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Syrians dream of Europe despite Turkish work permit offers

New work permits are designed to keep Syrians in Turkey, but many say they crave stability more than jobs
A Syrian refugeeat a supermarket funded by European Union (AFP)

GAZIANTEP, Turkey - Syrians will be issued work permits as part of efforts to stem the flow of migrants travelling to Europe via Greece from the country, the Turkish government has announced.

Authorities have welcomed the move, saying it could be a long-term solution to better integrate Syrian refugees and could well bring wider benefits to the local economy.

But many Syrians say that without the guarantee of citizenship, the permits are not enough of an incentive to stay, especially with no end in sight to the war at home.

“The work permit doesn’t solve anything,” said Mustasem, a business management graduate who would only give his first name.

“I am 32 and thinking of getting married, of starting a family. If you don’t have a passport and nationality then you have no life."

Mutasem said he planned to take the dangerous sea journey from Turkey to Greece in spite of the new law.

Despite arriving in Syria in 2012, Mustasem says he has not managed to secure residency in Turkey and worries that work opportunities are limited.

Under temporary protection visas issued to Syrians, Turkey has allowed them to access free healthcare and services, but not the workplace.

“At least in Europe I know where I will be in [a few] years. Turkey is too uncertain,” he said.

“I want to be a human being, with a home, somewhere to live in this world.”

Over 2.2 million Syrians now reside in Turkey, with most living in large cities like Istanbul to the west and Gaziantep in the south. Only around 220,000 live in the well-equipped camps along the Syrian border, dependent on aid.

Refugees and migrants often cite the inability to work as a reason to leave for better prospects in Europe. Over one million migrants have crossed to Europe this year alone - more than 800,000 from Turkey - which has become the chief transit route to Greece and Europe.

“I was earning 900TL ($300) a month working in a hotel in Antalya,” said Khalil, a 19-year-old Syrian sleeping rough in the streets of the coastal Turkish city of Izmir while he tried to get enough cash together to pay a smuggler over $1,500 to reach Greece.

“We are just cheap labour here. We have nothing. If Turkey really loved us, it would give us a home,” he told MEE. “I want to go to Germany where I have a real chance to use my talents.”

Determined to stem the flow, the EU and Turkey in October cut a deal under which Turkey pledged to try to halt the number of Syrians and other migrants transiting the country in return for a $3.3bn aid package to help integrate Syrians and give them more incentives to stay.

Last week, however, the EU said Ankara had not gone far enough to stem the tide, with around 3,000 refugees and migrants still arriving on Greek shores each day, according to the International Office of Migration.

The Turkish government responded by ending its long-running open door policy to all Syrians, who could enter the country visa-free. While it will still let in all Syrians who enter by land, it has imposed visas on those flying in or arriving by boat from a third country.

The visa restrictions were followed by the work permit announcement, with the plan expected to be rolled out within weeks.

Radical reform

There is still scepticism surrounding the plans, although hopes remain high. Of the 2.2 million Syrians in Turkey, only 3,856 have been issued work permits, the majority of which have gone to those with passports who entered the country legally.

In their absence, an informal labour economy has thrived. Estimates from the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associates (TISK) say around 400,000 Syrians are working illegally, often in menial and service jobs for as little as half the minimum wage of 1,300 TL (US$430) per month.

Many of those are children, according to a December TISK report on the role of Syrians in the labour force, which found those under 18 were more likely to be employed informally in the service sector.

“We need them as much as they need us,” said kebab shop owner, ‘Mustafa’ who hires two Syrian boys aged 14 and 15, for $41 per week each.

Some Turks complain that the labour influx will lead to higher competition for jobs and downward pressure on wages, in an already crowded labour market where the official unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent and youth unemployment has been stubbornly high at around 20 percent.

“The potential for social conflict is very high,” said Professor Murat Erdogan from the Migration and Politics Research Centre at Hacettepe University in Ankara, who co-authored the TISK report.

“Syrians work in construction and agriculture for very little and this increases competition. Already we have seen that the attitude to Syrians is not always positive.”

In the southern city of Gaziantep, where 22 percent of the population is Syrian, Arabic is spoken widely in the streets and retail outlets.

A Syrian restaurant in the southern Turkish city of Mersin (AFP)

Valet parking officer Cagdas says the influx of Syrians in the labour market has lowered salaries in the city and increased competition.

“They will do anything and accept lower salaries. And they work hard. Turkish employers know they will work for less,” he said.

If this changes though, and Syrian employees are regulated on the same level as Turks, some believe Syrians could lose out, as employers are forced to pay additional tax and insurance costs.

Gaziantep restaurant owner Naci employs 60 staff, 25 of whom are Syrian. He says he pays all his staff the same minimum wage, but that his Turkish staff each cost him at least 490TL ($161) per month in social security and tax.

“I know it’s illegal to hire Syrians but they are poor and need the work,” he said.

“If they change the system [by formalising work permits], my nationalist sentiment would prevail and I would fire the Syrians. If I have to pay insurance and tax, I would rather pay for Turkish staff.”

Director of the International Labour Organisation in Turkey Numan Ozcan says if managed correctly, work permits for Syrians should boost the economy through additional tax revenue and could inject cash into the consumer economy, helping to offset the $8bn Turkey has spent on aid to Syrians in the country.

“We see more advantages than disadvantages,” he said in a telephone interview from Ankara. “Bringing Syrians into the formal labour market will increase tax revenue and... contribute to the national budget.”

“Wages are also important to consumption. If Syrians are not earning enough, then they are not consuming or spending enough.”

The ILO has recently completed a study into the economic effects of the new system. Ozcan said the research suggested Syrians bring skills that will fill gaps in the current labour market  - in areas like agriculture and textile production  - in a way that will increase production and exports.

“We know there are skills needed in the labour market. Our studies show that globally migrants tend to take jobs in the service sector. If we can match these skills to the Syrian workers, this can be an opportunity to increase production and exports,” he said.