The joint EU-Turkish action plan to end the migration crisis not only aims to make Europe a much less appealing destination – with threats of detention and deportation for all new boat arrivals to Greece – but also depends on making conditions more tolerable for the 2.7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
One of the main factors driving Syrians to abandon life in Turkey and move on to Europe has been Ankara’s reluctance to lift barriers to the formal labour market. The announcement in January that – albeit with a number of caveats – all Syrians would be allowed to apply for Turkish work permits raised hopes that life would improve for the many refugees dependant on aid or working in the informal economy for low wages.
But the new regulations have yet to be completely implemented and are being described as prohibitively complex and costly. Non-Syrian refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – who account for about 50 percent of arrivals to Greece – still lack the right to work in Turkey.
“Currently, the procedure [for obtaining a work permit] is still very complicated, and few Syrians are able to meet the requirements,” said Kemal Kocak, a consultant with Datassist, a Turkish human resources firm.
Work, but no rights
With a strong résumé in a technical field and years of experience in several countries, Ali al-Ahmed found work at a small marketing company in one of Istanbul's wealthiest suburbs within months of arriving in Turkey from Damascus in early 2016.
“All my Syrian friends are telling me I am very lucky,” said al-Ahmed, 22. He joined three other Syrians at the company, but because they lack work permits, they are all being paid a fraction of the salaries Turkish nationals would earn for the same jobs.
Al-Ahmed said his employer spent months trying to secure a work permit for him under the new law, but finally gave up when it turned out to be too complicated and costly. “I know I am not getting my rights, but I have managed to accept this because I don’t have any other choice.
“We don't want to be refugees in Europe,” he told IRIN. “We don't want to waste two or three years of our lives waiting there, and we don't even know what we are waiting for. Maybe, in the end, they will just kick all refugees out. We want to get on with our careers.”
In 2014, Turkey passed a law that provided limited, temporary protection to Syrians and other refugees. On paper at least, Syrians who registered with the Turkish authorities could access healthcare services and send their children to public schools. But they could only apply for a work permit if they had entered the country using a valid visa. This barred the vast majority of Syrians, who fled the conflict in their country by simply crossing the border into Turkey.
Up until mid-January 2016, only around 7,200 Syrians had been able to obtain work permits, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. The ministry couldn’t provide the number issued since the new legislation came into effect, but it isn’t thought to be very many.
The new law removes the requirement that Syrians must have arrived in the country with a valid visa, but other restrictions remain in place. They must wait for six months after registering as a refugee with Turkish authorities before they become eligible for a work permit and then remain in the district where they registered and find a company there willing to hire them and make the application on their behalf.
Preparing the documents for the application is a labour-intensive process and paying someone to help can cost as much as $1,000. Many employers are unwilling to make that kind of investment, explained Kocak.
The obstacles to Syrians being able to secure jobs and pursue careers in Turkey go deeper than an excess of red tape, said Muhammad al-Gharbi, a Syrian software developer who arrived in Turkey in 2013 with a university degree and years of work experience.
“You are an expert in your field, but nobody treats you like an expert. They treat you like a refugee.”
“You are an expert in your field, but nobody treats you like an expert. They treat you like a refugee,” he told IRIN.
Al-Gharbi spent six months taking intensive Turkish language classes and is now fluent, but said his Turkish employers continued to pay him less than his Turkish co-workers while many of his Syrian colleagues were not being paid at all. “It happened to a lot of my friends,” he said. “[The employer] would say, 'We are in an economic crisis, so we cannot pay you now.'”
By October 2015, al-Gharbi had decided to board a boat for Greece. He only changed his mind at the last minute after receiving a phone call from his mother, still in Syria, who talked him out of making the dangerous trip.
Now in a stable job, al-Gharbi has convinced his employer to apply for a work permit under the new law, but even Turkish officials don't seem to understand the procedure.
“There are a lot of conditions the company must meet, and then there are conditions I must meet,” he said.
Even if it was easier to get a work permit, al-Gharbi is not convinced it would change the attitudes of Turkish employers.
“Having a work permit might give you a chance to sue someone if they try to stall on your payment or something,” al-Gharbi said. “But then again… really it's a cultural, societal problem in Turkey. They do not treat you the same [as locals] and I do not think a law is going to change that.”
Hurting the economy
Before the war, Syria had one of the best higher education systems in the region. “Syrians are very well educated. In many fields like engineering and science, they are better qualified than people in Turkey,” said Kocak. “So there is definitely a need for skilled Syrians in the Turkish workforce.”
Excluding Syrians from the labour market has had negative effects for the entire economy, contributing to a “downward spiral of wages and working conditions” for both Turkish workers and refugees, according to Numan Özcan, country director for the International Labour Organization.
Many Syrians in Turkey, unable to put their skills and qualifications to use, have had to become entrepreneurs to make a living.
Ahmed al-Mulli, an information systems expert, runs a small but bustling Syrian falafel restaurant in Beyoglu, a popular tourist district in Istanbul. Without a work permit, he found it difficult to secure a job, even in the informal sector. “Even if you speak Turkish… you will not find good work. So I got this idea that people might like Syrian food. I opened this place, and in six months I made 5,000 euros.”
One of his brothers helped him set up the restaurant but then left for Germany. His German asylum application was finally approved this month, two years later. But al-Mulli, now married to another Syrian and settled in Istanbul, is happy where he is. “When I first came to Turkey, I was thinking of going to Europe… but now, I don't think there is any way to go even if I tried.”