In the second part of the series “Syrian Refugees and Turkish Labor Market, Didem İşçi and Durukan Güven made an interview with Omar Kadkoy, a research associate at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV). His work focuses on the socio-economic integration of refugees.


Hi, Omar. Firstly, do you have any projects that you’re working right now or planning on the Syrian refugees in Turkey?

We are working with a multilateral development bank to generate and implement a tailored questionnaire and survey a number of refugee-driven companies in a number of provinces. In this project, we aim to learn more about the companies Syrian established over the past few years in terms integration to local supply chains, the products and services, export and import destinations, the employment opportunities they generate, and the obstacles they face.

In another project, we are developing a capacity building program for Syrian entrepreneurs in the province of Mersin. The program will, in large, help the Syrian business better integrate into the financial system in Turkey.

We are in a preparation phase for a number of other projects that will be carried out in the near future, too.    


How would you evaluate Turkish government’s initiatives about the Syrian entrepreneurship? Are government policies really effective? Are they helping entrepreneurs and employers in the economy?

When we talk about the labor market integration of Syrians, we need to keep in mind the distinction between a Syrian seeking employment or a Syrian providing employment.

Syrian businesses, similar to any other foreign investor in Turkey, don’t face any red tapes and enjoy an equal treatment. Nonetheless, Syrian entrepreneurs run through some difficulties in bureaucracy due to the communication barrier.

As for the Syrians looking for employment, it’s a little different. It took the Ankara 5 years to allow Syrians under temporary protection (the legal status of Syrians in Turkey since October 2014) to issue a law that allowed Syrians to access the labor market. This means the majority of Syrians are working informally in different sectors and, according to 2016 figures, only 13,298 work permits were issued for Syrians under temporary protection. The informal labor market exists in low and middle-income countries and in Turkey, it represents one-third of the labor market. The influx of Syrians to the labor market – especially to the informal one – caused a competition between the low-skilled locals and Syrians. This is fiercer in the southeast region for two reasons. First, one-third of Syrians live there. Second, the southeast region suffers from higher unemployment rates than the national one even before the influx of Syrians. In this competition, Syrians displace especially the youth and women.      

Here, I want to elaborate on a point. Prior to 2016, the private sector’s argument was: “we hire Syrians’ informally because there isn’t a legal framework to do so formally’. Then in 2016, after the government introduced the law, the argument shifted to: ‘why should we hire Syrians in the first place? I would hire someone who speaks the language at least’. Syrians don’t have a bargaining leverage. Reasons such as poor language skills and the urge to make ends meet in any possible way make turn Syrians to vulnerable employees and open the door for exploitation in the form of lower salary and longer hours. The informal employment does not only deprive the workers of the basic labor rights, but it also harms the government from not collecting the tax.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU Commission, recently stated that the EU is committed to the financial promises made under the EU-Turkey Statement on irregular migration. This is a positive sign considering the rift between the EU and Turkey lately. It is important for both Brussels and Ankara to protect the livelihoods of asylum seekers and refugees from any political disagreements. Hence, The EU-Turkey Statement on irregular migration is not only a framework to assist Turkey in hosting asylum seekers and refugees, but it is also a window of dialogue between the two shores of the Aegean and it is working despite all odds.

The EU is financially committed. Now it is the time to design a mutual framework for inclusive employment taking into consideration the high unemployment in Turkey – especially among the youth – and the number of Syrians seeking job opportunities.


#1 Syrian Refugees and Turkish Labor Market: Interview with Emre Eren Korkmaz


Recently, a Turkish minister said even if Syrians want to go we won’t let them go. But as you said there are a lot of obstacles in an economic way. So what do you expect for the future in terms of their values? Since we have a lot of Syrians they’re both labor force and there are also a lot of educated; not only businessmen but doctors, lawyers, engineers. But do you think that they have good conditions here to use their capacity and background? How about the middle class?

Skilled and unskilled Syrians have obstacles in common when it comes to accessing the labor market and one of which is the language barrier When we look at the integration policies in Europe we see one basic requirement: learning the language. The Language course is compulsory whether you are a skilled or unskilled migrant. We don’t have this in Turkey. Why? Because the current policy is not based on language skills development and the recognition of previous educational and professional credentials that facilitate the access to the labor market. What we have here is integration by interaction. Turkey became a country of destination. There are funds at disposal and we can capitalize on it to achieve many endeavors, but if we want to harvest the experience and the skills of the Syrian– the first thing to do is to have a comprehensive integration policy. To do so, we need the profile of Syrians. The Directorate General for Migration Management is implementing a verification project to update the data on Syrians. This is a much need step toward designing a data-based integration policy.



