Impact of COVID-19 on Syrian Refugees in Jordan from the Refugee Perspective

Oroub El-Abed and Nuseibah Shabaitah

WRMC Research Papers on the Impact of COVID-19 on Syrian Refugees in Jordan:

On March 17, 2020, the Government of Jordan imposed a series of preemptive restrictions as a state of emergency was declared to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Groups of more than 10 people in public spaces were banned, land and air borders were closed, and hotels across the country were transformed into quarantine centres for infected people, especially those coming from abroad. The Defense Law, issued by a royal decree activating a 1992 law,[1] halted the busy everyday life of people outdoors by giving the prime minister the authority to suspend certain rights, including restrictions on freedom of expression and movement. Since the first wave of COVID-19 infected a record of 2,478 people in Jordan between March and September 2020, almost half have recovered and 19 have died (Ministry of Health, 2020). For almost two months, the lockdown permitted people to be mobile within a limited proximity to their homes, allowing them to run errands and to buy basic needs such as food and medicine. These restrictions were eased in early May as most sectors were allowed to resume work gradually, but schools, universities, gyms, public gatherings, church services and mosque sermons remained banned, and a curfew after 6:00 p.m. on Fridays was put into place. By early June, life began to resume as sector after sector were allowed to reopen. While the number of infected people has increased, Jordan has been commended internationally on the way it handled and continues to handle the pandemic under the Defense Law, by containing it as much as possible, tracing the sources of infections and performing random health checks in densely populated areas.  

The Jordanian economy, before the difficult circumstances caused by COVID-19, was undergoing sluggish economic growth, and had a high unemployment rate of 19 percent for the last few years (World Bank 2020). The unexpected shock of the COVID-19 lockdown and the consequent slowing of the economy, coupled with the stagnation, added even more pressure to the already weak economy (Durable Solutions Platform 2020). Moreover, Jordan has been enduring an additional stress for the last nine years due to its strategic geopolitical location in the heart of a turbulent region: hosting refugees. Syrian refugees have been the latest group of refugees Jordan has tried to manage as part of a strategic humanitarian development response plan that seeks to benefit both the local population and Syrian refugees. 

While Jordan has hosted Palestinians since their catastrophe in the 1948 and 1967 wars, and then several flows of Iraqis between 1991 and 2010, the Syrian conflict pushed over 1.5 million Syrian refugees into Jordan, creating major demographic and service-oriented pressures (Worldometer 2020). Currently, Jordan’s population is 10,222,263 and refugees from different nationalities, make up one-third of the population (The Jordan Times 2020a). As per United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data, Jordan ranks as the second-largest host of refugees per capita in the world. (UNHCR 2020a). 

Since 2012, Syrian refugees have made up the largest refugee group in the world. According to   official Jordanian estimates, the total number of Syrians in Jordan is 1.3 million, of whom 658,756 are registered with the UNHCR (ibid.). Less than 10 percent live in three refugee camps (Zaatari hosting 47,899, Azraq hosting 41,431 and Emirati hosting 6,496), which are in close proximity to one another in the North-East of Jordan, while 83 percent of refugees live in urban settings with Jordanian host communities around the country, including those living in informal tented settlements (ITS) (UNHCR 2020b; UNHCR 2019b).  

Jordanian Governance in Managing Refugees

The Jordanian Response Plan (JRP) was recently updated for 2020–2022. Its top priority has been to empower local systems to address challenges, including through ensuring protection of the dignity and welfare of Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians impacted by the Syria crisis (Jordan Ministry of Planning 2020). The JRP officially began in 2014 and represents Jordan’s continued collaboration with the international community. It also reflects the collaborative role with civil society, in line with the UN Global Compact on Refugees and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and benefited from financial pledges from the international community and special support from the European Union. These pledges have not always been fulfilled. For 2019, funding fell short by nearly 51 percent, which has greatly increased pressure on Jordan’s political and economic systems as well as its natural resources (Jordan Ministry of Planning 2018).

