Turkey plans to offer work permits for Syrian refugees, an official said Monday, announcing a step that was praised by advocates for refugees, although the policy is primarily aimed at slowing the flow of refugees into Europe.
“We are trying to reduce the pressure for illegal migration by giving Syrians in Turkey work permits," Volkan Bazkir, Turkey’s minister for European Affairs, told reporters on Monday.
The shift by Turkey, which has become the world’s biggest host of refugees since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, comes after a deal struck between Ankara and the European Union in November over how to manage the surge of Syrian refugees into Europe.
The EU promised to give Turkey $3.3 billion in cash and to renew talks on incorporating Turkish passports into the EU’s Schengen visa-free zone. In return, Turkey, a critical transit point for Syrians seeking asylum in Europe, vowed to tighten border security and improve living conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey, so they would be less likely to leave.
Until now, all but 6,000 of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey have been barred from entering the formal labor market, mainly due to concerns they will displace Turkish nationals in the workforce. Turkey’s unemployment rate is about 10 percent. While camps run by the United Nation provide for their basic needs, the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey choose to live in towns to provide their families a more normal life – and therefore need an income to survive. Many refugees find jobs doing menial labor, daily wage construction work, while others, especially women taking care of families on their own, resort to prostitution, begging, and forcing their children to work — what the U.N. refers to as “negative coping mechanisms.”
Advocates for refugees have long called for host countries to give refugees the right to work legally, which is stipulated under the Geneva Convention but not always observed. While officials have raised concerns in Jordan and other countries in the region about stoking societal tensions if local populations perceive refugees to be “stealing” their jobs, advocates say that allowing refugees to work can be beneficial to the country in the long term.
Barring access to work permits “forces people into informal labor market where their rights are not protected and their situations are precarious, fostering exploitation and in some cases making it impossible for them to work,” said Alexander Aleinikoff, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and the former U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. “So it produces a situation of eventual long-term dependency on the international humanitarian system, which is not good for anyone.”
The $3.3 billion in cash the European Union has promised Turkey is meant to offset some of the costs involved in folding Syrians into the workforce and expanding education for Syrian children, which Bozkir also said was a top priority.
The deal is seen as mutually beneficial for Turkey, which hopes to eventually join the EU, as well as for Europe, which faces a rapidly growing refugee crisis of people from Syria and elsewhere. EU officials fear that the 1 million asylum seekers who reached its shores in 2015 may pose a security threat, and that Europe will not be able to properly integrate them. Offering cash to Syria’s neighboring countries, which have already absorbed more than 4 million refugees to date, is a stopgap measure to keep the Syrian crisis at arms-length until the violence starts to abate.
Aleinikoff said many Syrian refugees may prefer this approach. “I think it’s likely that if given opportunities to work in Turkey many will choose to stay there because it’s closer to Syria and the hope is eventual return to their home country," he said. Still, allowing Syrians to work is “not the same as integration,” and does not imply a path to citizenship, he added. "So I don’t think it’s a panacea for their onward movement.”