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'We’re Working, Waiting, Expecting the Worst': Syrians Are Escaping Jordan's Refugee Camps for Black Market Labor

VICE News traveled to Amman, Jordan, where migrants have fled miserable conditions in the country's refugee camps to fill a burgeoning illegal economy. It's also a politically sensitive subject among Jordanians.
Photo by Harriet Salem

Mahmoud pauses for a rest in the shade of one of Amman's largest mosques with a handcart loaded high with brightly colored Syrian sweets and dried figs. It is a brief moment of reprieve. Every day, starting at 6am, he spends 12 hours walking across Jordan's capital peddling his wares; the work in the scorching Middle East heat badly blisters his feet.

Like many Syrian refugees in Jordan, Mahmoud is an illegal worker in the country's burgeoning informal economy. His wage of just 170 Jordanian dinars ($240) per month, equivalent to an hourly rate of less than half a dinar (70c), is barely enough to cover the cost of food and an apartment for his family."Back home I risked dying in airstrike or by a bullet, here I die a little every day; pushing this cart under the sun, when I can't buy medicine for my sick son, when my wife only has enough food to cook one meal a day," he told VICE News.


Since the outbreak of Syria's war in 2011, more than 618,500 Syrians have registered with UNHCR after fleeing across the Jordanian border. With more arriving every day and some still undocumented, however, the true figure is likely higher.

The new arrivals, most of who crossed illegally by foot carrying only a few vital possessions, are initially taken to refugee camps; the largest of which is Zaatari. Opened in 2012 to help cope with the initial influx of refugees, this sprawling mass of tents and caravans has an official capacity of 60,000, but has held more than double that in recent years.

The cramped and unhygienic living conditions have driven many to leave in search of a better life outside the camps. What they find elsewhere, however, is often little better.

Related: Elite anti-terror squads from around the world battle it out at Jordan's Ultimate Warrior Competition. Read more here.

In downtown Amman, Daher Wassim sits on a threadbare sofa. A former Zaatari resident, Wassim, his wife, and their two children ran away from the camp after just two months. "The living conditions in the camp were not human. It was dirty, crowded, the children got sick, the camp beds had bugs in them," he told VICE News.

Now the family, who were already displaced seven times inside Syria, has privacy. Their dank and windowless apartment, with little furniture and one shared sleeping room, however, is barely an improvement on Zaatari.


The Wassim family fled Zaatari refugee camp in hope of finding a better life in Amman. Now they live in a dank windowless apartment. Daher Wassim and his 11 year-old son collect scrap metal and plastic from the streets to make money. Photo by Harriet Salem

According to a recent UNHCR report, Syrian migrants living outside official camps in urban and rural areas number nearly 523,000; around 84 percent of the registered refugee population. Around two-thirds live below the national poverty line, with one in six households having an income of less than $40 per month.

While the Jordanian government has given residency permits to Syrian refugees, there is currently no legal provision for issuing work permits, effectively locking the refugees into laboring in the black market to survive.

After leaving Zataari, Wassim, a mechanic back in Syria, has struggled to find work, so he now collects scrap metals and plastics from the street with his 11-year-old son. A filled trash bag normally earns them less than half a dollar. At present the family's income, including a monthly payment of 10 Jordanian dinar ($14) per family member from UNHCR, is well below their outgoings.

'The situation with the economy makes the topic of refugees and work permits politically very sensitive'

In a bakery in east Amman workers gather to exchange stories of running away from labor enforcement officers. The entire staff is Syrian, including several skilled workers, and all are working in the black economy. When they spot labor enforcement officials, the men hightail out of the backdoor vaulting over walls in a dash to the maze of streets around the nearby housing blocks. "The boss has to rush over, because we don't have the time to even lock the doors," Kassar Maher, a former store owner, told VICE News. "It can happen any moment, really they can come anytime. It's very stressful, we're working, we're barely surviving, we're watching, waiting, expecting the worst."


In this east Amman bakery nearly all the employees are Syrians working illegally. When they see labor enforcement officials the workers run out the back door leaving the shop unattended. Photo by Harriet Salem.

If caught with illegal workers, employers risk a fine or being taken to court but with Syrians — many of whom were professionals back home and who accept longer hours and half the pay of Jordanians — the benefits to business owners easily outweigh the costs.

For the Jordanian government, trying to meet the needs of the refugees while fulfilling the demands of its citizens is an increasingly difficult task. The Hashemite Kingdom, already a resource-poor country with severe water shortages, has struggled under the weight of two waves of refugees from both Iraq and Syria.

The medical and education systems are simply overwhelmed, Jawad Anani, president of Jordan's Social and Economic Council, told VICE News. "Hospitals are full and many schools are now running two shifts of teaching a day, so time in class is cut by half," he added. "The situation is affecting not just the refugees but everyone on every social level."

Related: Syrian refugees are stuck at the border with Jordan and can't get out. Read more here.

So far the direct cost of the influx is estimated to have cost Jordan's economy around $4 billion, not including the effect of lost trade with its war-torn neighbors. Between 2009 and 2015 the Kingdom's public debt rose from 56 percent to over 85 percent, well above a "safe" level.

Unemployment has officially remained at around 12 to 14 percent for the last 10 years, but one government representative who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity said that the true figure is now "likely 24 percent or even higher."

"The situation with the economy makes the topic of refugees and work permits politically very sensitive," Anani told VICE News. "It's very difficult for the government to start issuing Syrians work permits when lots of Jordanians don't have a job. So for now there aren't many other options other than to just to look the other way, it's better for them to work illegally than become involved in criminal activities."

Back outside the mosque Mahmoud says he hopes he can one day make enough money to leave Jordan for a Western country. "All I want is a better future for my son, and he will not find it here" he added, wearily preparing to move the cart on to the next stop.

Mahmoud sells Syrian dates and sweets. Every day he pushes the handcart across the city for 12 hours. His wage is just 170 Jordanian dinars ($240) per month. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem