Turkey is in a tight spot. With years of economic growth slowing to a halt, the government is scrambling to kick start the economy while simultaneously dealing with the growing refugee crisis and protecting its borders from unrest spilling over from the conflict in neighboring Syria.
While the global economy slumped painfully after 2008, Turkey experienced several years of unexpected growth that skimmed the surface of the 10% mark. Now, it appears maintaining this trend will be close to impossible, and major reforms will be needed if President Erdogan is to reach his lofty goal of making Turkey the world’s 10th largest economy by 2023.
As economists mutter on about inflation and interest rates, the influx of Syrian refugees has caused a swift spike in unemployment in Turkey. Many employers now opt to hire the easily exploitable and undocumented Syrians spilling over the border in search of safety and an opportunity to make a living, no matter how bad the working conditions or how low the wages. As a result, many residents of southern Turkey fear for their livelihoods.
The delicate balancing act between providing assistance and maintaining order is especially visible in Gaziantep, the largest city in south-eastern Anatolia. Lying just 60 kilometers from the border with Syria and around 100 kilometers north of Aleppo, Gaziantep is now home to almost 300,000 urban refugees, who do not live in camps or other designated areas. In fact, the Syrian influence is so strong Gaziantep has been nicknamed “Little Aleppo” or “Aleppo in Exile.”
The number of Syrians swelling Gaziantep’s streets will surely rise in the coming weeks as the Islamic States’ attacks on Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria force tens of thousands of Syrians to cross the border into Turkey. According to estimates by the United Nations (UN), around 60,000 Syrians, most of whom are Kurdish women and children, crossed into Turkey in less than 48 hours between September 18 to 20. Hailing primarily from the countryside around Aleppo, urban refugees from Syria currently make up almost a fourth of Gaziantep’s population. Unable to return home, most of these civilians will do their utmost to build a life for themselves in Turkey.
Refugees Not in Camps
In many ways, Turkey has been a model host for Syrians both inside and outside refugee camps.
In a recent New York Times piece entitled How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp, author Mac McClelland described the extreme order and cleanliness of a container refugee camp – a camp that provides shelter in trailers referred to as containers instead of tents – in Killis, a Turkish town directly on the border with Syria.
Despite the Turkish government’s admirable efforts at perfecting the conditions of a shelter infamous for its abject poverty and filth, the majority of Syrian refugees do not have the luxury of living in these new, revamped communities, replete with Arabic language schools for youngsters, makeshift cafes, and supermarkets. According to the Florence-based Migration Policy Centre, only 30% of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are living in camps.
For years the government unilaterally built refugee camps for Syria’s displaced civilians and provided them with free healthcare and education to the best of its ability. It was not until 2013 that the Turkish government began to look to the international community for assistance in dealing with the increasing number of new residents, allowing a growing number of international organizations to gain access to the refugee population.
After the outbreak of the conflict, Turkey immediately accorded temporary protection to Syrians on its territory, ensuring they do not face forced repatriation.
While able to live legally in Turkey, Syrians are not granted formal refugee status and are instead classified as ‘guests.’ While Turkey is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, an exception written into the original document stipulates it is only obligated to accept refugees from European countries. Consequently, Syrians in Turkey are not accorded the same legal rights and protections to which refugees are generally entitled.
In April 2013, Ankara passed a comprehensive new migration law that created a General Directorate of Migration Management, specifically responsible for processing asylum applications and managing new arrivals from Syria.
The new law, which was developed together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the European Court on Human Rights, has been heralded as a model for how to protect refugee rights. Despite the praise, however, many Syrians hoping to obtain permanent residence in a host country are forced to look outside Turkey.
Meanwhile, in the province (Gaziantep) that has taken in the highest number of Syrian refugees, ensuring that new residents have access to healthcare, education, accommodation, and employment has been a constant challenge.
Urban refugees, who do not live in camps, are usually left out of the loop. Little is known about their needs for education, healthcare, or employment. Many are living in cramped conditions while working illegally at odd jobs around city centers.
An Ill-Defined Status
Without the same benefits as their camp-based compatriots, urban refugees often have a relatively more important impact on the local economy. They also have a more urgent need to find employment.
According to a Turkish government survey of Syrians living outside of refugee camps, 77% of respondents had looked for a job since arriving in Turkey.
But temporary protection status does not make it easy for Syrians to work in Turkey legally, and the percentage of those in Gaziantep who hold legal work permits is miniscule. As a result, Syrians have become an exploited, underground workforce in industries ready to absorb unskilled laborers prepared to work for a pittance.
The agricultural, construction, and textile industries have all taken in many low-paid Syrian workers, as has the service sector. An increase in Arab tourism over recent years created a demand for employees proficient in Arabic. Restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops throughout Gaziantep have all opted to hire Syrians, hoping to save money and offer tourists a more comfortable experience in the process. In many towns and cities across southern Turkey, restaurant menus and advertisements for real estate can be found in Arabic.
As a result, the average income in Turkey is dropping rapidly. In parts of the country where unemployment was already a problem, Turks are anxious that low-paid Syrians are replacing them, eliminating any semblance of job security.
According to Orcun Kendigelen, a 26-year-old construction worker from Gaziantep, although his wages have fallen over the past several years, he feels lucky to still have a job. “Many of my former colleagues lost their jobs and left Gaziantep,” he explains. “There are too many others willing to work for less.”