Similar to other countries, there is a backlash in the form of “stealing our jobs”. Turkey has a lot of unemployed already before Syrians. How would your argument against this?

The statement is there among the locals but I would think twice before saying “Syrians are stealing the jobs of locals in Turkey”. There is a competition among the low skilled locals and Syrians in the informal labor market. The statement is more prevalent in the southeast region of Turkey where one-third of the Syrians reside. There, the local youth and women were especially displaced. The displacement, however, happens when employers exploit Syrians for being cheaper labor.   Yet let’s keep in mind that there’s a reason for this and for what the minister said. Factory owners say dust filled our machines before the arrival of the Syrians or they say if it wasn’t for Syrians, we’d stop operations. This means Syrians are filling the undesired jobs by locals. This not only the case in the factories, but it is also in the agriculture and construction sectors, mind you. Addressing the rising tension requires an out of the box solution: one that generates inclusive, up-to-scale job opportunities and in line with Turkey’s 2023 economic vision. To achieve this goal, we need a multi-country and public-private partnership in designated areas. In regard, there are regional lessons we can learn from and upgrade.


Do you have an example of being very successful in terms of economic or social integration? For example, Germany is doing better than Turkey. 

Omar: There are different examples, but there is not a one size fits all when it comes to this. Even Germany, a country of immigration for decades, had to update the policies to correspond to the influx of almost 1 million refugees to the country. We should not copy-paste what Germany or others countries are doing because the dynamics are different among the countries. We need to consider the capacity of the stakeholders in every country, the composition and the background of refugees and create a policy accordingly.


What about women labor force in the market? Are they working? Or are they mostly in camps? What do you know about them? There are also many children, and child labor is another topic. Indeed they should get an education. We can also talk a little bit about education as well.

An analysis that covered the southeast region. found that Syrian women make more money than Syrian men. In certain cases, they are the only breadwinner.

How do they get involved?

They work as maids in houses, or they make food and sell it One anecdotal evidence suggests these women compete among themselves toward the bottom by displacing each other for lower wages. There is also the notion of “women belong at home””. This is something to do with the previous culture of certain Syrians. These women could find encouragement to work in an all women workplaces if there’s any. Nonetheless, I think this conservative approach might be changing since the circumstances around them require the participation of both parents to make ends meet for the household.


What about children? And maybe we can switch the topic on education? Both labor force and education problems. 

Child labor and the informal employment of the parents, or the lack of any employment opportunity for that matter, are two inseparable things. We cannot take care of the former without addressing the latter. There are, however, unique obstacles that Syrian students face in schools. One third of the registered Syrians are school-age children and 45 percent of them are out of school. Let alone that some families cannot afford to send the kids to schools, there are certain obstacles in the face of those who are in classes. Syrian students are either enrolled in public schools or in temporary education centers. In the former, the Syrian students face misplacement, peer bullying and negligence in classrooms. The misplacement is a result of either lack of documents as a proof of previous education attainment and the absence of a proper a placement mechanism. As for bullying, one reason behind it is looking different than the local students. I am talking about showing up in the class with less quality of school gear than the locals’ and kids being kids mock the Syrian students and sometimes fights erupt among them. The negligence in classrooms, on the other hand, comes from the unqualified teachers who can’t communicate properly with foreign students – who on top of everything might suffer from psychological trauma. These factors could lead to drop out or the preference to attend the temporary education centers. In temporary education centers, students study a modified curriculum of the Syrian one and approved by the Ministry of National Education. These centers take place in public schools as a second shift and students study in Arabic while they take 15 hours of Turkish per week. Recently, the Ministry said all temporary education centers will be gradually shut down by 2020 and Syrian students will attend public schools. Here, the issue is the 15 hours of Turkish language per week: it is not enough. The students who want to enroll in a public school will face difficulties in catching up with the various subjects in Turkish. Also, students who graduate from temporary education centers need to take an equivalency exam in Turkish to accredit the diploma obtained from the education center. The inadequate Turkish skills might harm Syrian students to pursue higher education. There are multiple initiatives on the ground to address the shortcomings I mentioned.