WASHINGTON, D.C. — A major problem with Turkey for the millions of refugees there, it has a model work permit system for the newcomers, but it still bars them from the country’s labor market. Such problems can be overcome, experts contend, so that the refugees can work for decent wages in Turkey.
Izza Leghtas, a Refugees International senior advocate, and Kirsten Schuettler, a senior program officer at the World Bank, discussed these challenges for refugees in Turkey at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University on Jan. 22. Leghtas, noting that Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, at 3.5 million, of whom 3.2 million are Syrians, shared her recent report, “I Am Only Looking for My Rights; Legal Employment Still Inaccessible for Refugees in Turkey.”
Many outsiders think that refugees live mostly in camps, which is hardly true in Turkey, Leghtas explained. In fact, Istanbul, despite being an expensive city of 14 million residents, is a metropolis that attracted many refugees at first or who gravitated to it eventually. About 530,000 officially registered Syrian refugees live in Istanbul, although the total number may well be more than 700,000.
Article 17 of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Schuettler pointed out in a policy brief that she wrote with two others, gives refugees “the most favorable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engagement in wage-earning employment.”
However, the brief, titled “Refugees’ Right to Work and Access to Labor Markets,” also says “some countries completely legally bar refugees from work, be it as an employee or starting a business.”
Turkey, it appears, is not one of those countries, yet high legal barriers keep employers from recruiting refugees.
In early 2016, Turkey allowed Syrians access to its labor market through a work permit system. Yet refugees themselves reported they received limited or no information about it, and only about 14,000 permits have been issued so far. An employer who wants to hire a refugee must prove that no Turkish national is available; must request and pay $138 for the work permit; pay refugees at least the minimum wage; and contribute to social security and file tax reports — all of which amounts to a disincentive.
Nonetheless, male refugees take menial jobs in textiles, construction, restaurants and tourism, many scraping by as day laborers in the informal labor sector for below-minimum wages or intermittent pay. Female refugees who venture to work risk sexual harassment. In the textile industry especially, employers prefer child workers, since they are cheap sources of labor. One consequence: 41 percent of refugee children are not in school.
Syrians and other Arabic-speaking refugees face further problems if they don’t know Turkish. Further complicating the matter, in 2017, Turkey prohibited nongovernmental organizations from offering Turkish-language lessons unless “they have a protocol with the Ministry.” Local authorities can provide lessons, but at least 12 people must form a group for a class to start. Since many refugees work 12 to 14 hours a day, their time is limited for classes.
Leghtas noted that non-Syrian refugees face additional hardships. Turkey has identified 62 smaller cities around the country in which non-Syrians can live legally, but they are restricted from living in Istanbul, Ankara, the capital, or in Izmir, Turkey’s third most-populous city. With fewer chances for jobs where they can live, some non-Syrians leave their remote locales for the out-of-bounds cities but must travel back to their city to report every two weeks.
Moreover, non-Syrians who work beyond their assigned cities unauthorized fear filing complaints of exploitation, harassment or similar problems since they work without proper registration. The non-Syrian refugees come from such places as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
To manage the situation better for refugees in Turkey, Leghtas’s recommendations include reducing or waiving the work permit fees; educating employers about the permit policy and creating incentives for them to hire refugees; facilitating Turkish-language training for refugees of every age and specialized training for women; tailoring some of the European Union’s financial assistance to foster employment and self-reliance even among non-Syrian refugees; and getting the United States to support the same measures and resettle more refugees affected by clear vulnerabilities such as LGBTI refugees, single women and female-headed households.
Two-thirds of refugees worldwide live in unfavorable circumstances that have lasted more than five years, Schuettler pointed out. Technically, they are called “protracted refugee situations.”
So despite its limits, the developing work permit system in Turkey could be used to bridge the divide between short-term, stop-gap humanitarian assistance for refugees and longer-term development strategies, possibly leading to more stability. To the extent that a host country reduces the dependency of refugees and enables them to become productive members of society, it may decrease the fiscal burden that refugees place on the country.
But of the 145 countries that are party to the 1951 UN Convention, Schuettler said, only 75 formally grant refugees the right to work under Articles 17 to 19 of the Convention or through their own domestic laws. In sharp contrast, by law some countries totally bar refugees from working either as an employee or by starting a business.
Countries receiving refugees need to appreciate the potential that can be gained by adapting or improving ways to manage newcomers to introduce more refugees into their formal labor markets. Then, everyone wins.
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Tino Calabia began his humanitarian work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and then ran a Bronx antipoverty agency and wrote numerous federal studies ranging from the rights of female offenders to racial discrimination on college campuses. He has served on national Asian American boards and organized seminars in former Eastern-bloc countries for exchange students he mentored while they lived in the United States.
Calabia has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, attended the University of Munich on a foreign-exchange fellowship and has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Columbia University. He lives in the Washington area with his wife, Dawn Calabia, who is an honorary adviser to Refugees International.