Monday

22nd Jan 2018

Feature

Syrian children flee war to work in Turkish sweatshops

  • Nine-year-old Emel works from 8am until 8pm, five days a week. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Thousands of children from Syria are being driven into slave-like labour in Turkey.

Some as young as six in Gaziantep, a large Turkish town near the border with Syria, are working morning to night behind sewing machines five days a week. Few attend school.

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  • 10-year old Sidraa B (L) wants to become a doctor. Her boss allows her to attend one day of classes per week. (Photo: EU/ECHO/Abdurrahman Antakyali)

Most come from Aleppo, the besieged city in Syria near the Turkish border where the Bashar al-Assad regime has renewed its barrel bomb assault. Abdul Ibrahim, the 41-year old head of the Aleppo Health Directorate, told this website that Assad destroyed another hospital last week.

"People are running away from hospitals because they've become targets," he said. Around 10 of his colleagues and friends have perished in the bombings including Aleppo's last paediatrician, Mohammad Wassim Maaz.

The Turkish Red Crescent estimates more than 500,000 displaced Syrians have now amassed along the border.

For the lucky few who managed to flee to Gaziantep, life remains bitter. Children, many traumatised, are being robbed of their childhoods as they help families make ends meet.

Nine-year-old Emel hasn't seen or heard from her father in over a year after he returned to Syria. She lives with her mother in a two-room concrete-block flat in Guzelvadi, an impoverished district in Gaziantep. Emel is shy and won't talk.

But her mother, Ayse Hasan, says Emel earns around €4.50 (15 Turkish lira) a day at a tailor shop run by a Syrian. Her older brother Isa, who is 11 years old, earns €6 for the same job. The oldest sister Gufran takes home €9.

Ayse says her boy is often in tears.

"Mom, he says, why do you bring me here, why do I have to work," she says.

None of them can read or write. Their cases are far from unique.

Relief International, a small aid agency that runs a centre for children in Gaziantep, found that as of last month some 2,300 out of 8,100 Syrian children surveyed were working.

Over 1,500 are between the ages of 10 and 15. Most spend their 12-hour shifts at made-to-order tailor shops.

In smaller towns and more rural areas, the percentage of Syrian children in work can climb up to 60 percent.

Syrian children, on paper, have access to free education in Turkey. But language difficulties, and other costs like books and transport, are big barriers.

Ayse, who cannot read, says she can't work because there is nobody to look after the children. Rent and utility bills come to €91 a month.

Turkey has 25 government-run refugee camps. Air-conditioned and with free on-site health facilities and schools, they are among the best in the world. But only around 270,000 Syrians out of the 2.7 million live in the camps.

Asked why she doesn't take her children to a camp, Ayse says there is no privacy and it's not part of their culture. A local aid worker says it is frowned upon for a woman to work.

Syrian adults are supposed to have the right to employment after Turkey enacted new labour laws earlier this year. The move was a part of broader deal between the EU and Turkey to improve the lives of Syrians inside Turkey. In reality, fewer than 0.1 percent as of April had applied for work permits.

Businesses in Gaziantep are reaping the rewards of cheap child labour.

Some youngsters, like 10-year-old Sidraa B, have to bargain with their bosses just to be allowed to attend free classes in Arabic run by Relief International.

The centre, part financed by the EU, pays the parents of working children to offset lost wages.

"It is an accepted part of the situation here," says Thomas Evans at Relief International.

'I want to be a doctor'

Sidraa has large green-blue eyes and a plastic rose flower in her hair. Her fingers are rough. An orphan, she won't speak of her family. She is now in the care of a 28-year-old woman who is also looking after seven other children.

"I asked the boss to give me the permission to come to the centre here two days a week, on Monday and Thursday," she said. At first, he agreed but the next week he told her she would have to work on Mondays after all.

"If I don't follow the boss's rule, he will fire me."

Sidraa earns €18 a week. Her 12-hour days folding clothes and arranging buttons sometimes include night shifts at a Turkish run tailor shop.

Asked if she likes her class, she lights up. Sidraa wants to read and write.

"I want to be a doctor," she says.

EU-funded cash grants for education

Child labour in Turkey is illegal. The government gives an average €17.5 per month and an additional €30 per school semester to pay for supplies to get youngsters into schools. But the cash is for Turkish nationals only. With Syrians, the authorities turn a blind eye.

The European Commission recognises the problem as widespread and plans to roll out cash grants for education to get Syrian children to attend schools.

Jane Lewis, who heads the EU commission's humanitarian office in Istanbul, said it meant they would be providing assistance to families of school-aged children.

But the grants won't be specifically designed to get children out of work, and there is no guarantee the proposal will be signed off when it is presented to senior EU and Turkish officials later this month.

"I am hesitant to make a link with work," said Lewis.

Instead, the plan is to help the most impoverished families.

"Whether that [child labour] has a direct link or correlation may or may not be the case. The goal is to encourage enrolment and attendance in education", she said.

'I am alive but dead inside'

Syria produces more refugees than any other country, with most seeking protection in Turkey, which hosts more refugees than anyone else.

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