Challenges And Opportunities For Syrian Refugees Working In Turkey

Caysie Myers – Coordinator, THO

April 24, 2017

Turkey has been host to mass numbers of Syrian refugees since 2011 when the civil war in Syria began. With more than 2.9 million Syrian refugees in Turkey [1], the majority have struggled to earn enough income to afford their basic needs, especially during the first years of the Syria conflict, when legal work permits were unavailable to refugees. In 2014, the “Temporary Protection Regulation” was passed to protect registered refugees, but it was not until early 2016 that the Regulation on Work Permits of Foreigners Under Temporary Protection entered into law. It is a great benefit to Turkey to allow Syrian refugees to apply for and obtain work permits, considering a large portion of adult refugees still work under poor conditions. The process of obtaining a work permit is not without its flaws. There remain roadblocks in obtaining the permits due to the requirements of the application process and societal issues.

Turkey’s Refugee Labor Laws

In 2013, then Turkish president Abdullah Gul approved the Law on Foreigners and International Protection to establish a legal framework for migration and asylum, specifically with regard to the growing refugee population in Turkey. The Law on Foreigners and International Protection provides rights to the population of approximately 3 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Following the passage of that law, the government of Turkey passed the Regulation on Work Permits of Foreigners Under Temporary Protection in January 2016 specifically for Syrian temporary beneficiaries. Under section 3.1 of the Turkish Ministry of Labor and Social Security’s Implementation Guide Regarding the Work Permits of Foreigners Provided with Temporary Protection (2016), the “application terms” for a work permit are as follows: [2]

a) The foreigner must have a temporary protection identification/foreigner introduction document to prove temporary protection status, and s/he must also have a foreigner identity number; 

b) The foreigner must have been under temporary protection status for at least six months as of the date of his/her application for a work permit; 

c) The foreigner must make his/her application in the province where s/he has been permitted to stay, as listed on his/her temporary protection record; 

d) Foreigners who are under temporary protection and intend to work in professions that require prior authorization must receive a prior authorization document from the relevant Ministries; 

e) Foreigners who are under temporary protection may not already have a work permit issued under another employer or an outstanding work permit application that has not yet been concluded.

As stated above, Syrian refugees who are registered as “temporary beneficiaries” are eligible for work permits after at least six months of temporary protection status, but only at the impetus of their employers, as listed under section 3.2 regarding “application procedure” (pg. 3):

a) The work permit application will be made by the employer who will employ foreigners with temporary protection status. 

The same section indicates that a foreigner with temporary protection who wishes to work independently must follow the process of setting up a business in order to receive a work permit.

According to Chapter 2 of the Implementation Guide, foreigners under temporary protection status are exempted from having to receive a work permit if they are engaged in seasonal work in agriculture or animal husbandry. In this case, it is the foreigner who lodges the application for a work permit exemption, and terms a, b, and c listed under section 3.1 still apply.

Turkey’s Fair Labor Association estimates that up to 500,000 Syrians are eligible for work permits [3]. However, only 13,298 permits [4] were issued to Syrians in 2016, which is 2.22% of the estimated 600,000 who are already economically active [5]. One explanation for the small number of permits issued is the condition that employers must submit the permit application on behalf of the Syrian employee. Due to the lack of monitoring of labor regulations, employers of small businesses face little pressure to pay their Syrian workers minimum wage. If the employers submit work permit applications for their Syrian workers, they would then be required to provide pay of at least minimum wage [6]. As a result, employers are less inclined to submit work permit applications for their Syrian employees in order to benefit from cheaper labor.

State-issued work permits formalize Syrian workers and authorize professionals in fields such as education, medicine, and technology to be hired for their expertise. The International Labor Force Law was passed in July 2016 with the main purpose of attracting highly skilled workers based on education level and professional experience in order to protect and increase the productivity of the Turkish economy [7]. 

A minimum quota of Turkish workers and Syrian workers is also required under the regulation laws. A ratio of a maximum of 10% Syrian employment in comparison to Turkish workers is enforced, which can lead to either the firing of Syrians or the hiring of more Turkish citizens to keep the ratio within regulations [8]. 