The JRP is a national comprehensive plan aimed to garner support from the international community to respond to the Syria crisis and to share the cost burden incurred by Jordan in hosting the refugees.  To respond to protracted humanitarian and development challenges, Jordan developed a strategy for collective action and led a paradigm-shift from a humanitarian-emergency appeal to a development plan with a resilience-focused approach. Since the London Donor Conference to support Syrian Refugees and Host Communities was hosted in 2016, which shed light on solutions to the Syrian crisis for the upcoming two decades, the mission of Jordan shifted more to a development-oriented and socio-economically inclusive approach (International Labour Organization [ILO] 2017). This approach saw forced migrants as an added value to the country’s productive capacity and as an asset warranting investment to bring them into the local social fabric. This was done by expanding employment and livelihood opportunities for Syrians in both camps and urban settings. Work permits have been issued by the Ministry of Labour and the UNHCR has paid the fees for these permits for 200,180 Syrians (190,447 males and 9,733 females) since January 2016, (UNHCR 2020c). 

The JRP was intended to foster the resilience of the service delivery system, municipal services at the national level and infrastructure in areas critically affected by demographic stress. The plan also aimed to meet the needs of Syrian refugees in and out of camps as well as vulnerable Jordanians affected by the Syria crisis (Jordan Ministry of Planning 2020).  However, this occurs against a backdrop of limited livelihood opportunities for Syrians.  The Ministry of Labour announced in 2016 that 19 employment positions, mainly professional ones, would be closed to non-Jordanians in the domains of construction, services and agriculture. In November 2019, another 28 positions were closed, further limiting the access of Syrian refugees to work opportunities. The JRP has attempted to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the labour market and livelihood system particularly for Jordanian citizens, while still enabling Syrians to work in skilled jobs (Weldali 2019). At the same time, this plan has sought to scale up the critical capacities of public authorities, at both national and local levels, through strategic planning and coordination among all sectors.

The Impact of COVID-19

The Defense Law of March 2020 slowed down the economic activities at the public, private and informal levels.  According to an EU Neighbours report, “almost 50% of non-public sector workers are in the informal market and have no social benefits” (Zeitoun 2020). A good portion of these are refugees who are particularly vulnerable since a majority work as wage labourers, without contracts and thus do not have any social protection. Those working from home, particularly women, have also been affected by the lockdown since mobility was not always possible to buy products or have them delivered. Some cases of exploitation during the lockdown were reported where Syrians were never paid their wages and others were made to work in their closed factories during the lockdown for weeks with little pay. According to a report from Tamkeen on the conditions during the lockdown, violations were reported by workers in various sectors including services, restaurants, daily workers, manufacturing, irregular workers and transportation (Tamkeen 2020). 

Although the government has provided incentives for Syrians since 2016 based on the Jordan Compact and then the 2019 London Initiative[2] to apply for work permits, the majority opted to work in the informal sector, which allows them to leave their jobs in case of exploitation (UK Parliament, 2019). Moreover, the majority of educated and professional Syrian refugees have not been given the right to work in their professional posts.  Working informally made them lose out on opportunities for social protection and better work environments.

Distance learning was implemented as a result of the lockdown. Before the pandemic, most Syrian refugees were attending the afternoon shifts in public schools, which were already experiencing many challenges, including staffing and quality of schools. Yet, a completely new challenge in education emerged in light of COVID-19 with the need for technological devices and TV sets as well as internet access to allow for distance learning during the pandemic. The Jordan Education Sector Working Group as part of the JRP and in coordination with the United Nations and the thematic actors conducted a mapping of education response to COVID-19, identifying a number of ongoing and planned activities by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies all over the country and within Syrian refugee camps: 

“Activities ranged from offering distance learning covering non-formal education, remedial education, and learning support services and more, using diverse modalities such as WhatsApp, SMS, Zoom, Facebook Live and Facebook closed groups, YouTube videos, and even printed workbooks to the most vulnerable with limited access to hardware, all the way to UNICEF providing financial, in-kind, and technical support to the Ministry of Education (MoE).” (Batshon and Shahzadah 2020)

Yet, given the difficult livelihoods that challenged Syrians during the lockdown and the many members within the household who needed to access devices at the same time, this kind of education has not been possible for many refugees and other vulnerable communities (ibid.). Dropping out of education appeared often to be an easy option to address more serious livelihood matters.

