In a sun-baked field just outside the Jordanian city of Ramtha, a young group of Syrian men and women weave their way up and down rows of green peppers.
“I do planting, weeding and harvesting on the farm,” says Manal, as she empties her bag of vegetables into a sack held by her younger brother. “It’s the same work we used to do on our land back in Homs.”
Refugees have long been working illegally on farms in Jordan but risked being deported back to Syria if they were caught.
Now they can get free work permits.
“We feel the difference,” says Mohammed. “Before we couldn’t work outside easily. We hid from the police. With the permits, it’s excellent.”
More than 650,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Jordan. However, until recently, the government allowed only a few thousand to work.
It was worried they would push down wages, take jobs from Jordanians and be encouraged to stay permanently, stirring up resentment.
Now the authorities are experimenting with another possibility – that the presence of so many Syrians could boost the sluggish economy.
About 350 Syrians work for al-Rahman Farms.
“It helped us a lot. They saved us from having to bring in migrant labourers from abroad. They also saved us money,” says the farms’ owner, Jamal Alzoubi.
Image caption The target is for Jordan to employ 200,000 Syrians
Image copyright AP
Image caption Donors want to reduce the dependence of Syrian refugees on handouts
“We used to hire Egyptians at two Jordanian dinars (£2.10; $2.80) an hour. They dictated terms. When the Syrians came it reduced wages. We had more workers and we started to cultivate more land. Now we have a big area.”
Syrians at the farm come from a nearby refugee camp. They are given breakfast and work for an hourly rate of one dinar. Mr Alzoubi is convinced it is a win-win situation.
“Now these people live in dignity,” he says. “The camp where they live is oppressive but now they’re free to come and go. They go to the market. They have permits. There’s no problem.”
From challenge to chance
The reversal of Jordanian policy was announced at a conference on Syria for international donors in London in February.
European leaders pledged to ease trade regulations in return.
Last month, a key deal was reached to simplify the so-called rules of origin for Jordanian factories exporting to the European Union.
It allows more imported raw materials to be used in finished products that are labelled as Jordan-made, so they get duty-free access to EU markets.
There are quotas for the numbers of Syrians that businesses must employ.
“Having the new rules of origin and having the ability to employ Syrians in sectors – especially blue collar sectors – is very much allowing us to convert this burden and challenge into an opportunity,” says Jordanian planning minister, Imad Fakhoury.
“Hopefully this will increase jobs for Jordanians as well as for Syrian refugees and attract new investments, increasing exports which will contribute to economic growth.”
Jordan’s economy is currently growing at just 2.4% a year. It has suffered from a loss of trade with its war-torn neighbours, Syria and Iraq and there is high national debt.
Image copyright AFP
Image caption A quarter of Jordan’s state budget is spent on helping refugees, King Abdullah has said
Now it is being offered international support to turn things around.
The World Bank has already announced a $100m interest-free loan. Next month it is expected to announce a $300m programme to attract investment, reform the labour market and create jobs.
The target is for Jordan to employ 200,000 Syrians.
The EU, in particular, wants more refugees to work; it hopes that by improving their living standards, they will be less likely to head for European shores.
Donors also want to reduce dependence on handouts.
Funds pledged for some 4.7 million Syrians now living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey has consistently fallen short of targets. Last year’s influx of hundreds of thousands to Europe partly resulted from cuts to food aid and cash payments.
So far some 20,000 work permits have been given out in Jordan. Syrian refugees are happy to have them but many say it will take more to improve their lot.
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption More than 650,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Jordan
In Amman, I meet a middle-aged carpenter who asks us not to give his name. He is making high-end, custom-made furniture as he once did for his family’s shops in Homs.
However, in Jordan, he can be paid only the minimum wage. His permit describes him as doing a different, low-skilled job.
“There’s huge suffering even among those who work,” the carpenter says. “The salaries aren’t enough and the United Nations isn’t providing much. I’m behind on my rent, I have debts.”
“We don’t get healthcare and I spent all my savings on hospital treatment for my wife,” he goes on. “I need a heart procedure and I shouldn’t work but the day I don’t work, I don’t eat.”
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