American University of Beirut

Informal adaptive mechanisms among refugees in the Middle East: Understanding adaptation, resilience and agency in securing livelihoods in the informal economy among refugees from Syria in Lebanon and Jordan

​​​​​​​​​Project Overview​

​​The Syrian refugee crisis in its magnitude and intensity has laid bare the formal response structures of host countries. At the outset of the crisis, almost 5.6 million displaced Syrians settled in Syria's neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The consequent settlement of this unprecedented refugee population in Lebanon and Jordan largely took place among vulnerable host communities in localities with a limited capacity to absorb the mounting needs of residents. In addition, in Jordan, a small percentage of refugees settled in formal camps. Although the international community has made significant efforts to provide assistance to host countries, there remain substantial shortcomings related to the availability of and access to economic resources and public services for refugees and the communities who host them. To overcome these shortcomings and as a means of survival, some refugees are resorting to “informal adaptive mechanisms" (see Tsai, 2006 on the concept). The latter is inevitable in host countries like Lebanon, which lack effective and efficient formal structures, and so marginalized communities are obliged to fulfill their needs through informal channels. In these contexts, informality is exhibited as an approach to move away from under-resourced, restrictive formality and compromised legality and is used as a means to seek livelihoods opportunities and access needed public services.

When seeking livelihood opportunities, it is worth noting that both in Lebanon and Jordan Syrians can obtain work permits within a limited number of sectors. Nevertheless, the majority of refugees in both countries continue to work informally. In 2016, 90% of migrants and refugees in Lebanon were informally employed, while in Jordan, this was closer to 99% of Syrian workers (Aita, 2016). Despite efforts to improve the working conditions of Syrian refugees in host countries through agreements such as the Jordan Compact, more recent data points to a similar situation. For example, at least 95% of Syrian refugees who participated in a survey conducted in Lebanon in the spring of 2020 reported working without a valid work permit; while irregular or informal working arrangements were reported by 69% of Syrian refugees participating in a similar survey conducted in Jordan (ILO & Fafo, 2020). Although Syrians have always worked in the informal economies of Lebanon and Jordan, the refugee crisis has created pressuring competition in the informal low-skill labor market where Syrians—now refugees—are more likely to accept less than adequate labor conditions to sustain their livelihoods (Errighi & Griesse, 2016).

It is against this background that the Refugee Research & Policy Program at the Issam Fares Institute initiated the project, Informal adaptive mechanisms among refugees in the Middle East: Understanding adaptation, resilience and agency in securing livelihoods in the informal economy among refugees from Syria in Lebanon and Jordan. The project aimed to unpack the various informal adaptive mechanisms adopted by Syrian refugees to maneuver challenging processes and barriers in securing their livelihoods in the informal economy. Funded by the Ford Foundation, this three-year project sought to analyze the influence of various dimensions on the emergence of adaptive mechanisms among Syrian refugees in their drive to seek livelihoods in the informal economies of Lebanon and Jordan. To this end, five case studies were conducted that focus on refugees' adaptation experiences. The case studies were selected by an advisory committee consisting of local and regional resource persons from among civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, research centers, universities, and experts in the field, through a rigorous multi-stage selection process. Various members of the Advisory Committee as well as the IFI research team provided guidance to the selected researchers during the design, implementation, data analysis and synthesis, and write-up phases of their research. The case studies were conducted among micro-entrepreneurs, tribal communities, agricultural workers, and females who head their households, and delve into how key dimensions, such as legality, temporality, connectedness, spatiality, as well as gender roles, influence refugees' ability to adapt and secure their livelihoods in the informal economy. The researchers relied on qualitative and/or quantitative methodologies, and conducted their research from 2018-2019. The researchers presented their case study findings at stakeholder workshops held in Amman and Beirut in September 2019. A working paper by Abdo and Jamil, which critically explores concepts widely used in studies on refugees from Syria, such as resilience, livelihoods, adaptation, and legality, among others, complements the case studies. 

Across all five case studies, a reliance on social networks emerges as the most prominent strategy, either positive or negative, for securing livelihoods' opportunities in the informal economy. In their research among Syrian refugees in Lebanon's agricultural sector, Turkmani and Hamade find that key to securing their work in this sector is refugees' reliance on social capital and communal networks, the shaweesh (or community manager), and in rare cases, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations. Similarly, in their research on the tribal networks and relations of the Bani Khalid tribe, Miettunen and Shunnaq argue that structures of kinship, tribal traditions and sense of identity among tribal communities can to a certain degree support the adaptation of refugees of tribal origin as they seek livelihood opportunities. While in Jordan the refugees depended on stronger familial and kinship ties to secure their livelihoods, those in Lebanon depended on weaker previous work ties (see Granovetter, 1973 on the concepts of strong and weak ties). Mouhaissen and Alaa Eldien uncover similar strategies adopted by women who head their households, such as shaweesh (informal camp managers) facilitated work opportunities among women who have strong kinship ties, and who are often descendent from one tribe, or work that is facilitated through an NGO. Among Syrian refugee entrepreneurs in Lebanon and Jordan, Fathallah identifies informal partnering as a strategy whereby Syrian refugees' sometimes rely on their networks to partner with sponsors or acquaintances to open their small businesses. Other mechanisms are also observed, and are described in detail within each respective case study report, these include, but are not limited to, spending savings, resorting to borrowing or going into debt, and mortgaging or selling off of personal assets and belongings.

