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25th Sep 2022

Feature

EU and Turkey fight for 'lost generation'

  • Yildirim Beyazit school outside Istanbul teaches both Turkish and Syrian kids (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Two years ago 11 year-old Isa Hasan could barely contain his loss. The boy's eyes swelled with tears as he asked his mother why he had to toil away in a sweatshop five days week for pittance pay.

Isa was already struggling with the trauma of war after having fled Syria with his younger sister and mother, only to end up in a sparse one room flat in an impoverished district of Gaziantep, a large Turkish border town.

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  • Over 1,200 Syrian kids attend the Turkish school (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

His story is far from unique.

Estimates suggest around 1m Turkish kids alone are forced to work in a country grappling with an increasingly unstable economy. The fate of Syrian children and others, are similar, and easy prey for unscrupulous employers seeking cheap labour.

In 2016, 56 children are known to have died operating heavy machinery.

The Turkish government has since declared 2018 as a year to fight child labour and is hoping, according to international observers like Unicef and the European Union, to ensure Syrian children do not end up a lost generation. Their goals are fraught with uncertainty.

Turkey in 2003 had launched a nationwide programme to give impoverished Turkish families with kids small monthly cash transfers in an effort to keep them in school and out of the workshops.

A family with a teenage girl gets 60 lira (€11) per month, a teenage boy 50 (€9), and similar smaller sums for the very young. Some 15 years later and around 1m still find themselves exploited, posing broader questions on its effectiveness.

Lost generation today, EU's problem tomorrow

The European Union and Unicef, however, see the national scheme as a means to also help refugees escape a similar fate and convinced the government to extend the programme to everyone else with payments on par to their Turkish counterparts.

The broader fear is that disenfranchised refugee children, struggling with the Turkish language and no hope for the future, may, as adults, turn to crime or seek out smugglers to reach core Europe.

"Together with Unicef and other EU agencies, we are subscribing to the slogan 'no lost generation'. We cannot afford that there are kids not going to school because we will have to pay the price," said Christian Berger, the EU's ambassador to Istanbul, on Wednesday (30 May).

It means any foreigner legally residing in Turkey can now have access to the programme known as a conditional cash transfer for education or CCTE, financed by grants from the European Commission, Norway and the United States.

Parents receive the cash on a card every two months after school attendance records prove their child has been in class. Over 330,000 Syrian kids are said to have benefited from the scheme since its launch in May last year.

Those that fail to show up are then visited by outreach groups from the Turkish Red Crescent who try to convince the parents to keep their children enlisted, a service not provided to Turkish children. Issues of abuse, child neglect or early marriage are then said to be referred to Turkish national services.

Children in the programme also get free transport to the schools and extra cash at the start of each semester to pay for supplies and uniforms. The vast majority of the Syrian families in CCTE are also enrolled in a separate cash programme to help them with other costs like food, heating, and rent.

Drop outs, early marriage, sweat shops

But despite the effort, many older children drop out.

"We know that for the first graders, the first five years, we have an enrolment rate of 90 percent but the problem starts actually after that," said Veysel Ginilibal from Turkey's ministry of national education.

"In the end the family needs income and for this reason they push their children to work in the streets, to beg in the streets, to do whatever to support their families," he said.

Syrians children are not by law required to attend schools in Turkey, feeding into a wider debate about integration. Over 3m now reside in Turkey, some since the war broke out seven years ago, with the vast majority living outside camps.

The state is at odds on whether to focus their strategy on integration or sending them home. It appears to be gambling with both possibilities.

On the one hand, new schools with the help of Unicef and the EU are being built given Turkey's overstretched public services.

Last week, the EU signed a contract with the Turkish government to build some 200 schools. Last year, Unicef added 1,000 classrooms.

Around half a million Syrian children in schools have been enrolled over the past three years with a renewed focus on Turkish language lessons now stretching 15 hours a week. Over 400 special teaching centres set up for Syrian refugees, where they are taught in Arabic, are also now being phased out so that they end up in Turkish public schools instead.

On the other hand, Syrians born in Turkey are not granted nationality and it is unclear if the post-war Syrian state will accept their return. The possibility of statelessness has many worried, including Unicef's chief in Turkey, Philippe Duamelle.

"There is a potential risk that when these children go back, they might not be eventually recognised as Syrian nationals. The problem is not there at the moment but down the road it might be an issue," he told this website.

Turkey has also launched offensives in northern Syria to clear out areas made up of Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters, which they claim will allow a large return of Syrian refugees.

But those military incursions into Kurdish areas have been met with international condemnation and has set Turkey on a collision course the United States, who back the Kurdish YPG militia.

The geo-politics inevitably trickles down to children like Isa Hasan and other Syrian families in Turkey.

At a centre run by the Turkish Red Crescent in the outskirts of Istanbul, Fatma Ticen, a 32-year old mother of four, remains grateful for any help they receive.

"I have never forgotten my homeland, I love it, but because of the war I have to stay here," she said.

Unicef funded transport and board to Istanbul for this report

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