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Syrian refugees may not be such a burden on Turkey’s economy after all

Conventional wisdom holds that refugees are a costly drain on their hosts, but a study of Syrians in Turkey suggests otherwise
Many Turks have taken advantage of the influx of cheap labour from Syria by becoming supervisors at farms, building sites and other businesses (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States – When Turkey and the EU negotiated a deal on migrants last month, it was understood that refugees were a burden and that Ankara needed coaxing with diplomatic and financial carrots.

While the absorption of some 2.8 million Syrian refugees has strained Turkish schools, hospitals and other services, a soon-to-be-published World Bank study suggests that new arrivals should not be seen wholly as a drain on resources.

“There are two sides to that coin,” said Mathis Wagner, a Boston College economist, told Middle East Eye.

Though many Turks have lost their jobs to lower-paid Syrian refugees, many have gone on to take advantage of the influx of cheap labour by becoming supervisors and salesmen at farms, building sites and other businesses, Wagner said.

“Often in this debate there are people who tend to emphasise the gains and others who emphasise the costs created by the arrival of large numbers of refugees,” Wagner told MEE. “The truth is, there is a bit of both.”

Migrants and refugees are at present being deported from Greece to Turkey as part of a “one-for-one” deal intended to reduce the large numbers trying to reach Europe. For each Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian migrant will be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

In return, Turkish nationals will gain access to Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone, the EU will speed up the allocation of $3.3bn in aid to Ankara and both sides will “re-energise” talks on Turkey joining the 28-nation bloc.

While European officials offered Ankara these sweeteners to secure the deal, some have questioned whether refugees should be viewed as a burden when they may also present host economies with cheap and willing labour.

Wagner, together with World Bank economist Ximena Del Carpio, compared Turkish government data from before the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011 against 2014 figures, at which time the country hosted 1.6 million Syrians.

They found that, without work permits, Syrians had gravitated toward low-paid, casual work on building sites, farms, shops and factories producing textiles, clothes, leather, food and wood products.

This hit casually employed Turkish workers hard. According to the data, for every 10 Syrian refugees to arrive in the country, six Turks were displaced from jobs in farming, construction and other parts of the economy.

That is not as bad as it sounds, because not all the displaced Turks had become jobless.

A closer analysis of the data revealed that about half of those affected had upgraded to better-paying and more regular jobs – often as managers of the Syrian workers who had entered the market.

“A whole bunch of Turkish people can upgrade their jobs. There are more jobs for Turkish workers who are able to take advantage of this influx of low-cost, informal Syrian labour in construction, agriculture, retail and the textile industry,” Wagner said.

“So, for example, Turkish workers used to pick cotton. The refugees show up and they’re cheaper labour for picking cotton. A whole bunch of Turkish people can now become overseers, managers or involved in sales and they actually end up with higher-value jobs in the trade.”

Of course, it has not been a boon for every unskilled Turkish worker. For every six Turks who were displaced, three benefited, while the remainder ended up unemployed, back in education or moved elsewhere in Turkey.

“While there are gains for business owners and the casual Turkish workers who manage to upgrade their jobs, there are losers – and they are disproportionately women and men with the lowest levels of education, those without even complete primary schooling,” he said.

Wagner’s study accords with the view of those on the ground.

Motaz al-Ibrahim, 28, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who lives in Gaziantep, said changes in the workplace were part of a broader economic shift that has sent rents soaring upwards and prompted a construction boom across southeast Turkey.

“Just look at any workplace around here and you’ll see Turkish workers who have quickly risen up the ranks to become supervisors and managers, while it’s Syrians who are doing jobs for which they are often over-qualified,” Ibrahim told MEE.

“In the factories and workshops, it’s Syrians who get paid the low wages and often don’t have much choice but to listen to whatever decisions their bosses make,” he added, using an alias for fear of retribution.

The economists will present their findings before Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn in May. Their conclusions echo a 2015 study by Utrecht University’s Wolter Hassink and others, which found that Turks are likely not losing jobs to refugees.

“The analysis … suggests that housing and, to a lesser degree, food prices rose, but employment rates of Turkish workers in various skill groups were largely unaffected,” Hassink told MEE. “There was little evidence of refugees crowding out natives in local labour markets.”

In January, Turkish officials published new rules designed to allow many Syrian refugees in the country to work legally. The guidelines applied to registered Syrian refugees who have been in Turkey for at least six months.

On Thursday, Refugees International, a rights group, warned of delays in the scheme.

“While the decision to offer work permits to Syrian refugees is ground-breaking, its success is far from guaranteed,” said Daryl Grisgraber, the group’s Middle East expert.

“Turkey must act now to ensure employers, the general public and Syrian refugees are fully aware of and participate in the programme.”