ZATAARI REFUGEE CAMP. Here, in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, a thriving marketplace named Champs Elysees rivals those found in Istanbul or Athens, or even the Paris thoroughfare after which it’s named. Where once was only dirt, residents have opened market stands, or barber shops, or bakeries. When the city of Amsterdam donated 500 bicycles to the camp, entrepreneurs opened bicycle repair shops. It’s a testimony not only to the resiliency of the refugees stranded here year after year, but to their refusal to sit idle.
It’s a quality that stands in stark contrast to the reality of many refugees once they leave the camps; whether settled into nearby urban centers or across the world in a new country, many struggle to find employment, and are forced to depend on charity, government stipends, or other, less reputable means of subsistence.
The dream of resettlement—and subsequent employment—propels many refugees. But while nations around the world debate how many refugees to take in, and from which country and/or crisis, many fail to integrate employment plans into the mix. The result is a generation of refugees struggling to assimilate through one of the most universal of human desires—that of meaningful work.
In Jordan alone, 85 percent of the Syrian refugees are living outside of camps such as Zataari, in the country’s urban centers. “Most of the refugees living in urban areas are in debt. Ninety three percent are living below the poverty line,” Aoife McDonald, an external relations director with UNHCR Jordan, told Diplomatic Courier. “They use their savings attempting to reach safety, then go into debt waiting for their asylum to be processed.”
According to a report issued by the UNHCR, Syrian refugees are borrowing funds from friends and family, shopkeepers, and landlords for basic needs—rent, food, utilities—and those seemingly small amounts loom larger as they can’t be repaid. Many opt not to receive medical care because of the costs, and are reducing the number of meals they eat per day. When assistance does come, it’s barely enough to keep the roof over their heads, let alone help them get ahead of what they owe.
Even those lucky enough to make their way to an economically prosperous country often find the cycle of poverty continues.
Germany has absorbed more than 1.1 million migrants since the beginning of 2015, from the Middle East, Africa, and other economically-challenged or war-torn nations. But by January 2016, only 13 percent of them had found employment.
“What we know from the administrative data is that the majority of these people, irrespective of their educational background in their home country, are working in hotels, restaurants, these kind of sectors, and other kind of service occupations, like cleaning and security,” Dr. Ehsan Vallizadeh, a research associate at the German Federal Employment Agency’s Institute for Employment Research (IAB) told Diplomatic Courier. “One key issue is that they might not have an educational background, or if they do have an educational background, they might not have their certificates, because they left them behind or they were destroyed.”
The German government offers language classes and vocational training courses for refugees, however, the courses are managed by different branches of the government. Integrating them under one department would allow for faster integration of the labour market, and assimilation in general.
“The language barriers are also much higher for this group because they have only recently come to Germany, so irrespective of their educational background, they have to first learn the German language, which is not an easy language, so they face different types of limitations,” Vallizadeh said.
In nearby Switzerland, applicants seeking asylum are prohibited from working for at least three, and up to six months, after filing their application. After the first six months, “the applicant can be authorized to take up a temporary gainful employment if the economic and labour market situation allows it and if the wage and working conditions and the priority accorded to nationals are respected,” according to the State Secretariat for Migration. According to Stefan Frey, the spokesperson at the non-profit organization Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe in Bern, these barriers can be too difficult for many refugees to navigate.
“About 50 percent of asylum seekers receive only a provisional admission to Switzerland,” Frey says. “They can work but the obstacles are considerable because they need permission, and the employer also needs to demand a permission to engage them, and they have to pay an extra tax for employing somebody with provisional admission.”
This tax, which accounts for 10 percent of the income of the worker, must be paid to the Secretariat of Migration. “Officially it’s the employer who makes the transfer of money, but it’s dedicated from the salary. And this amount is up to 15,000 Swiss francs that must be paid by the employee,” Frey says. “This makes the procedure very complicated and this is a real obstacle for employers to engage somebody with a provisional visa.”
“Politically we don’t want Switzerland to make it a practice for refugees to come to Switzerland. This is one of the reasons that until now these conditions are very severe against especially provisional admission,” Frey says.
While there are some discussions in Switzerland about changing the political landscape to open the labour market for more provisional visa holders, traditionally, there have been policies to limit migration to the Alpine nation. “The Swiss economy has more and more difficulties to receive a sufficient number of workers as a result of these policies.”
While applications for asylum are approved, or rejected at the national level, it’s the role of the individual cantons—the 26 member states of the Swiss confederation—to see to assimilation. While the federal government provides funding for many programs, it provides no requirements on the offerings. Consequently, laws and programs can vary greatly per canton.
“It depends a little bit on the political atmosphere. In some cantons, the extreme right party is very strong, and you’ll not find a very strong will to improve the life of refugees,” Frey says. “Each canton can more or less do what it wants.”
And herein lies one of the greatest conundrums of the world’s massive refugee crisis: because obtaining permission to remain, in any of its forms, is often such a difficult task the world over, people are hesitant to forfeit it in the search for employment in another country. To do so begins the often years-long process from the beginning, again with no certainty of finding meaningful work at the end of it.
“Many people, especially with provisional visas, never find a work place, and therefore they have to be integrated into the social system, which produces enormous cost,” Frey says.
In Switzerland, supporting one adult entirely by social services can cost between 25,000-35,000 Swiss francs per year. Providing language courses, vocational training, and other assimilation support services carries a significantly lesser cost, both on an annual basis, and over the lifetime of an average refugee.
Like in Germany, language barriers create a challenge in Switzerland, even more so with its three national languages. And like Germany, there is a delay while refugees await news of their status. Essentially wasted time now, Frey suggests that time is better spent if refugees are allowed to engage in language courses immediately, before their status is approved or even denied.
“The real problem in Switzerland is not the arrival of refugees,” Frey says. “The real issue is the integration of these people.”
Here, at Zataari, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the people who escaped a civil war, made their way into a new country, and helped build a city where once was only dirt, wouldn’t be able to find meaningful work through sheer willpower and dedication. That their wits, and education, and work ethic wouldn’t be enough to help them start a new life in a new country.
But few people could be plucked out of one life and dropped into another—another culture, another language, another climate, another social circle—without guidance. Few would think ahead, as the bombs were dropping and shots were being fired, to bring more than the clothes on their back, to bring copies of their educational records and multiple forms of identification. Few walked in the dead of night across the border while listening to German or French or English lessons on their earbuds. Few expected to have to integrate into a labour market that wouldn’t want them, except, if they were lucky, as housecleaners, or security guards, or hoteliers.
“When you ask them how long they expected to be gone, they’ll tell you weeks,” McDonald says. “Many of them have been here for years.”