Syrian Refugees Face Legal and Administrative Obstacles to Employment

As thousands of asylum-seekers continue to make the arduous journey to Europe, business leaders in Germany are cautioning against policies that will leave them unemployed and destitute.

The 1951 Refugee Convention affords refugees the right to seek gainful employment in their country of refuge, subject to certain restrictions. The freedom to work is also recognized in a number of other international instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR).

Despite this, a majority of Syrian refugees face daunting legal and administrative roadblocks preventing them from accessing the economy. Jordanian law reserves employment only for citizens and foreigners with valid resident permits. Unsurprisingly, Syrian asylum seekers are rarely granted such permits. The Egyptian Ministry of Labor issues work permits to refugees only if employers prove that they are unable to hire a local, in effect barring Syrians from the labor market. In Lebanon, Syrians entering the country must pledge not to seek employment altogether.

These measures are not only contrary to international obligations, but also ineffective and counterproductive. As the crisis drags on, more Syrian refugees face no choice but to participate in the informal labor market. In one survey, 45.5% of Syrian families residing in Egypt reported that they were working informally. This often involves poor working conditions and little remuneration. In Jordan, as in other countries, this informal labor market has contributed to a depression in wages across sectors, effectively pushing out locals from low-skilled employment.

Host states welcoming vast numbers of refugees have every right to be anxious about the future of their labor markets. However, they must be careful to keep their responses in line with international law—and ensure that they do not backfire.