Strengthening accountability and public participation at the local level in dealing with the Syrian refugees crisis in Jordan

Dr. Myriam Ababsa

Geographer, consultant

Institut français du Proche-Orient.

This text was prepared for IDRC LCPS workshop “Launching a Homegrown Development Agenda to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis”, Beirut, 4th and 5th May 2016. Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.


Since 2011, Syrian refugees have been fleeing their country and reached Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In 2011 and 2012, the migrants who came to Jordan had relatives, through tribal ties but also family ties (thanks to the tradition of marrying Syrian women). But in 2013, this turned into forced migration, with a flow of over a thousand refugees a day. As a result, Jordan currently hosts 1, 265 million Syrian refugees (according to the National Population and Housing Census 2015), 639 000 of them being registered by the UNHCR (April 2016). The majority is living outside the camps, mainly in the suburbs of Amman (34%), Irbid and several towns (27%), Mafraq (16%) and Zarqa (14%).

This influx of population has a major impact on the housing sector, with competition over the rental markets; on the schools, with double shifts introduced, but also on water consumption, waste water treatment and solid waste collection. Jordanian municipalities, already in deficit before the Syrian crisis, are facing major shortage in solid waste management and sanitation. As a result, the street are filledwith litter, lot are burnt on place (causing air pollution problems). Greater pressure on public services and livelihoods is threatening social cohesion, as Syrian are accused of taking job opportunities and of littering. Competition for the services and limited communication between municipal authorities and citizens had a negative effect on community resilience and social cohesion (Reach 2016).

Until April 2016, the Government of Jordan had forbidden Syrian refugees to work, except in specific domains. Only 5,000 managed to take a work permit. Nearly 160,000 were working on the informal labour market. The GoJ is now giving a 90-day grace-period that allows Jordanian employers to freely obtain work permits for Syrian refugees. This move was obtained after nearly two years of negotiation between the GoJ and ILO, UNHCR and the World Bank. The World Bank gave a first 100 million dollars loan at nearly zero rate, on the condition that Syrian refugees be granted work permits.

Syrian refugees would be employed in special economic zones, in order to boost the exportations to Europe. After London 2016 donor conference, the European Union modified the rule of origin norm according to which 15% of the workers should be Syrian in order to benefit from tax exemptions on the European market. The deal was signed for ten years in June 2016. It is presented as a way to assist the Middle Eastern governments in creating jobs and keeping the Syrians in their own countries.

At the level of Jordanian municipalities, discussions have been held to employ Syrian refugees for the collect solid waste along with the municipal team. They would be paid on a daily basis, for a short period of time. This is presented as a way to develop civic duty and participation from the refugees. In any country, solid waste management requires citizen cooperation to succeed. The idea is to develop a civic culture that incorporates participation in basic services.

  1. The pressure of the Syrian refugees on housing, employment and municipal services

The resilience of Syrian refugee households and Jordanian communities is declining, causing an increase in tension within communities, especially as much of the Syrian refugee population outside of formal camps has settled in already impoverished rural areas in the north of Jordan such as Irbid (where 27% of the refugees have settled) and Mafraq (where 16% have settled). 83% of Jordanians and 77% of Syrians identified access to housing as a cause of tension within their community[1]. The rapid influx of Syrian refugees into Northern Jordan had an impact on the housing market: the rental prices went up, and thousands of Jordanian families were expelled from hosting Syrian families paying higher rents[2]. It affects particularly young Jordanians who have to delay their wedding as they can not rent any apartment for 100-150 JD as it was before 2011.

Relatively to the local population, the governorates were the presence is the most hugely visible are Mafraq, were 37,8% of the population is composed of Syrian refugees (207,923 out of 549,948 individuals), and Irbid with 19,3% of Syrian refugees (343,207 out of 1,77 million inhabitants). Their municipal services are severely stretched by the refugee influx. This greater pressure on public services, housing and livelihoods is threatening social cohesion in these two governorates. The increase in solid waste is estimated to 340 tons per day by the GoJ. This is a burden on municipalities already indebted, with insufficient equipment and a small workforce.