Another outstanding challenge is that Syrian refugees have very little information on their rights when applying for work permits due to the language barrier. This issue is being addressed through efforts by the government and NGOs. The Turkish government’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) manages temporary housing facilities for Syrian refugees and provides vocational training to thousands of Syrians through certificate programs [9]. Along with these programs, AFAD allows organizations such as Kizilay and UNHCR to access the housing facilities in order to organize programs that raise awareness about work permit regulations and livelihood opportunities. Additionally, NGOs such as the Fair Labor Association distribute guides to inform those eligible to work about their rights.

Even the technology sector is working to help provide refugees with information on their rights to work permits. Mobile apps are being developed to help refugees learn about their rights and adapt to living in Turkey. “Merhaba Umut” [10] is a mobile app created by Turkey’s leading mobile phone company, Turkcell, to provide instantaneous Turkish and Arabic translation as well as an Arabic language call center that assists refugees with questions on registration and their access to services. 

Exploitation of Temporary Workers

Syrian refugees living in poverty are likely to be taken advantage of by their employers due to their desperation for work. The Private Employment Offices Bill also allows for employers to rent labor through a “middle man” for a fee. This eliminates the responsibilities of employers for labor regulations, allowing them to enforce long hours and relocation at a moment’s notice. The original intention of the bill was to create jobs and decrease informal labor, but critics of the bill, such as the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, argue that these regulations go against the European Convention on Human Rights [11].

Women, children, and the elderly are more susceptible to labor exploitation. Although there is a ban on children under 15 working, many children under this age are employed illegally, often in sweatshops. Children between 15 and 17 years of age are permitted to work 40 hours a week, but they are often forced to work up to 15 hours a day, six days a week [12]. Turkish charity Support to Life surveyed 125 Syrian households in Istanbul and found that one in four households had at least one child not in school due to the family’s dependency on their income.  

The agriculture and textile industries remain the most prominent in refugee worker exploitation. The average Turkish farmer earns 60 lira a day, while his refugee counterpart earns roughly half that pay. Women earn even less, amounting to as little as 20 lira a day. As such, they are more often employed, since they are considered cheap labor. In agricultural positions, workers are also often not paid until the end of the harvest; sometimes they are not even paid at all [13].

The textile industry also lacks regulation and capitalizes on the cheap labor of women and children. The refugee workers are rented through a “middle man” and not the textile company, allowing the direct employers to bypass regulations, since they do not have official employer status. By being uninvolved with the hiring and exploitation of refugees, popular fashion brands such as H&M and Esprit are profiting off of the illegal employment of Syrian refugee adults and children [14]. It is difficult for these companies to regulate all of the factories that produce their products, as the factories are not directly under the supervision of the company [15].

Education and Work 

One of the major consequences of the exploitation of refugee children is that the amount of hours spent working prevents these children from receiving the education they need. It is impossible for some children to go to school because of their family’s dependency on their wage; thus, they must work illegally or under exploitative conditions. The Ministry of Family and Social Policies has taken action regarding this issue by offering conditional cash transfers to eligible families. This program provides a cash subsidy in exchange for the child’s attendance in school, which is closely monitored to avoid misuse of the program offer [16].

More than 40% of Syrian refugee children in Turkey are not in school [17]. While there has been a 50% increase in school attendance since June 2016, there remains the issue of how poverty and education are connected in preventing refugee children from receiving an education. Refugee children have access to public schools, but economic hardship and the language barrier prevent many from attending, especially with many parents struggling to obtain work permits to work legally and earn minimum wage. This causes the families to be dependent on the children to also provide an income, rather than attend school and get an education. 

Contributions of Syrian Refugees Working in Turkey  

Integrating Syrian workers into the Turkish market can provide a boost to Turkey’s economy. An estimate of at least $10 billion of Syrian money has flowed into Turkey since 2011. Syrian refugees bring their businesses and contacts from home, opening new doors to Turkish businesses. One such example is the use of the port city of Mersin along the Mediterranean. One-fourth of Syrian businesses established in Turkey in 2014 are based in Mersin alone [18].

