Underage, underpaid and unwelcome

As ever increasing numbers of Syrians flee their homes in search of refuge in Turkey, employers in their adoptive country have taken advantage of their destitution. In sweatshops in Istanbul, the Telegraphfound children as young as five working for a pittance to help their families survive.

It’s mid-afternoon in the Bağcılar district of Istanbul, home to many of the city’s refugees and poor families who dwell in its rows of ramshackle apartment blocks. In the basement of an old warehouse sit four rows of workers, their shoulders hunched, faces obscured by the sewing machines they feed with imitation leather.

The counterfeit Adidas shoes the men are stitching collect in piles on the floor at their feet. The cacophony of industrial noise created by the machines mixes with the humid air to create an oppressive atmosphere. After an hour inside, your head begins to throb, the manager jokes: “that’s the glue – it’s great, it keeps everyone high all day”.

A sweatshop in the Bağcılar district. The chemicals in the containers are used to glue the shoes together. Pascal Vossen A sweatshop in the Bağcılar district. The chemicals in the containers are used to glue the shoes together. Pascal Vossen

Hassan is one of his most valuable workers; he is obsequious, efficient and keeps to himself. He looks every bit the part, with his hair neatly groomed and a cotton shirt that stands out amongst the sweat drenched t-shirts of his colleagues. His family, having fled Syria in 2014, now rent a small apartment. With Hassan earning $300 a month, their living conditions are considered favourable to that of many other refugees who made it to Istanbul. The problem is; Hassan is only 14, and the oldest of his four siblings.

As a recent BBC Panorama investigation brought to light, the exploitation of child refugees in Turkey has also seeped into supply chains for products headed to British stores.

In an old retail store, five minutes from Hassan’s workplace, leaning against the shop window wearing brightly coloured sportswear, sit Hassan’s sisters Fatima and Rayne. They spend their days with small seam rippers unstitching tracksuits that have been sent for repair. Fatima, who is only five, can complete 10 a day, earning her $4; her sister who is nine can earn an average of $10. Their mother Hend remains hopeful that Fatima will one day be able to attend school, but until they are able to afford losing an extra source of income, their father will remain the only literate member of the family.

It is estimated that around 90 per cent of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are living in the major cities under a guest status that only guarantees them basic rights to services, such as a limited access to free healthcare. This lack of protection leaves the poorer families desperate to find housing and employment in order to survive — a situation that leaves them vulnerable to exploitative landlords and employers looking for cheap labour.

According to a recent Human Rights Watchdog report, only 0.1 per cent of Syrians have received the official work permits that they are entitled to. These permits require that the employer process the application on behalf of the worker and would guarantee a basic minimum wage. This is unlikely to change any time soon, considering many of the textile and industrial factories that employ Syrians do so precisely because they can pay them lower wages.

Suleyman sits with his wife, Basima, and their six children in the sparsely decorated living room of their one bedroom apartment in the Fatih district of Istanbul. They are a Yazidi family who fled Syria last year after Isil came within a few kilometres of their hometown. The living area is in reasonably good condition, but apart from a large sofa and a single monochrome TV set there are few furnishings.

A small Islamic calendar, the only item hanging on the long living room wall, is an ominous reminder that their stay in this accommodation is only temporary. Suleyman appears resigned, he has little hope for their situation in Istanbul: “The landlord asks us to pay $50 a day, which he knows we cannot afford, but we have no rights and need somewhere to live, so he can ask for any amount”. The next day, they do not pick up the phone; they had left by bus for Iraq after being evicted for failure to pay rent.

Every evening, a few kilometres away from the city’s main bus station Büyük Otogar, unmarked coaches transport hundreds of refugees to the coast where they will attempt the infamous crossing to Greece. For the thousands left in Istanbul, the reasons for staying can vary. Some are reluctant to stray far from loved ones left behind in Syria or the camps in eastern Turkey, and for some attempting a boat trip to Europe with small children is too great a risk.

For the majority of Syrian refugees in Istanbul their current situation is seen as a temporary solution before they can return home or resettle in a third country. Yet for many of the children, who have lived and worked for years in a city intended as a temporary limbo, the reality is missing out on an education and opportunities they might have received elsewhere.

Since 2014, the Turkish school system has been available to all Syrian children with a government-issued ID. A parallel system of temporary education centres that offers an Arabic-language curriculum approved by the education ministry of the Syrian Interim Government (formed by an umbrella of opposition groups) has also been backed by the Turkish government.

