Child worker accounts reveal plight of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Credit: Eylem Nazlıer /Evrensel

The personal accounts of child workers who work 12 hours a day for a fraction of the minimum wage while having to endure social exclusion and frequent insults reveal the plight of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

In an interview with the Evrensel daily, a mother of nine who moved to İstanbul seven years ago to escape the Syrian civil war, said she and four of her children worked six days a week for extended hours but that their wages combined did not amount to an average full-time salary.

One of the children, İsa (13), said he had been working since the age of six and never went to school. “I go to work at 8:00 a.m. and leave at 9:30 p.m. I work 12 hours, and the hardest part is waking up in the morning. Everyone is asleep, but I go to work.”

İsa said he wished he could play with his friends and go to school but that that was not possible since he had to work. He mentioned his life in Syria and said it was a better life because he could just be a child. “I work six days a week and make 500 Turkish lira [$63] a month.”

His elder brother Mahmut, 14, said he started working at the age of seven. He works hard 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, yet he only makes 600 to 700 Turkish lira (around $80), a quarter of the minimum wage. “I want to play; I want to go to school. My dream is to become a football player,” Mahmut said.

When asked why he wants to become a football player, Mahmut said he wants to earn money to look after his mom and fulfill his dreams.

As for how he is treated socially, Mahmut said some people are nice but that others are rude, adding: “’Why did you leave your country and come here?’ they ask. There is a war over there. What did we do to them? Are we the ones who started the war? They don’t know what we went through.”

According to a study conducted in 2018 and published by the Brookings Institution nearly 40 percent of Syrian children cannot go to school because of poverty and the need to work.

An estimated 3.6 million refugees have been granted temporary protection in Turkey. The majority of them live outside camps, in precarious and challenging circumstances.

The Turkish Red Crescent conducted a survey in 2018 which showed that most Syrian refugees were employed in irregular jobs that came with low wages as well as poor working conditions and exploitation. According to the survey, this was especially true concerning female and child workers.

İsa’s mother said she regretted her children having to work and that in Turkey, they were “dying every day.” She said people wrongly assumed they had a comfortable lifestyle or that the state took care of their needs.

This presumption is based on an agreement that was signed between the European Union and Turkey in 2016. According to the agreement the EU granted Turkey a total of €6 billion in humanitarian assistance. These funds were meant to cover the basic needs of refugees.

İsa said his life is made even harder by the verbal abuse he frequently experiences. He said people demand to know why they left Syria, which upsets him. “People are generally mean to me and they call me a filthy Syrian. We came here because of a war we didn’t start,” he said.

He added that most people have no idea what they’re going through as refugees. The mother said they did not feel safe going out because of the potential for hate crimes.

Another child, Ahmet (12), said he kept silent even when he was insulted in the street. “I don’t remember Syria. I like it here, but people treat us very badly.”

According to the “Hate Speech and Discriminatory Discourse in Media 2019 Report,” published by the Hrant Dink Foundation, Syrian refugees in Turkey were the second most targeted group in the Turkish media, with 760 hate speech items. According to the report they were systematically coded as criminals, murderers and thieves who posed imminent security problems including terrorism. Syrians were also represented in the media as the reason for the current adverse economic situation in Turkey and rising unemployment numbers.

This hate speech has led to serious incidents in the recent past. Syrian refugee Abdulkadir Davud, 21, was shot dead on August 18 in what appears to be a hate crime in the Zeytinburnu district of İstanbul. On September 13, 16-year-old Syrian Eymen Hammami was stabbed to death in another alleged hate crime in the Black Sea city of Samsun.

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