While there are refugees still living in poverty, those that migrate with funding have found ways to invest it. Syrians are active business owners, which presents a number of opportunities for building trade connections between Turkey and the greater Middle East. For example, the number of newly registered Syrian businesses in Gaziantep rose from three to 222 between 2010 and 2014. In total, almost 4,000 new businesses have been set up by Syrians or Syrians with Turkish partners since 2011 [19]. Syrian firms are mainly concentrated in the restaurant, construction, trade, textile, real estate, travel, transportation, and foodstuff industries. These businesses employ about 400,000 Syrians, although some are still employed informally due to work permit restrictions [20]. Turkish businesses are also opening their doors to Syrian refugee workers. For example, CLK Bogazici Elektrik, one of the main suppliers of electricity in Istanbul, trains Arabic speakers at its call centers as an effort to incorporate Syrians into Turkey. 

Turkey and the U.S.: Different Approaches and Potential Partnerships  

In contrast to Turkey, the U.S.’s regulations towards refugees obtaining work permits takes a different approach. In the U.S., resettled refugees are immediately granted work permits. The U.S. is able to follow this policy due to the fact that it settles fewer refugees, and it does so only after a rigorous vetting process. As such, Syrian refugees are much less likely to be able to resettle in the U.S. than in Turkey, but when they do, they are immediately eligible to work. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states the following on its website:

As a refugee, you may work immediately upon arrival to the United States. When you are admitted to the United States you will receive a Form I-94 containing a refugee admission stamp. Additionally, a Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, will be filed for you in order for you to receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). While you are waiting for your EAD, you can present your Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record, to your employer as proof of your permission to work in the United States. [21] 

Between January 2014 and October 2016, the U.S. admitted 15,583 Syrian refugees, with 10,000 admitted within Fiscal Year 2016. To ease integration, Syrian refugees are resettled in locations that already have a significant population of Syrian immigrants [22]. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement provides an initial $1,000 per refugee for the first three months upon resettling, along with English and job training [23]. While rent for an affordable apartment is covered for the first three months by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, refugees are expected to apply for jobs and pay rent after the initial three months [24].

A look at the statistics capturing business creation rates among the overall immigrant population in the U.S. from 2009 to 2014 can give a rough estimate of what the labor market will look like for Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. A study by the Center for American Progress determined that 4% of all immigrants in the U.S. are business owners, in contrast to the 3% of U.S.-born nationals who are business owners [25]. In that study, it was also discovered that 11% of Syrian immigrants are business owners, almost triple the rate of immigrants in general. While the study focuses on non-refugee Syrians, these statistics are collected from established Syrian communities, which are expected to help Syrian refugees integrate into the labor market.  

Though it is difficult for Turkey to follow the U.S.’s approach to granting immediate work eligibility to refugees, work permits need to be more accessible, as they provide better working conditions for Syrian refugees. Syrians also need work permits to become better integrated into Turkish society rather than treated as temporary workers. They must be able to work lawfully and have financial stability to become less dependent on social services. 

Turkey has provided considerable support and social services to Syrian refugees alongside its global partnership programs (e.g. the Emergency Social Safety Net [26]), but it is difficult for the Turkish government alone to cover all of the  basic needs of the 2.9 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and to provide them with necessary services. While the U.S. can certainly do more to resettle a larger number of refugees, it can also work to provide support and assistance to Turkey’s efforts toward integrating Syrians into its labor market. U.S. organizations can use their expertise and guidance to help Turkey’s government agencies and NGOs to develop better access to education, training, and employment for refugees. 

Refugees can be a boost to both the Turkish and American economies when given the opportunity for resettlement and work. Supporting Syrian entrepreneurs and their new businesses will open doors to more jobs for Syrians as well as American and Turkish nationals, in turn boosting the economy and lowering the unemployment rate. Nevertheless, exploited labor, especially child labor, remains a pressing issue in Turkey, where access to legal work for refugees is more complicated than in the U.S. A large portion of Syrian children are working illegally in Turkey rather than receiving an education, risking the creation of a “lost generation” among Syrian refugee communities [27]. 

Syrian refugee success stories abound, and all refugees – whether in Turkey, the U.S., or elsewhere – deserve to be set up for success. In Turkey’s case in particular, failing to address the outstanding issue of labor exploitation will force the Syrian refugees with established businesses and networks to leave for more opportune locations; as such, Turkey will lose out on the economic opportunity they provide. The global community can benefit from enabling refugees to integrate into their host countries, which will allow them the opportunity to be successful members of their new communities while ensuring they learn and maintain the skills they will need when they return to their countries once conflict ends.