In 2009, Gaziantep’s 17.2% unemployment rate was already one of the highest in the country. Because many refuse to register with the National Employment Agency (ISKUR), the number of unemployed is probably much higher than official figures show.
Increased feelings of insecurity have aggravated animosities between Syrians and Turks in the city.
But despite popular perceptions that Syrians are ‘taking all of our jobs,’ the language barrier and difficulty in obtaining work permits make it difficult for Syrians to find employment, especially as their numbers increase.
Many of those working in situations of grotesque exploitation were high skilled workers with advanced degrees back in Syria. It is not uncommon to hear of economics professors employed in factories or mathematicians picking fruit in the fields.
Unlike other countries that admit a large number of Syrian refugees – such as Lebanon and Jordan – Syrians arriving in Turkey are often forced to learn a whole new language, in order to find a job. With hungry families to feed, most new arrivals cannot wait to master Turkish before becoming employed. The situation has left many depressed and despondent.
To solve these problems, the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce recently recommended that Syrians be given legal, short-term work permits, vocational training, and social security benefits. The proposal includes setting an employment quota for Syrian refugees in all local business and building industrial zones near the border for public-private partnerships that would employ Syrian refugees. The proposal is, however, only in its early stages.
A Home Away From Home
As Turks and Syrians struggle to make ends meet, an increased demand for housing as a result of the sudden upsurge in the city’s population has caused the price of accommodations to spike. Over the past 5 years, housing prices in Gaziantep, Kilis, and Adiyaman have increased by 125%.
In the city’s outer reaches, apartments that rented for approximately 150 Turkish Lira a month in 2011, now cost around 400-450.
For poorer residents the effects have been unbearable. Gaziantep’s courts are now weighed down by cases in which properties are seized due to the owner’s inability to pay off debts, and – as in other cities around the world affected by economic downturns – suicide rates have climbed dramatically as a consequence.
Most Gaziantep residents have dreadful stories to share about opportunistic landlords. Syrians, in particular, recount stories of landlords who raise the rent each month for properties that are in shambles. Turks, meanwhile, complain of being unable to find housing because landlords prefer to rent to Syrians willing to pay more.
The arrival of high-income Syrians in Gaziantep has contributed to these problems. While people complain that the crime rate in Gaziantep has increased with the arrival of low-income Syrians, in areas where new residents are relatively privileged, housing prices have risen even more.
As Gaziantep’s socio-economic landscape has continued to fluctuate, animosity between Syrians and Turks reached a pinnacle in August 2014.
After a Syrian man murdered his Turkish landlord, local residents attacked Syrian housing complexes and burned cars with Syrian license plates. The tensions took several weeks to diffuse and even caused local officials to relocate some Syrian families from the center of the city to tent and container camps around the area.
Despite these difficulties, positive relations between Turks and Syrians are not unheard of. Ameera Alhakim, a 30-year-old language teacher and translator from Homs, claimed that although she has experienced cases of people yelling obscenities upon seeing her Syrian license plate, in general she feels Gaziantep’s Turkish residents have been welcoming. While Alhakim complained about the low wages and long hours at the language school where she works, her experience with her Turkish colleagues and peers has mostly been positive.
Gaziantep’s mayor, Fatma Sahin, can be credited with calming the situation substantially and promoting peace between Turkish and Syrian residents by calling on the city’s inhabitants to open their arms to their Syrian neighbors. In a statement translated into English by Al-Monitor, Sahin said:
People took refuge in our city to protect their lives and their families after the civil war in Syria. It wasn’t their choice but an existential necessity. Being neighbors is a sacred relationship according to our beliefs. It is not in our traditions to be prejudiced against people who ask for our help and make their life even worse.
A Lost Generation
For urban refugees, getting their children into school is often an additional challenge. Under the supervision of the Turkish Ministry of Education and the General Authority for Education of the Syrian National Coalition, the Turkish government has opened dozens of schools to teach the Syrian curriculum in Arabic.
The need, however, is far greater than the number of available schools, and many of these institutions suffer from overcrowding. Classrooms generally hold an average of 60 students per day. Stuffed schools and short school days make it difficult for even the brightest and most enthusiastic children to receive a proper education. The problem has led many to speculate that this generation of Syrians will be left by the wayside, without an education or an opportunity to develop their minds and skills.
In response, some Syrian businessmen have established schools in the region that, like their state-run counterparts, also teach in Arabic and follow the Syrian curriculum. But these institutions only accept students who can afford to pay. For many urban refugees struggling to find money for food and housing, paying up to $1,500 in school registration fees is simply impossible.
In the meantime, the language barrier and need to find employment often prevent young Syrians from attending Turkish schools. In Gaziantep, it is common to see Syrian children selling water and cigarettes at the bus station or next to traffic lights, and entire families can be seen foraging for rubbish and recyclables to be sold for a small sum.
UN figures estimate that around 60% of the half a million Syrian refugees in Turkey are school-aged children.
More Is Needed
Over the last several years, Ankara has spent approximately $3 billion hosting Syrian refugees on its territory. Both the United States and the European Union have contributed several billions to Syrian refugees in general. But according to the UNHCR, it has received only 14% of the funding needed to address the refugee crisis.
With the conflict in Syria raging on, the wave of refugees seems unlikely to subside anytime soon. Meanwhile in Gaziantep, shoe-less children skip school as housing prices continue to rise.