian assistance if they take on formal employment.

Second, fear is a powerful dissuader for job-seeking refugees. With limited ability to access dispute resolution mechanisms in the case of mistreatment, many refugees highlighted workplace exploitation and deep-seated fears of the authorities as concerns.

Third, gendered barriers have driven women out of the market and only 4% of female Syrian refugees hold formal jobs. Female refugees face unique challenges, such as restrictive cultural norms and burdensome household duties.

Fourth, material obstacles abound. We heard from both male and female refugees that the costs of childcare and transportation presented major obstacles in accessing jobs. Beyond cost, concern over being too far from home in case of an emergency deterred some refugees from even considering traveling for work.

Fifth, the policy environment in Jordan has created several barriers for refugees. Unnecessary obstacles such as a long and costly permitting process, structural informality in the economy, and occupational restrictions inhibit refugees from finding work.

Despite these challenges, we also found reason for optimism.

First and foremost, refugees want formal work. Given the presumption that most prefer informal, short-term work, this itself is an important finding. Moreover, many refugees are willing to work in non-prestige sectors, such as agriculture, textiles, manufacturing, and construction. Moreover, many are willing to work in these sectors for minimum wage, a finding that contrasts with common narratives about refugees.

Getting refugees into decent and safe jobs is one of the crucial challenges of our time, and both Jordan and the Jordan Compact are an important test case for the international community. In the face of a growing anti-refugee sentiment in the west and the urgency of helping host communities address large refugee crises, it’s imperative to find innovative and durable solutions to protracted displacement.

To make progress towards these goals at the IRC, we’re now turning this research into action by launching an innovative employment hub in Jordan. The hub will be built around a network of mobile brokers that facilitate job matching between Syrian refugees, vulnerable Jordanians, and employers, who will be supported by a back-end matching algorithm and jobs platform that allow us to match at scale. The hub will overcome credibility and trust deficits and knock down many of the constraints refugees face. We will also embed behavioral nudges and experimentally test a series of material supports such as childcare and transport.

By bringing a new and scalable approach to the refugee employment problem in Jordan, we hope to unlock, and deliver on, the potential of the Jordan Compact.

Access the full IRC report here. Support the IRC’s work by donating through this link. Feel free to contact Grant Gordon ( or Scott Cara ( with any questions or comments.

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