In light of the pandemic and some opposition to the curfew hours, limited mobility and restricted work opportunities, the Jordanian government tried to provide support to Jordanian informal workers through emergency pensions from social security funds (Sandouq el Khair),[3] and provided some funding to help this wide range of workers, who were provided with a registration platform to benefit from the government’s initiative. While these funds were not enough, they were able to alleviate some of the burdens facing families by securing basic goods and services (Zeitoun 2020). Refugees, however, were not mentioned in these domestic support funds, although the UNHCR created a fund in order to support refugees in need with basic help for their everyday living (UNHCR 2020d). During the month of Ramadan, the UNHCR channelled donations provided on a yearly basis by Muslims as an expression of solidarity with those in need through a zakat fund [4] to raise awareness of the dire needs of the refugees as a result of COVID-19 lockdown (UNHCR 2020e).

Services in camps have been run by the UNHCR, which has coordinated the provision of services with all UN agencies and partners, as the camps were closed with very limited mobility in and out of camps.  Refugees were also not able to use transportation to get their food from the principal market in the camp: “There isn’t any transportation to the hospital [in the camp] or the mall [the main source to run errands because of the E-vouchers], which takes almost 3-4 hours to walk to any of these destinations,” (Cuso 7, Female, 28 yrs., Za’atari Camp, July 2020).

Moreover, water consumption has increased across the Kingdom as a result of the lockdown, with concerns over the implications for water safety in the most water-scarce areas. Some interviewees in Za’atari camp were anxious about the flow of water, particularly given the limited number of days when the water is pumped into their water tanks:

“Water pumping to the block is only for one hour in the morning, we have no water tanks, and this causes shortage in the water supply.” (Cuso5, Female, 46 yrs., Azraq Camp, July 2020)  

Some refugees expressed concerns, not only about the water flow, but about their security when checking on the water tanks: “For the water, we had a turn every six days, and it only came through the night, which made me very scared to go out and check it and turn on the faucet of the tank, so this week I built a fence around the water tank,”(Cuso7, Female, 28 yrs. , Za’atari Camp, July 2020) 

At the health level, very few cases of COVID-19 have been reported inside or outside the camps (UNHCR 2020f). The UNHCR has built quarantine and self-isolation areas in Za’atari and Azraq camps. There are a good number of older people in the camps and the spread of the pandemic would endanger their health status. The shops in the “Champs Elysée” of the camp present a risk to refugees unable to socially distance. Since March, the camps have been under lockdown to limit the spread of the disease. In both the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, there are two main hospitals and health clinics that have been fully staffed and where additional infection-control measures have been put into place. The refugee response in Jordan is at a critical juncture, with humanitarian and emergency needs increasingly overlapping with traditional macroeconomic development priorities. Ensuring access to livelihoods is a critical component of supporting people to achieve their preferred durable solution to their protracted displacement.

The Daily Livelihood of Syrian Refugees

This study also examines the livelihood assets of Syrian refugees’ households, with a focus on livelihood strategies as a result of the lockdown. Over the course of their protracted displacement, Syrian refugees have had to adopt a range of strategies, manoeuvering among livelihood assets and seeking to make changes within their everyday lives. These assets, as per the Sustainable Livelihood Framework (SLF) of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) include a range of assets, including natural, physical, human, social and financial resources.  People in their everyday life seek to “convert these strengths into positive outcomes” (GLOPP 2008). Yet, it is indispensable to consider the policies, institutions and processes that have a direct impact on people’s capabilities to achieve a feeling of inclusion and well-being.  