In a forthcoming chapter within a book that will be published for this project, Martha Chen presents a conceptual framework for classifying and comparing the informal livelihood strategies of refugees in conflict situations, and then applies this framework to the findings of the aforementioned case studies. Chen (forthcoming) categorizes the informal livelihood strategies of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon into coping, adaptive and pro-active strategies. In the framework, coping strategies refer to strategies adopted in the short-term to overcome the immediate impact of a changed situation, while adaptive strategies refer to those adopted in the medium-term, as refugees begin to adjust to their changed situation. Pro-active strategies refer to refugees' “ability to seize opportunities despite, or arising from, the changed situation with a longer-term vision" (Chen, forthcoming). For example, among the strategies adopted by refugees in the case studies for this project, refugees' reliance on pre-existing social ties (family, host community members, other refugees) and humanitarian aid, when they first arrive in the host country are categorized as coping strategies. Likewise, spending savings, resorting to debt, and selling off of personal belongings also fall into this category. Adaptive strategies include finding wage employment through a shaweesh, a kafeel (or sponsor), or a non-governmental organization, or partnering with local entrepreneurs to open a small business. In Jordan, where refugees are able to obtain permits to register their home businesses, some adopted pro-active strategies, whereby they seized this opportunity to diversify their businesses.

In the context of this project, resilience can be defined and used to capture the ways in which Syrian refugees are absorbing the impacts of the crisis, and the informal livelihoods strategies they adopt as tangible manifestations of their struggle to survive. But whether these strategies are allowing them to reinstate their functioning capacities to become self-reliant remains a question. Although the various case studies did not assess the impact of securing livelihoods in the informal economy on the quality of life of refugees, it appears that despite their efforts, and with few exceptions, participants were seldom able to live independently from aid assistance or to meet their needs in a “safe, sustainable and dignified manner". On this point, Fathallah makes an important distinction between resilience and sustenance among Syrian refugee entrepreneurs, sustenance indicating that they are “able to provide a livelihood to sustain themselves and their direct families" through providing for their “most basic needs…and [to help them] to focus more on short-term goals to get by another day" (p. 23). Few participants in the case studies were able to move beyond short-term coping or medium-term adaptive strategies to pro-actively seize opportunities to improve their livehoods conditions. In fact, when considering whether these mechanisms are leading to equitable access to resources and services for refugees working in the informal economy, based on the findings of the case studies alone, and acknowledging that this point requires further research, it appears that this is not the case. On the contrary, despite adopting these strategies, study participants were barely able to make ends meet and for the most part continued to live in poverty. Furthermore, evidence from multiple studies suggests that refugees in both Jordan and Lebanon face protection issues in the informal economy, and this was also observed in some of the case studies for this project, through the exploitation faced by some workers in the case of shaweesh-facilitated work, or for those working under the kafala (or sponsorship) system. Both of these are challenges which Chen (forthcoming) highlights as inherent to work in the informal economy in both conflict and non-conflict settings, due to the way that informal workers are viewed and treated, particularly at the policy-level.

The researchers conclude their case studies with policy and practice recommendations to improve the situation of refugees working in Lebanon and Jordan's informal economies, but these can be summed up by the following excerpt from Chen's forthcoming chapter:

“What is needed is a change in mindset and policies towards the informal economy: specifically, a mindset which de-stigmatizes and validates informal workers and policies which assist and protect the informal workforce. Such a change in mindset and policies is needed for both refugees and residents engaged in the informal economy, in both host and home countries. This is because the repercussions of the Arab Spring and the conflicts in the region will not be stopped unless and until all residents, especially the youth on the street, find decent work and refugees secure decent livelihoods (Aita, 2016). So long as informal employment remains the primary source of employment and rural-to-urban migration and youth bulge persist in all countries in the region, the focus should be on empowering informal workers and enhancing their livelihoods."

In September 2020, we hosted a webinar in culmination of the project, aiming to explore the potential impact of Lebanon’s compounded crisis on the livelihoods of refugees and vulnerable host community members working in the informal economy, further dissecting the various concepts explored in this project, particularly informality and adaptation, in contexts of severe economic and health crises (summary available here​). The webinar also included a presentation by Martha Chen of the aforementioned conceptual framework for the project. 

Prepared by Maysa Baroud, Project Coordinator, Refugee Research and Policy Program, IFI


Aita, S., editor.  (2016).  Arab Watch Report on informal employment: Reality and rights.  Beirut, Lebanon: Arab NGO Network for Development.

Chen, M. (Forthcoming, expected 2022). Informal livelihood strategies of Syrian refugees in Jordan & Lebanon: A conceptual framework and comparative perspective. In N., Yassin, H. Al-Dajani, & M. Baroud (Eds.), Informal adaptive mechanisms among Arab Refugees in the Middle East: Understanding adaptation, resilience, and agency in securing livelihoods in the informal economies of Lebanon and Jordan. 

Errighi, L., & Griesse, J. (2016). The Syrian refugee crisis: Labour market implications in Jordan and Lebanon. European Union. Retrieved from 

Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380. Retrieved from 

ILO & FAFO. (2020). Evidence brief for policy: Impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon. Retrieved from 

Jonaf & Jordan iNGO Forum. (2020). Walk the talk for the Jordan Compact. Retrieved from  ​

Tsai, K. S. (2006). Adaptive informal institutions and endogenous institutional change in China. World Politics, 59(01), 116-141. DOI: 

UNHCR. (2019). Regional Strategic Overview 2019/2020. Retrieved from  ​

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