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Struggling to scrape by, Syrian refugees take low-paying jobs in Turkey

March 28, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Millions of Syrians who have fled to Turkey are caught in a situation where they have no real access to state services and are treated like second class citizens. Safe from war, they are still vulnerable and being exploited. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports how Syrians in Turkey are doing what they must to survive, and how that’s affecting workers in Turkey.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It was on a visit to the huge refugee camp at Zaatari in Jordan today that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for more international support for Syrian refugees and for the countries hosting them.

To the north of Syria, Turkey now hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees. President Erdogan there says 70,000 people with special talents will be granted citizenship.

But a Turkish charity is urging the government to grant citizenship to all refugees, to stop exploitation, and to prevent violence erupting between Turks and Syrians.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Western Turkey.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Hajeeras from Northeastern Syria are creating a new shelter after being evicted from their tent by paramilitary police. They live with the constant worry of being moved on again.

Aid workers say raids on unofficial refugee camps are part of the strategy to stop migrants from reaching Europe. In an attempt to avoid discovery, these people are staying out of sight in semi-derelict farm buildings.

This rough farmland was home to about 300 refugees for the winter. But the Syrians were cleared out and told to find accommodation in hotels, houses or apartments.

The farmer objected to us filming, called the police, and followed us for several miles as we looked for people willing to talk.

MARIAM IBRAHIM, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter): Mariam is my name, Mariam. I’m 30 years old, Mariam Ibrahim. Our life is awful. We have no source of income. Nothing. Only God is by our side. We have no money. We are on our knees. We’re struggling to survive. We just work to live.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The landowner is charging Mariam $100 a month to pitch her tent. She is alone with her five children and has little choice.

MARIAM IBRAHIM (through interpreter): They say living in houses is better for you than living in tents. So, how do we feel? I mean, we are crammed on top of one another. I don’t have the means or help or money to live in a house.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Despite barely earning enough to support her family, Mariam is trying to send money to Syria for her sick husband left behind in an area where Kurdish forces are fighting Islamic State.

There’s irregular work in the fields around the town of Torbila. Here, they’re harvesting leeks. The Syrians say adults might get $10 for a 12- to 14-hour day. That’s about half the statutory Turkish minimum wage. The children earn far less.

BOY (through interpreter): In Syria, they are all dead or living with death.

BOY (through interpreter): We are better off in Turkey compared to Syria. There’s no fighting. We are comfortable here.

AHMED MOHAMMED KHALAF, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter): I came to Turkey to work in the orange orchards or flower fields. The daily pay is low, like 75 cents.

BOY (through interpreter): Now we are working and coming back from rock bottom. But I think of being in school and learning everything.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Refugee supporters say stories like this are replicated all along Turkey’s Aegean Coast, the gateway to the Greek Islands.

The three million Syrians sheltering in Turkey are inhabiting a precarious twilight world where they have no real access to state services and are treated like second-class citizens. They may be safe from war, but they and their children are exploited and vulnerable. Little wonder that so many of them wish to cross this sea to Europe for a better life.

In September 2015, Izmir was smuggling central. This mosque was full of people angling to buy a passage to Europe. But after the E.U. signed a $3 billion deal with Turkey to stem the migrant flow, the crowds have vanished from the courtyard, and also from this cafe, which was a rendezvous for traffickers and their clients.

The Syrians are doing what’s necessary to survive on the wrong side of the tracks. Many of their children work in leather or textile sweatshops. These young Syrians were on a lunch break from a textile factory and would only confirm they have been working for years, despite being underage.

Under new Turkish laws, Syrian children with identity papers are allowed to attend state schools. But aid agencies estimate that only 5,000 out of 22,000 eligible children in the Izmir area have taken up that right. The rest are believed to be working.

Mohammed Sali Ali founded a charity to help Syrian refugees.

MOHAMMED SALI ALI, Charity Founder (through interpreter): When the parents fled Syrian, they had some money in their pockets. But, after a few months, they ran out of money. They don’t have any income. They don’t have any work or trade. So they had to choose between begging and sending the kids to work.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Turkey is hosting more refugees than any other country. Aid agencies warn of growing racial tension.

And in the back streets of Izmir, there’s clear resentment from Turks about the impact refugees have on the labor market, at a time when there’s 12 percent unemployment nationally, a seven-year high.

OMER YESHIL, Turkey (through interpreter): The Turks should first think about their own people. Retired people are starving. I can’t even find work with the minimum wage. We, as Turkish citizens, can hardly make a living. Do you understand? We are worse off than the Syrians.

ADNAN KIRBY, Turkey (through interpreter): At the moment, because the Syrians’ employment went down a lot, they work on the cheap. And because they work for low wages, the situation for Turkish workers is bad now.

MAN (through interpreter): They are our guests here. Why should we complain? One day, when things are OK again in their own land, they will go back.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But Zahir Bhatah is planning to stay, along with his 4-year-old autistic son, Anver. He didn’t dare take a rubber dingy to Greece.

ZAHIR BHATAH, Syrian Refugee: The sea is very dangerous. My son is very small. And he cannot swim. I have many friends who drowned in the sea. So I am get so scared to travel to Europe. So I decided to stay in Izmir.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Bhatah used to be a heart surgeon in Damascus. In Izmir, he worked as a baker for a while. He’s applying for Turkish citizenship under President Erdogan’s new initiative.

ZAHIR BHATAH: I think it’s better for me to find a chance to work as a doctor in Turkey.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Other refugees are taking Turkish lessons to improve their chances of assimilation and employment. Last year, at Ramadan, the Turkish president promised citizenship for all refugees from Syria and Iraq, but had to retreat because of widespread opposition.

Now an aid group called Bridging People says that Turks should remember what happened to hundreds of thousands of theirs countrymen when they migrated to Germany for work after the Second World War.

Burcu Senturk, a spokeswoman for Bridging People, argues that Turkey should copy the Germans and grant the Syrians citizenship.

BURCU SENTURK, Bridging People: When they come here, they are not refugees. They are people with their families and hopes. And I think, in due time, they will be settling down in Turkey with their unique stories and unique qualifications. And this is why we need to embrace all of them.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Senturk argues that Turks will benefit from such a proposal.

BURCU SENTURK: I think that this will protect many Syrians and other nations’ refugees in Turkey if they become citizens. And since the Turkish workers and the other nationalities’ workers will be working in the same conditions, it will also decrease the potential for racism and violence between the people.

MALCOLM BRABANT: While the president may be sympathetic, campaigners say they need to convince lawmakers from the ruling party that the alternative to citizenship is potential strife in the future from stateless disenfranchised people, especially the young, like the 8-year-old who says he was clawed by a Turkish teacher.

Children selling tissues, the underage fruit-picker banned from playing soccer on a farmer’s land, they face an uncertain future.

But the heart surgeon is optimistic that his hosts will judge that his skills are worth harnessing and make him a Turk.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Izmir.

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