The strategies refugees use in their everyday lives vary according to their different assets and are based on decisions taken to avoid risks and serious vulnerability. Livelihood assets are not merely “things” that are fed into a production process, but also serve as a basis of power to act and ultimately bring about changes in society (DFID 2002). These everyday power dynamics are constantly changing in light of the situation and the individual’s social role and perceptions. 

This study analyses the wide array of livelihood objectives and the way they are accomplished in spite of challenges encountered by different socio-economic groups of Syrian refugees. Consequently, the study unpacks what Henri Lefebvre called the “connective tissue” of all conceivable human thoughts and activities, that is “driven by current features of the environment (Bargh 1997; Bou 2015).

By studying the livelihoods of refugees and the way refugees strategically make decisions and juggle their assets, this should provide insights into understanding how vulnerability has dramatically increased as a result of the pandemic.  Vulnerability refers to the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard, which varies significantly within a community and over time (Yang et al. 2018). There are many aspects of vulnerability,[5] arising from various physical, social, economic and environmental factors, which encompass insecurity, lack of protection, limited resources, poor living conditions, marginalization, and so on. As per the SLF, vulnerability has a great influence on people’s livelihoods and on the wider availability of assets. Vulnerability occurs when human beings have limited or no control over harmful threats or shocks and have inadequate capacity to respond effectively (GLOPP 2008). Moreover, vulnerability is the degree of exposure to risk (hazard, shock) and uncertainty, and the capacity of households or individuals to prevent, mitigate or cope with risk. 

The main concerns for Syrian refugees since their arrival in Jordan, according to this study’s findings, have been safety, family unity, finding ways to sustain themselves and their families, and ensuring a better future for their children. The pandemic has caused an alarming increase of livelihood risks since the majority of the refugees depend on their daily income for creating a living for themselves and their dependent family members. The risk is defined as the likelihood of occurrence of (external) shocks and stresses plus their potential severity (ibid.). The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines risk as the probability of harmful consequences, or expected losses (deaths, injuries, property, livelihoods, economic activity disrupted or environmentally damaged) resulting from interactions between natural or human induced hazards and vulnerable conditions affecting a particular community or society over some specified time period.[6]

The central research questions in this study are: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting Jordanian policies toward Syrian refugees and the likelihood of Syrian refugees’ return to Syria?  How is COVID-19 affecting the livelihoods and educational opportunities of Syrian refugees in Jordan and what are the likely future effects? How might COVID-19 affect Syrian refugees’ intentions to remain in Jordan or to return to Syria? To what extent could international assistance, both bilateral and multilateral, mitigate some of the negative effects of COVID-19 and governmental efforts to address the virus? The hypothesis is that Syrian refugees have sought to adopt a range of strategies to sustain themselves over the course of their displacement, including working long hours in low-status and low-paying jobs, working illegally and informally, using their networks to find and increase the quality of their jobs, partnering with locals to start businesses and maximizing access to formal humanitarian aid. To sustain themselves during the pandemic and to reach their objectives, refugees have relied on a wide range of support and ad hoc help from family, friends, neighbours, employers and others in the host community, while also benefiting from more formal support from state or aid actors (Agenda for Humanity 2016).


[1] This is a law that grants the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail basic rights.

[2] A five-year path to renew the focus on growth, jobs, and economic transformation.

[3] Sandouq el Khair translates to the “fund of good deeds”, which was an initiative created by the Ministry of Social Development in April 2020 as a way to support wage workers and other vulnerable groups in Jordan. (UNICEF, 2020) 

[4] Zakat (“charity”) is one of the pillars of Islam which describes aid that is provided directly to those who are considered most vulnerable. Zakat money is meant to assist people in need to cover basic needs such as rent, food, healthcare, and debt repayment. In some specific cases, Zakat may also be distributed in the form of in-kind assistance, such as core relief items like rice, sugar, ready cooked meals, etc.

[5] As defined by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction(http://www.odpm.gov.tt/node/162).

[6] See https://www.undrr.org/.