How do policy approaches affect refugee economic outcomes? Insights from studies of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon

Caroline Krafft, Bilal Malaeb, and Saja Al Zoubi

Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Volume 38, Issue 3 (2022), Pages 654–677 


This paper examines how different policy environments in Jordan and Lebanon have shaped economic outcomes for Syrian refugees, with a focus on education, work, social assistance, and welfare outcomes. In Jordan, the population census identified 1.3 million Syrians living in the country, of whom around 650,000 are recorded as registered refugees by UNHCR. In Lebanon, the government estimates that Syrian refugees numbered 1.5 million in 2021, while UNHCR Lebanon reports 850,000 registered Syrian refugees.  

Main findings: 

  • Jordan has been more successful than Lebanon in providing education to refugees due to a strong initial push for inclusion. Jordan integrated Syrian refugees into the Jordanian education system early and effectively; refugee education outcomes had recovered to pre-conflict levels by 2016 and continued to improve since. Lebanon, with a weak public school system, did not initially integrate refugees and continues to have poorer education outcomes for refugees.  
  • Although country policy has played a key role in education outcomes, specific interventions can also support refugees’ education outcomes. Multi-purpose cash assistance (not targeted specifically to education) improved children’s enrolment among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In Jordan, the Hajati cash assistance program increased enrolments from 86 to 91 per cent (enrolments were already high). 
  • Both Jordan and Lebanon have restricted legal work opportunities for Syrians to sectors that had been dominated by migrant labor; in neither country have Syrians achieved sustainable self-reliance. Jordan has provided limited legal work opportunities for Syrian refugees, while Lebanon has restricted rights and work opportunities for Syrian refugees. There is some evidence that work permits in Jordan have led to better work outcomes (higher wages, work stability and formality, reduced risk of exploitative practices) but improvements have been modest and not rigorously evaluated. Most Syrian refugees in Jordan remain informally employed, with low employment rates and high unemployment rates. In Lebanon, around 95 percent of vulnerable Syrian workers are in informal employment. 
  • Social assistance has been effective in promoting refugee welfare and reducing poverty, food insecurity, and negative coping strategies. In both Jordan and Lebanon, Syrian refugees remain dependent on social assistance, funded almost entirely by international aid. Cash assistance has been shown to reduce poverty and negative coping strategies, while improving education and food security outcomes. However, given international funding shortfalls and less than universal coverage, poverty, food insecurity, and negative coping strategies (such as child marriage) remain common for refugees. Comparisons of short-term (12 months or less) versus long-term cash receipt underscore that the positive impacts of cash are primarily from long-term receipt. 
  • Encampment of refugees has adverse impacts on refugees’ quality of life, food security and household income. The Lebanese government did not allow any official UNHCR refugee camps, while Jordan opened refugee camps starting in July 2012. Despite theoretically greater access to services, quality of life is lower for Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Jordan. Cross-country evidence, comparing Lebanon to Jordan, suggests that camps reduce refugees’ household income. However, research suggests that camps can be an efficient subsidy for refugees who opt out of urban housing markets and may also help reduce pressure on local housing markets for native workers. 
  • The inclusion of refugees in the education system and partially in the labor market has not harmed host communities. Including Syrian refugees in Jordanian schools did not lead to worse education outcomes for Jordanian students. Syrians in Jordan did not negatively impact Jordanians’ labor market outcomes. However, the Syrian refugee influx into Jordan did increase housing costs and cause internal migration of Jordanians. 

The authors conclude that developing countries can provide critical services, such as education, successfully to refugees, but that this depends on state capacity. Moreover, providing education, work, and social assistance opportunities not only often helps refugees, but appears to do no harm to (and can potentially benefit) hosts. Yet there is a limited body of data and rigorous research on policies and programs to support refugees, and their impacts on host communities.