By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - The European Union has relaxed trade rules with Jordan in return for allowing thousands of Syrian refugees to work in its companies, EU and Jordanian officials said on Thursday.
Jordanian manufacturers that employ a certain number of refugees will pay less or no duties on many of their exports to the EU for the next 10 years, boosting an economy strained by the presence of over 650,000 Syrians fleeing civil war.
The new policy, agreed in principle at a donor conference in London in February, is part of an EU strategy to stem the tide of asylum seekers coming to Europe by improving refugees' conditions in countries neighboring Syria.
"I’m convinced that this decision will strengthen Jordan's resilience in the face of the refugee crisis," EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said.
Jordan has started to allow Syrian refugees to work in its industrial firms and in export zones where manufacturers are now allowed to have refugees make up 25 percent of their workforce.
"This is an opportunity to transform the Syrian refugee crisis to an economic opportunity,” Planning Minister Imad Fakhouri said.
"We can benefit from them as a surplus labor in the sectors that don’t adversely affect Jordanian employment opportunities.”
The EU has also earmarked soft loans and grants from worth 747 million euros in 2016 and 2017, Fakhouri said.
Jordan has issued 20,000 work permits so far and U.N. sources expect up to 78,000 Syrian refugees will get them shortly many more in coming years.
The EU already has a deal with Turkey, rewarding it financially and with other benefits in return for stemming the flow of migrants from its shores.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)