Closing the gap: Syrian refugees in Kurdistan deserve better work opportunities


Caroline Zullo

Caroline Zullo

15 Feb, 2022

While the KRG has established policies for Syrian refugees in Kurdistan to live and work legally, these provisions have not translated into sustainable livelihoods and economic prosperity, resulting in unrealised potential, writes Caroline Zullo.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is currently home to more than a quarter of a million Syrian refugees fleeing conflict. [Getty]

Forced from their homes a decade ago, more than a quarter of a million Syrian refugees currently reside in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) across Duhok, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil governorates. While two-thirds of Syrian refugees live in KRI urban areas, the other third remain in refugee camps.

Most Syrian refugees in Iraq are of Kurdish origin, with the majority having arrived in 2012 and 2013 at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, and their shared identity as Kurds has contributed to a high degree of social and cultural integration. Commendably, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has established policies for Syrians to live safely and legally in KRI.

One such policy allows Syrian refugees to work once they have received KRI residency. They must first register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and then obtain security clearance from the KRG security and intelligence agency, the Asayish, to formally obtain a one-year residency permit, which allows access to basic healthcare and education services.

The temporary residency also provides the de facto right to work in Iraq’s nascent private sector as employees or running a small business on their own. The result of these policies has led to Syrians in KRI enjoying the best refugee hosting arrangements in the region.

“The problem for Syrians is that this permissive legal framework has not translated into sustainable livelihoods”

The problem for Syrians is that this permissive legal framework has not translated into sustainable livelihoods. Iraq is in the midst of a weakening economy– from which KRI has little insulation- that has significantly increased unemployment.

The economic legacy of the conflict with the Islamic State group, unstable oil prices, currency devaluation and repeated disagreements over budgetary arrangements with the government of Iraq have left their mark in KRI. This has been magnified by the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a 21 percent increase in poverty among Syrian refugees.

While the deteriorating economy has affected all segments of KRI, even with generous legal hosting provisions, Syrians are particularly vulnerable. Two of the main factors that Iraqis rely on to secure economic opportunities—public sector jobs and social connections—are unavailable and in scarce supply for Syrians.

Only citizens can hold public sector jobs in Iraq, which come with formalised contracts, job security, and access to social benefits. Jobs in the private sector, particularly in the informal economy accessible to Syrians, come with fewer benefits, no contracts or social protection, and little recourse in the event of a labour dispute.

The economic decline that accompanied the pandemic has further exasperated competition for these jobs and many Syrian refugees report discrimination as a result of their nationality, compounded by a lack of social networks to support them in acquiring a job.

Female Syrian refugees, facing these issues in addition to gender role expectations, face even steeper odds in securing reasonable livelihoods. Syrian women told Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) teams that key issues, such as transportation, physical security, and harassment, prevented them from acquiring and maintaining jobs.

On top of these challenges, few Syrians are aware of their labour rights and even fewer are able to access them. Even for those that know their rights as employees, there are significant gaps in enforcing worker protections and Syrians lack the social connections to ensure they are implemented.

This has created an environment marked by lower salaries, longer hours, and poor conditions. NRC’s recent research, Closing the Gap: From Work Rights to Decent Work for Syrian Refugees in KRI, found that Syrian refugees in Domiz Camp in Duhok reported having to work overtime for jobs below minimum wage because they were desperate for work.


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Many do not have employment contracts in the informal economy and have limited options other than leaving their jobs in the face of a violation. Ahlam, a Syrian woman who used to work in a factory told NRC teams on the ground, “I left because I was never paid my salary. I hadn’t signed any contract and there was nothing to prove I worked there.”

The gaps in enforcing worker protections have posed barriers to decent work outcomes. Syrian refugees reported that they often put up with work violations because it might make the difference in maintaining a job and a level of economic independence versus being dependent on cash assistance in a refugee camp.

Even though the legal framework exists, work protections are not being enforced in the private sector, which not only gives rise to unequal economic opportunities, but perhaps more importantly inhibits the contributions of Syrian refugees in economic recovery and their ability to integrate and become self-reliant in the long term.

The majority of Syrians report their intention to stay in KRI in the immediate future. Economic inclusion is thus critical to their ability to provide for themselves—and just as critical to the economy with the unrealised potential and expertise of Syrian refugees.

“Work protections are not being enforced in the private sector, which not only gives rise to unequal economic opportunities, but perhaps more importantly inhibits the contributions of Syrian refugees in economic recovery and their ability to integrate and become self-reliant in the long term”

KRI has commendably provided pathways for refugees to partake in its economy, despite the scarcity of jobs. However, a review of existing legal frameworks related to employment rights and enforcement would allow for clarity on these protections and outline pathways for the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to address existing gaps.

Meanwhile, international donors and non-governmental organisations must continue to support the capacities of national systems to prioritise accountability in livelihood interventions and decent work policy frameworks.

Employment rights- for Syrians and Iraqis- are critical for sustainable livelihoods and durable solutions, but what is most necessary is the enforcement of these rights alongside the existence of legal frameworks in KRI. Only when work protections are implemented will the gap begin to close between legal and decent work.

Interviews among Syrian refugees in KRI were conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq through livelihoods and legal assistance programming funded by the European Regional Development and Protection Programme for Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq (RDPP II), which is supported by the Czech Republic, Denmark, the European Union, Ireland, and Switzerland.

Caroline Zullo is the Policy and Advocacy Advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter: @caroline_zullo

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.


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