Syrian refugees in supply chains: Exploitation or opportunity?
The 7th Annual event in the Mary Robinson Speaker Series on Business & Human Rights was held on 26 September 2016 at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in New York City. They keynote speaker was Samar Muhareb, Director of ARDD-Legal Aid in Jordan. Her speech was followed by a lively panel discussion and audience Q&A.
Watch the video and discover the event highlights here.
We are at a critical point in time to ensure a responsible response from the private sector to one of the world’s major humanitarian crises.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, almost five million people have fled the country. Many Syrian refugees now live in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where they desperately need decent work to support their families. Yet they find themselves in countries with high existing levels of unemployment, and large groups of migrant workers from elsewhere who do not want to loose their jobs. What is the role of business and government in responding to this situation?
One response has been the commitment of large investments in job-creation. For example in March 2016 the World Bank approved US$100 million in financing to create jobs in Jordan - for Jordanians and for Syrian refugees.
Some of these will be in new and expanded "Special Economic Zones". As the World Bank itself acknowledges in a social and environmental assessment of these projects, civil society engagement and scrutiny will be important to ensure that labour rights are respected in these zones.
Event panelist Bahaa Ezzelarab of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre highlighted:
"Many refugees feel that their main comparative advantage in the job market comes from their hardship…that they must be ready to tolerate worse payment and employment conditions to make themselves more attractive to businesses"
By taking a strong human rights approach from the outset, government and business responses to the refugee crisis will be able to have maximum impact for refugees and host communities alike.
Insights from the panel discussion below.
Mary Robinson, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice set the tone for the conversation with her welcoming remarks. During the remarks she asked the audience to stand for minute in silence, to "symbollically acknowledge our failure, our shame" over the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Samar Muhareb described her work in Jordan leading ARDD-Legal Aid, which provides legal advice and services to refugees and other vulnerable populations. There are over 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, of whom nearly 90 percent live either in poverty or at risk of sinking below the poverty line in the near future.
"Engaging the private sector and mobilising investors in Jordan is key to ensuring the protection needs of refugees. This is ideally done through establishing strategic partnerships with non-governmental organisations who are focused on refugee issues, as they are very well acquainted with the protection needs and vulnerabilities of refugees."
Debbie Coulter introduced Ethical Trading Initiative's work engaging global garment brands to reduce exploitation of Syrian workers in Turkey’s garment industry. Several companies have taken important steps to strengthen protection for these workers in their supply chains, and have advocated for the government to extend access to work permits.
“We need to broaden this dialogue. We need to have conversations with the local and global trade unions...Also local refugee focused NGOs, who are very much in demand [for advice] but are woefully under-resourced."
Kate Kennedy introduced a report by Freedom Fund on the exploitation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including child labour and sex trafficking.
"Lebanon has been outstanding in shouldering the burden globally, as have other countries like Jordan. But the truth is, Lebanon does not give adult Syrian refugees the right to work. That singular fact has made children take on the burden of work to provide food and shelter for their family."
Bahaa Ezzelarab of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reminded the audience of the broader context, in which, welcome as they are, job creation initiatives stem from a narrative of "keeping Syrian refugees at bay, in countries where they belong."
"It’s important for business to be able to create decent job opportunities - also for local civil society to be aware of the responsibilities of business, given that civil society in the region can be state-centric in its approaches - and finally, we also all need to be aware of the broader context at play."
Sarab Al-Jijakli brought the conversation to the US, emphasising that there is a wealth of talent among the Syrian refugee population which US companies can draw from. He also called on business to speak out against discrimination.
David Donoghue, Ireland's Ambasssador to the United Nations, summarised the outcomes from the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The Summit had been held the previous week and resulted in the New York Declaration. Ambassador Donoghue co-facilitiated the summit, with Jordan's Ambassador to the UN, Dina Kawar.
"The business community has an extremely important role to play in confronting this acceptable bigotry [against Syrian refugees in the US]…top-down awareness from the business community influences employees, and this is critical."
About Samar Muhareb
“We have a clear reference [in the outcome document] to the role the private sector must play in creating employment opportunities, assisting with labour mobility and with vocational training…particularly by investing in host countries.”
Samar Muhareb is co-founder and Executive Director, ARDD-Legal Aid, Jordan. She is a long-term advocate for refugees and vulnerable populations. Samar began her career in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, was part of the efforts that established the NGOs Coordination Committee in Iraq at the beginning of the Iraq war, and has worked for Oxfam GB.
In recognition of her efforts she was awarded the TAKREEM Arab World Young Entrepreneur Award in 2011. She is a board member of the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network and is a delegate member to the Arab League under a new initiative to represent the work of civil society in the humanitarian field. In 2016 she was selected as a board member for Greenpeace Mediterranean.
Below: Samar Muhareb with Mary Robinson and David Donoghue.