Eren Aytug / NarPhotos / Redux

As refugees pour in, child labor booms in Turkey

Thousands of Syrian children are dropping out of school and filling positions in the country’s informal economy

ISTANBUL — Adil’s childhood ended one autumn night in 2012, when his family crossed the border from Syria into Turkey to escape the bombs falling on their hometown of Aleppo. The family deserted the shop they owned there, and when they reached Istanbul, they sent him to school with the money they had left. But their modest savings were soon consumed by the high cost of living. Once a successful student who loved studying science and Arabic, he had no choice but to drop out after half a semester and take a job at a textile workshop.

Adil, 16, is one of more than 400,000 Syrian children in Turkey working in the informal economy instead of continuing their education. He has been at the same shop for the past three years, making what he describes as “a third to half of what Turkish people make.” (The legal minimum monthly salary in Turkey is $344.) He works at least 10 hours a day, six or sometimes seven days a week.

“When I started school, we were hoping that my father would get a job [in the informal economy], but he couldn’t find anything,” said Adil, who is the eldest of four children. “My sisters are still young, and my youngest sister was a toddler when we came to Turkey, so my mother couldn’t work either. I had to drop out of school and look for a job.”

An 18-year-old Syrian refugee works at a body repair shop.
Eren Aytug / NarPhotos / Redux

Turkey, which is classified by the World Bank as a developing country, has been internationally praised for its willingness to accept millions of refugees from Syria and to accommodate their health care, education and social welfare needs. However, Syrians are required to obtain formal sponsorship in order to work, and permits are typically granted only to highly skilled refugees. As a result, more than 2 million Syrians are not legally authorized to work in Turkey, and the burden frequently falls on children.

Although Adil’s father eventually found a job in the informal economy, kids are often the breadwinners in Syrian refugee families. According to a new study released by the Migration and Politics Research Center at Hacettepe University in Ankara, a Syrian refugee working in Turkey is more likely to be a child than an adult.

“Especially in seasonal or labor-intensive sectors like agriculture, construction or textile, Syrian child labor has become the norm,” said Murat Erdogan, the study’s author and the director of the center. “[Syrian refugee children] are easier to manipulate, less demanding and most definitely cheaper than everyone else. Children learn the language more easily, and they acquire the skills required for basic jobs much faster.”

Adil, who now speaks fluent Turkish, is an example. “When I started working here, I started with basic things like carrying items and running errands. In three years, I learned everything I could. Now I can operate all the machines and do ironing. But my salary is still the same as when I started three years ago,” he said.

Ali Attar, a Turkish textile worker and activist, said his young colleagues are disproportionately Syrian. In the Istanbul neighborhood of Caglayan, home to many of the city’s textile workshops, more Arabic than Turkish is heard during business hours. On weekdays, it’s common to see young Syrians going in and out of workshops carrying bundles of clothes. “Before the refugee influx, there was a labor shortage in the textile sector in Turkey. Now this gap is filled primarily by young Syrians,” he said.

A young Syrian refugee works as a street vendor in Turkey. UNICEF reports that half of Syrian refugees in Turkey are younger than 18.
Eren Aytug / NarPhotos / Redux

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security is working on removing the legal obstacles that prevent Syrian refugees from participating in Turkey’s formal economy. Nurcan Onder, the director general for labor at the ministry, said legislation is lagging behind reality. “There are 200 million migrants globally. Turkey’s share from migration is on the rise and will keep rising.”

Yet many experts believe that while introducing work permits for refugees would ease some problems, child labor would continue. “It would be unrealistic to think of work permits for Syrian refugees as a magical wand that will solve all problems. Informal labor is still the norm in Turkey for the rest of the population too,” said Numan Ozcan, the director of the International Labor Organization’s Turkey office.

In the meantime, young Syrians are missing out on their educations. “Most Syrian children have been out of school for four to five years, since the beginning of the conflict. This is a very long time for a child’s life. Its effects are irreversible,” said Erdogan. “A lost generation is a risk society cannot afford.”

Adil also feels that he has lost vital years of schooling, but he hopes that the same won’t be true for his sisters. “I don’t think I’ll go back to school. But I’ll work to make sure my younger sisters can,” said Adil, who hopes to return to Syria one day. “We are still very lucky. We had relatives in Hatay [a Turkish city near the border with Syria], so we managed to escape early. But some of my older friends were later recruited by the Islamic State or the Free Syrian Army.”

Adil is optimistic that when his family does return home, he will be able to build a new life for himself. “I learned a lot about textile," he said. "When the war is over and we go back to Syria, I can get a good job. But my friends?” He shrugged with a wry smile. “I am not sure if they’ll be in Aleppo when I am back.”

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