In May 2015, Reach published an assessment of the social cohesion in host communities in Northern Jordan, based on a survey of the perception of municipal services delivery in 16 municipalities[3] (governorates of Irbid, Mafraq and Zarqa). It founds that “the arrival of Syrian refugees has led to further strain on already over-burdened municipal services”. The challenges to social cohesion emerged at two levels: tensions between Jordanians and Syrians about rental prices, job opportunities and public hygiene (reduction of water delivery, increase in pests) and poor communication between citizens and local government (it became a major issue since the crisis started).

The panel consisted of 6166 persons (83% Jordanians, 15% Syrians and 2% of other nationalities). According to the survey, the most prominent change in their community since the influx of the refugees was water shortages (38%), rising cost of living (29%), waste accumulation (12%), and increased competition over jobs (8%). More than 72% of Jordanian respondents stated that these issues have led to tensions in the area where they live. The report “focuses on key indicators of resilience and social cohesion by analyzing the prominent changes residents have witnessed in their community, the levels of discontent with services related to these changes, and the main coping mechanisms adopted at the household level to deal with poor access to municipal services” (Reach 2015).

Half of the households surveyed reported facing a water shortage in the 30 days preceding the survey. This affects the immediate welfare of the population, with a third of families reduce water consumption with impact on health and hygiene. Waste accumulation is the second prominent change witnessed by the population, leading to discontent. 76% of the respondents reported using the public waste bins to dispose of their household solid waste, 23% are resorting to dropping garbage anywhere, and 5% of residents are burning their garbage. Half of the household reported that garbage collection was not frequent enough (33% once in a week, 6% every two weeks, 2% once a month, 4% never). Pests are prevalent as a result of infrequent garbage collection and frustration is rising. A third of the residents are either dropping garbage by roadside, or burning them.

“Discontent over livelihoods is reflected in high rates of unemployment amongst the households assessed. In 40% of Syrian and 30% of Jordanian households, at the time of the assessment, a household member was looking for employment. Syrian households were most acutely affected, with 40% of households reporting that the main breadwinner had struggled to find employment in the last year, compared to a lesser 17% of Jordanian households. High levels of unemployment have meant that the majority of households (61%) relied on coping mechanisms in the 30 days preceding the assessment to cope with the lack of employment opportunities. At 50% of used strategies, borrowing money from family, friends and relatives was the most commonly used coping strategy” (Reach 2015).

  1. How to Employ Syrian Refugees: ILO, WB and UNHCR pressure on GoJ

According to inter UN-agency vulnerability assessments, some 74 % of Syrian refugees in host communities were classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’, with only 26% classified as being a moderate or low level of vulnerability.[4] Refugees living in Jordan mainly rely on reduced savings and cash assistance to meet their basic needs. Two thirds of refugees report an income of less than 200 JD a month, and half of those most vulnerable have an income of less than 100 JD a month. This income is, most of the time, informal employment of 10 JD a day, once or twice a week. Two thirds of refugees have casual jobs, in agriculture (olive picking in the fall, work in green houses), in construction, and in services (waiters in restaurants, etc…). 26,1 % of Syrian refugees declares having no job. Syrian refugees also rely heavily on child labour to supplement family income, especially for female-headed households. Child labour is underestimated by all major agencies. UNHCR Home Visit report estimates to 6% the number of families using child labour as a coping strategy. In 2013, UN Women survey stated that 15% of surveyed households cited child labour as their primary source of income[5].

According to the Labour Law n8 1996, non-Jordanian workers must be approved by the Minister of Labour, on the condition that they have a valid residence permit. As the GoJ has allowed Syrian manufacturers to operate business in special economic zones, thousands of Syrian workers were granted work permits (ILO 2015).

In 2013, the Minister of Labour announced that nearly 160 000 Syrians were working illegally in Jordan, part of them were refugees, and some were present in the country before the crisis. “Historically, Syrians have crossed the border freely under a bilateral workforce cooperation agreement between Jordan and Syria, signed in 2001” (ILO 2015). In April 2016, the minister stated that 90 000 Syrian refugees were working informally in Jordan.

