Gaining Access to Work for Women Refugees in Jordan

In the summer of 2018, a Refugees International team traveled to Jordan to interview people who had fled Syria and other countries about their access to work. Many jobs are closed to non-Jordanians, and the lack of affordable transportation makes it difficult to access the few jobs for which they are eligible.

For women, many of whom are heads of households, these challenges are heightened by the lack of available childcare, as well as social and cultural norms that often make it difficult to work outside their homes. Only 5 percent of the work permits issued to Syrians have been granted to women. 

But one meeting stood out: Our visit to a kitchen run by six women, three of them Syrian and three Jordanian, with the support of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in the northern city of Irbid. As we sat in the professional kitchen, we sampled some of the sweets they had prepared. Boxes of cookies lined the shelves on the wall, ready for delivery. One of the women running the project, Nawal, who received her law degree just before fleeing Syria with her family, told us about the training in baking all kinds of sweets as well as accounting and marketing she and her co-workers had received. Their motivation and commitment to the success of the project was palpable. 

Jordan is one of several countries, including Colombia, Ethiopia, and Turkey, where refugees are slowly gaining the right and opportunity to join the formal labor market. Governments are granting these rights in part because they recognize the benefits of unlocking the economic contributions of refugees like Nawal and attracting new investment. They also recognize the limits of short-term humanitarian aid in the face of growing need and donor fatigue. The World BankUNHCR, ILO, Tent Partnership for RefugeesRefugee Self-Reliance Initiative, and many others have supported these efforts and continue to play a crucial role.

To push for laws and policies that allow refugees to work legally and in decent conditions, the Center for Global Development (CGD) and Refugees International are embarking on a joint initiative in partnership with the IKEA Foundation, Tent, and the Western Union Foundation. We will gather evidence on the economic and social effects of increasing formal labor market access (FLMA); examine how to maximize benefits and mitigate challenges for both refugees and host communities; and support efforts to mobilize the private sector. 

We’ve seen in Jordan and elsewhere that laws and policies that allow displaced people to work legally—whether through entrepreneurship or work permits—are indispensable. Without them, people are forced to work illegally, which can put them at risk of exploitation and other abuses. It also deprives their host country of their tax contributions. But when people can work, businesses can expand their pool of potential employees, opportunities for international investment and trade grow, and entrepreneurial refugees—no strangers to risk-taking—create new businesses and jobs that directly benefit host communities.

Beyond the economic benefits, Nawal described the positive impacts of being part of a team, having their own project and the solidarity among them. “We like it here more than staying at home,” she said. “We like to work and not be receiving aid from organizations.”

Today, Nawal’s business is thriving and receiving orders from around the country. Speaking on the phone, Nawal said that she and her coworkers are setting an example for other women, both Syrian and Jordanian. 

“I want our success story to be repeated in other places,” she said.