Syrian children working to survive in Turkey
Istanbul - Muna Awwal wants to go to school but she needs to go to work.
Muna says she is 10 years old. Nine, corrects her father, Mahmud, as they sit in the family’s second-floor flat in Istanbul’s textile district. Muna and her family arrived in Turkey from Syria in 2013.
For the past few weeks she has helped her father and 13-year-old brother, Muhamed, in a basement they rent, making cheap tops, dresses and T-shirts for other textile suppliers. Her father said some of the clothes are sold in Europe.
The family is from the city of Aleppo and fled fighting in May 2013, he said. He shoos his children out of the room and settles on the carpeted floor. Now, he said, he relies on three of his five children to get by.
The Awwal family’s situation is not unusual. It adds to questions about how safe Turkey is for families fleeing war.
“It’s not normal at all to make my child work — with me or with anyone else,” Mahmud Awwal said in June. “It’s not good but we have no other choice. It’s very common here in Turkey.”
Over a few days in April and May, Reuters journalists met with 13 Syrian children in three Turkish cities who said they have jobs making clothes or shoes, even though Turkey bans children under 15 from working. Another four who were older than 15 said they worked up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, despite a law that says those up to 17 can only work 40 hours weekly. Dozens more children who were working were unwilling to talk.
In March, Brussels and Ankara agreed a deal that allows Europe to send back to Turkey migrants who went through the country on their way to Europe.
In April, European Council President Donald Tusk called Turkey “the best example in the entire world of how to treat refugees”. The United States is not so sure. Turkey’s “efforts to protect the growing and highly vulnerable refugee and migrant communities in the country remain inadequate,” the US State Department said in a July report.
Groups such as Amnesty International have documented Syrians being shot at by Turkish border guards as they tried to cross into Turkey, living in squalor or deported back into the fighting.
Turkey houses more refugees than any other country: 2.73 million of them Syrians, more than half of whom are under 18. Ankara said it has spent more than $10 billion helping refugees. It does not recognise them as refugees but, at least on paper, it does offer protection, including free education and basic healthcare to those who register. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said some Syrians may even win Turkish citizenship.
Stephanie Gee, a fellow at Human Rights Watch, said Europe is “woefully ignoring” the problem of protecting children: “Unless Turkey can ensure that Syrian kids go to school, I think the whole question of effective protection is moot.”
An official in Erdogan’s office said it is the West that should do more.
“Turkey is safer for refugees than any other country,” he said.
On balance, cheap refugee workers are more of a bonus than a burden for Turkey, said economist Harun Ozturkler of the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara. They boost profits that lead to new investment.
Until this year, Syrians were not entitled to work permits, so they worked informally. Ankara started to issue permits in January but a government official said only a few people have qualified because workers either need to be self-employed or obtain the support of their boss to apply.
The Awwal family lives and works in Zeytinburnu, an industrial district of multistorey concrete apartment blocks in Istanbul. Textile workshops and outlets sit at street level.
In Awwal’s basement, Muna helps carry fabric between seamsters. Her brother Muhamed works on the machines. The children work 11-hour days, Mahmud Awwal said. He does not pay them.
Awwal got a temporary protection card soon after he arrived in 2013, he said. At first, he subcontracted work from a Turkish man and tried to send the children to school but he could not sign them up because he did not have papers to prove where he lived.
Then the Turkish worker short-changed him. His son Muhamed started work at another sweatshop for about $60 a week but, after some weeks, the boy’s boss would halve his pay so Awwal took on his own son and tried to stick with fellow Syrians.
His eldest son, Mustafa, who is 15, found a job with a Kurd called Dogan. When there are enough orders to work every day, the boy’s $100-a-week wage covers the family rent.
Dogan also helped Awwal, introducing him to a middleman, “so now we are both doing different orders for the same brands”. If there are enough orders, Awwal and his children make about $800 a month from the family workshop.
A Turkish government official said: “Relevant ministries have already been working on this issue, and have punished the slightest abuse.”