Since mid-2013, Jordan has engaged with the ILO on a project called “Enhancing Access to Employment Opportunities and Livelihoods in Host Communities”. Its aim is to define the best framework to employ refugees, without compromising working opportunities for Jordanians. This would be done in special economic zones, but also at the level of municipalities, with mayors hiring Syrian refugees to collect solid waste along with the municipal team. They would be paid on a daily basis, for a short period of time.

This is presented as a way to develop civic duty and participation from the refugees. In any country, solid waste management requires citizen cooperation to succeed. The idea is to develop a civic culture that incorporates participation in basic services. This was hardly done with Jordanian citizens before the crisis. It might take time to convince citizens of their environmental rights and duties, and to built a sense of “pride of the place”.

In April 2016, the Government of Jordan has allowed Syrian refugees to access work permits for free during a 90-day grace-period. This will allow Jordanian employers to regularize Syrian refugees active in the informal sector, without having to pay the usual fees for obtaining the permit – which range from US$240 to US$522 depending on the sector (170 to 370 JD), usually paid by the worker. According to UNHCR, 78,000 will first be able to work, and many more in the coming months. By the end of 2016, only 17000 permits were issued, as half of Jordanian enterprises are informal and cannot issue permits, but also as formal employers do not want to pay for the permits the second year.

Coming for half of them from Deraa governorate, Syrian refugees are less educated than the Syrians, but had a better participation rate to the economy with 48,9% compared to 39% for the Jordanians. This is due to higher level of participation of Syrian women to the economy.

  1. JESSRP and the question of Social Cohesion

As the crisis is protracted, the GoJ is shifting from humanitarian to long-term sustainable approaches, with the idea of building social cohesion and resilience at the level of municipalities. The UN 2015 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt aim for development initiative to appease the tensions between local communities and the refugees, especially in the field of employment and housing.

With support of the World Bank, the government of Jordan has started a major program, the Jordan Emergency Services and Social Resilience Project (JESSRP). Its two main objectives are to provide grants and material to the municipalities, and to improve their management through better communication and accountability procedures, in order to enforce community resilience and social cohesion. “The project aims to promote broader crisis resilience through support to participating municipalities to provide additional services based on local needs, the strengthening of community resilience through local economic development and community engagement, and the strengthening of institutional resilience to crises through development of emergency preparedness systems”. Apart from the transfer of grants and equipment to municipalities, the second component of JESSRP is ambitious as it seeks to reinforce social infrastructure by improving communication between municipalities and citizens through, inter alia, town-hall meetings, participatory and institutionalised planning processes and strengthened accountability mechanisms.

Municipalities need to improve communication between its officials and the citizens they serve, as there is a discrepancy between their understanding of community priority needs and those reported by households in Reach 2016 survey. Participatory consultation processes are requested and they could be done along with JOHUD for instance. This would lead to the improvement of community perceptions of municipal responsiveness to their needs.

  1. Toward Municipal Accountability?

Municipalities are suffering of a lack of confidence in their service delivery capacities. According to Reach survey conducted in January 2016, 66% of the inhabitants of Mafraq municipality, 55% of Irbid and 60% of Ramtha considered that the municipality did not respond to their priority needs The problem of accountability concerns nearly all of the public institutions in the Middle East.

The Syrian crisis could be a decisive moment to change, as it came in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It is an opportunity to develop citizens’ participation and information through town-hall meetings and institutionalized planning processes.

Most of the municipalities do not have their own comprehensive plans, even though since 2006, they should receive them from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. They have only their procurement plans, but they cannot monitor what was planned and implemented. This compromises municipalities’ accountability towards their citizens. UNDP has assisted the largest northern municipalities to develop three-year investment frameworks and individual project proposals, in partnership with the Cities and Villages Development Bank (CVDB). A Municipalities Support Team was created with the CVDB to better adapt their services to the cities(Reach 2016.