[1] Gemici, O. O. (2017, March 15). Nearly 3 million Syrians registered in Turkey. Anadolu Agency. Retrieved from

[2] Ministry of Labor and Social Security. (2016). Gecici koruma saglanan yabancilarin calisma izinlerine dair uygulama rehberi [Implementation guide regarding the work permits of foreigners provided with temporary protection]. Ankara: Ministry of Labor and Social Security of the Republic of Turkey, pg. 3. Retrieved from http://www.calismaiz

[3] Newland, K., Fratzke, S., Banulescu-Bogdan, N., Papademetriou, D. G., Salant, B., & Clewett, P. (2016, October). Forced migration in the OIC member countries: Policy framework adopted by host countries. Ankara: Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (COMCEC). Retrieved from

[4] Gonultas, B. (2017, January 18). Turkey issues work permits to over 73,500 foreigners. Anadolu Agency. Retrieved from

[5] Mortimer, J. (2016, November 30). Turkish companies flout law for cheap Syrian labor. Al-Monitor. Retrieved from 

[6] Grisgraber, D., & Hollingsworth, A. (2016, April 14). Planting the seeds of success? Turkey’s new refugee work permits. Washington, D.C.: Refugees International. Retrieved from a1e4b01d9450dd53f5/t/570ebcf01bbee0bc27a2fdb5/1460583665950/20160414+Turkey.pdf

[7] Icduygu, A. (2016, December). Turkey: Labour market integration and social inclusion of refugees. Brussels: European Parliament Directorate General for Internal Policies. Retrieved from etudes/STUD/2016/595328/IPOL_STU(2016)595328_EN.pdf 

[8] Newland, K., Fratzke, S., Banulescu-Bogdan, N., Papademetriou, D. G., Salant, B., & Clewett, P. (2016, October). 

[9] Turkey response to Syria Crisis. (2016, November 30). Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD). Retrieved from

[10] Turkcell launches mobile app for integration of Syrian refugees, CEO speaks at UN private sector forum. (2016, September 20). Business Wire. Retrieved from

[11] Turkish parliament passes ‘private employment offices bill,’ opening way for rented labor. (2016, May 6). Hurriyet Daily News. Retrieved from

[12] Afanasieva, D. (2016, July 26). In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive. Reuters Investigates. Retrieved from

[13] Miller, A. L. (2016, September 8). Inside the Turkish camps where Syrian refugees earn $8 a day. News Deeply. Retrieved from

[14] Afanasieva, D. (2016, July 26). 

[15] Johannisson, F. (2016, January 29). Hidden children labor: Syrian refugees in Turkey are supplying Europe with fast fashion. The Guardian. Retrieved from¬bour-syrian-refugees-turkey-supplying-europe-fast-fashion?CMP=share_btn_tw

[16] Icduygu, A. (2016, December). 

[17] Frelick, B. (2017, January 23). Syrian refugee kids still out of school in Turkey: Biggest barrier to children’s education is parents out of work. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from

[18] Bila, S. U. (2014, December 12). Businesses boom as Syrians put down roots in Turkey. Al-Monitor. Retrieved from

[19] Karasapan, O. M. (2016, March 16). The impact of Syrian businesses in Turkey. Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

[20] Ibid.

[21] Refugees. (2017, March 23). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Retrieved from humanitarian /refugees-asylum/refugees  

[22] Kallick, D. D., Mathema, S., & Roldan, C. (2016, December 13). Syrian immigrants in the United States: A receiving community for today’s refugees. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from issues/immigration/reports/2016/12/13/294851/syrian-immigrants-in-the-united-states-a-receiving-community-for-todays-refugees/

[23] Phillips, A. (2015, November 5). Here’s how much the United States spends on refugees. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

[24] Welsh, T. (2015, November 20). 8 facts about the U.S. program to resettle Syrian refugees. U.S. News. Retrieved from

[25] Kallick, D. D., Mathema, S., & Roldan, C. (2016, December 13). 

[26] Questions and answers: Support for refugees in Turkey through the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN). (2016, September 8). European Commission. Retrieved from

[27] Ghafar, A. A., & Masri, F. (2016, May 29). The lost generation: Children in conflict zones. Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

Challenges And Opportunities For Syrian Refugees Working In Turkey