Yet despite these efforts, less than a third of the 700,000 registered school-age Syrians in Turkey attend a school. This, human rights groups suggest, has less to do with a lack of access to schools than the need for children to bring in a wage for their destitute families. Bill Van Esweld, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, explains that “there are lots of barriers” to children attending school. “But poverty makes many of them worse: the need for child labour, the tendency toward early marriage, or the inability to pay for transportation to school,” he explains.

One such child is Hesham, who had been standing with his father at their family’s pomegranate stall in Aleppo when Government forces bombed the area. Shrapnel left him with wounds over his face and shoulders; he was twelve at the time and as soon as he was discharged from hospital his family left for Turkey. They had considered leaving Aleppo earlier, but their children were enjoying their school and Hesham in particular was showing great potential, achieving the highest grades in his year.

After a shift at one of Istanbul’s many unregulated sweatshops Hesham comforts his younger brother Hasan, who is afraid of the low passing aircraft landing at the nearby Ataturk Airport. The airplanes remind him of the fighter jets that used to fly over their home in Syria and the recent military flybys during the coup in Turkey has triggered flashbacks to earlier traumas.

Given the choice again, Hesham says, he would still choose the security of life in Istanbul to his old life in Syria. “We didn’t want to leave [Syria],” he said. “Every month we were waiting for the fighting to finish, but it didn’t and then we were hurt in the bombing. “We like it here [in Istanbul] now because we are safe…When we reached Turkey, the Turkish soldiers took us for two hours for questioning, when they released us they kissed all the children who were crying on the head and said you are safe now.”

The maturity that many of the young refugee children working in Istanbul exude is palpable. From the nine-year-old Hamoun, who spends his days in the Tarlabaşı district, translating between Kurdish and Turkish for his neighbours, to eight year old Mehreban, who looks after her two younger siblings in the Süleymaniye district during the day and early evening while her parents work. Hesham’s 14-year-old cousin Ridvan explains: “People question our age, they cannot believe we are only 13 or 14, but we do not feel our age either, we do not play, we work and in the evenings we eat and sleep”.

The Turkish government is now working with the Syrian Interim Government – housed in Gaziantep, in Eastern Turkey – to improve education opportunities for refugee children. They have set a target of enrolling 460,000 children in schools by the end of the year. Classes for these children will be held in Arabic and will follow the Syrian curriculum. Turkish naturalisation law will also allow Syrian refugees who have lived in the country for five years to apply for citizenship, meaning the first wave of Syrians who arrived in 2011 are now eligible.

Despite these efforts, many Syrian refugees believe life will remain largely unchanged while their economic destitution continues. There is a growing sense among many Syrians that public opinion in Turkey is turning against them. In the Tarlabaşı district of Istanbul, where the number of Syrian refugees is beginning to outnumber the local Turkish population, a sense of community is beginning to form as a reaction to increasing tensions within the country. “We feel safe in this community, we can send our children to a school, we can leave them with neighbours, I would not feel so safe somewhere else in Istanbul,” says 31-year-old Hendrin.

The EU-Turkey refugee deal signed on the 20th March 2016, which entitled Greece to send migrants back to Turkey has further compounded the sense of isolation. According to Mr Van Esveld, “there has been an increased anxiety among some refugees that after the EU-Turkey deal they are under threat and surveillance. So they try to avoid any interactions with Turkish authorities when they move around the country including when they come to Istanbul in hope of finding informal work (and sometimes, in hope of getting smuggled to Europe overland)”.

Hassan, 14, from Aleppo, making counterfeit shoes at one of Istanbul's many unregulated textile factories. Pascal Vossen Hassan, 14, from Aleppo, making counterfeit shoes at one of Istanbul’s many unregulated textile factories. Pascal Vossen

For now, Hassan will continue to spend his days behind a sewing machine, unable to attend his local school that now offers some classes in Arabic. He will soon turn 15, which would have entitled him to a work permit had he been employed legitimately on a legal wage. Hesham will remain the only literate child in his family, as his younger brother Yousef, who is almost 11, prepares to start work at the same factory. For Hassan and Hesham, like so many of the young Syrian refugees living and working in Istanbul’s crumbling ghettos, economic hardship will continue to prevent them from receiving an education or a normal childhood.


Words by Nils Adler and pictures by Pascal Vossen, in Istanbul

Source: The Telegraph

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