Further interventions should be conducted in the field of community consultations and participation to the planning process of interventions. Local governments do not have proper complaint mechanisms, although they are a major component of accountability. Plus it could serve a channel for information sharing between municipalities and communities. In four municipalities of Irbid, DfID has launched a smart phone application to solicit feedback from communities after service delivery.

Municipal members should receive some training on public participation modalities, on transparency and accountability. For instance, formalised processes could be taught for community consultation and planning.

Community consultations could be organized, to replace the usual ad-hoc bilateral meeting with community members usually done. Focus groups and workshops could be organized. The main condition being that they are consultative and not only informative. This should be followed by reports, and disseminated. This would guaranty that the public opinion is recorded and taken into account in the planning process.

Proper documentation of the consultations can allow to identify priorities to effectively inform planning processes. JESSRP has started consultations at the level of the Local Development Units.

Municipal accountability

The question of accountability needs proper action. For the time being, communities cannot hold their municipalities to account. There is no formalized complaint mechanisms, nor regular consultations. The municipal councils meetings are not followed by any minutes or reports. Municipal workers and elected members should be trained to local democracy standard operation procedures. Formalised processes of consultation and information should be introduced. Community consultation including local business owners, mukhtars and women must be organized prior to any project. Better information of the planning process should be formalized with proper archiving of meeting minutes available to the community.



Ababsa, Myriam (2015) “Jordanie: la décentralisation par décisioncentraliséeet la démocratie par volontéroyale”, in Harb Mona, Atallah Sami, Local Governments and Public Goods: Assessing Decentralization in the Arab World”, The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Open Society Foundations, Beirut.

Ababsa, Myriam (2013) Atlas of Jordan.History, Territories and Society. Atlas al Urdunn. Al-tarikh, al-ardh, al-mujtama`, IFPO, Beyrouth, 485 p.

Ajluni, Salem & Kawar, Mary (2014) The Impact of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on the Labour Market in Jordan: Preliminary Analysis,—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publica­tion/wcms_242021.pdf

Carrion, Doris (2015) Syrian Refugees in Jordan. Confronting Difficult Truths, Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Research Paper, 15 p.

Chatham, House (2015) The Role of Local Government in Addressing the Impact of Syrian Refugees: Jordan Case Study, Workshop Summary, 2–3 June 2015,

Furedy, Christine (1989) Responsibility-Sharing in Solid Waste Management: Encouraging Citizen Participation and Cooperation in Asian Metropolises, unpublished paper, online.

MOPIC, HCSP (Host Community Support Platform) (2013) Needs Assessment Review of the Impact of the Syrian Crisis on Jordan, 14 p.

REACH (2016) Jordan Emergency Services and Social Resilience Project (JESSRP). Monitoring Study 1. January 2016, 65 p.

REACH (2015) Social Cohesion in Host Communities in Northern Jordan. Assessment Report. May 2015. 69 p.

REACH (2014) Evaluating the Effect of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on Stability and Resilience in Jordanian Host Com­munities.

UNHCR, Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal,


[1] REACH, Housing and Tensions in Jordanian Communities Hosting Syrian Refugees. Thematic Assessment Report, June 2014, 15 p.

[2] UN Habitat communication during NRC UNHCR shelter working group, 26 february 2014.

[3] Nine ‘treatment’ municipalities: Al Ramtha Al Jadeedah, Al Serhan, Al Sho’aleh, Al Za’atari and Al Mansheah, Bala’ama Al Jadeedah, Gharb Irbid, Irbid Al Kubra, Mafraq Al Kubra and Sahel Horan) and seven ‘control’ municipalities: Al Kfarat, Al Mazar Al Jadeedah, Al Yarmook Al Jadeedah, Al Zarqa, Hosha Al Jadeedah, Rhab Al Jadeedah, Sabha and Dafianeh.

[4] Rankings are based on expenditure levels.

[5] UN Women, 2013, Inter-agency Assessment: Gender-Based Violence and Child Protection Among Syrian Refugees in Jordan, with a Focus on Early Marriage.