Inside the Turkish Camps Where Syrian Refugees Work for $8 a Day

Thousands of Syrian refugees are now employed as migrant farm workers across Turkey, and they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation – especially as the government has effectively sanctioned using them as cheap labor.

Written by Anna Lekas Miller Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A woman does laundry in the center of the camp in Torbali, Turkey. It is the only water source in the camp, and most of the residents have parasites due to contamination.Danielle Villasana

TORBALI, Turkey – “Look at this place. You can’t tell the difference between this camp and a toilet,” says Khadija, a 38-year-old Syrian mother of four, as she gestures around her home: a tent inside a concrete warehouse, made of dusty carpets draped over haphazardly positioned metal rods.

The warehouse in this small farming village on the outskirts of the Turkish coastal city of Izmir is home to almost 200 refugees. Many of them, like Khadija, work long hours as farmhands in the nearby fields.

They are among thousands of Syrian refugees working as migrant farm laborers across Turkey. The exact number is unknown, since most of the refugees cross the border surreptitiously and remain undocumented.

Like Khadija, many are refugees from poor, rural areas of eastern Syria who fled to Turkey with large families, little money and no educational background. Unable to return to Syria and often unable to find other work or living arrangements, the refugee laborers are vulnerable to exploitation.

“It is either this, or having the bombs fall like rain,” Khadija says, as she fans herself with the tassels of her headscarf – an effort to both cool herself off and keep the creeping stench of the latrine area at bay.

It is the middle of August, and the heat is inescapable, seeping into the warehouse and getting trapped inside its concrete walls.

Children play inside a concrete warehouse outside Torbali, Turkey, where hundreds of refugees working as migrant laborers sleep.

Children play inside a concrete warehouse outside Torbali, Turkey, where hundreds of refugees working as migrant laborers sleep. (Danielle Villasana)

Outside the warehouse, the heat exacerbates the dire sanitation conditions in the camp. Flies greedily swarm around a ball of dough one of the women is preparing for bread. Some women gather around the lone spigot of running water in the center of the camp, a source of momentary relief except for the fact that it is contaminated with parasites.

Because of the water, most of the camp’s residents are now suffering from worms and diarrhea. The only place to relieve themselves is a designated “latrine area” – a strip of dirt adjacent to the warehouse.

Two years ago, Khadija, her daughter and three sons fled Hassakeh amid increasingly frequent offensives by the so-called Islamic State across eastern Syria. They crossed the Turkish-Syrian border with the assistance of smugglers.

With little money and no plan, Khadija jumped at an opportunity to work on a farm in the Turkey’s southeastern city of Sanliurfa. She put herself and her two oldest children to work picking cotton in exchange for a small stipend and a tent to call home.

Since then, Khadija and her family have migrated from harvest to harvest, picking cotton in Sanliurfa, oranges in Adana, and now tomatoes and peppers in Izmir.

MIGRANT_CAMPS_TURKEY_D.VILLASANA_05

A Syrian refugee woman carries her child in a camp located in red pepper fields outside Torbali, Turkey. She works in these fields to make a living. (Danielle Villasana)

In Turkey, many landowners see Syrians like Khadija as an opportunity to cut costs, and, much to the chagrin of some locals who have worked the fields for generations, hire the refugees as their new, cheaper workforce.

While the average Turkish farm laborer earns 60 lira (around $20) per day, a Syrian refugee performing the same job earns half that amount. Women earn as little as 20 lira (around $8) per day and, since they are cheaper labor, are employed more often.

In May, this system of temporary labor in Turkey was further institutionalized with the passing of the Private Employment Offices bill, which allows employers to purchase labor through a bureau – a “middle man” figure who effectively eliminates responsibilities for any regulations for the workers, or work performed. This opens the door to long hours, temporary workplaces and workers being instructed to relocate at a moment’s notice.

Refugees say they are often not paid until the end of the harvest. In the worst cases, they are not paid at all.

“In Turkey, refugees do not have any legal status that they can appeal in such a situation,” says Eda Sevinin, an academic at the Central European University who examines how Turkish laws impact Syrian agricultural workers.

“Among Syrians [working in the fields], there are different hierarchal labor positions,” Sevinin told Refugees Deeply. “Women, the elderly and children are all more prone [to exploitation] under this law.”

“It’s shameful that even my girl is working,” Khadija says. Now 16 years old, her daughter has been working for the past two years, including a few months during which she was supporting the whole family as Khadija was pregnant with her youngest child.

Khadija, upset that her children aren’t receiving an education, is trying to make the best of the situation. “It doesn’t look like a school around here, but it doesn’t mean the children aren’t learning,” she offers, when asked about whether or not her children were learning how to read and write. “There are a lot of Kurdish people here, working in the fields, and lots of Arabs like us. Now all the children speak both languages.”

Many refugees feel trapped in a cycle of temporary labor.

“I would like to rent an apartment in Izmir, especially once the winter comes,” Nour, a 20-year-old who just gave birth to her second child, tells Refugees Deeply in Torbali, also in Izmir province.

As a new mother, she is looking for a more comfortable and sanitary living arrangement, and a work schedule that would be less physically grueling than picking tomatoes from sunrise to sunset.

“But I’m not sure how to do it,” she grimaces. “Everything is expensive in Turkey.”

Fleeing to Europe was never a feasible option for most of the refugees working in these fields.

Izmir, the erstwhile smuggling hub for refugees hoping to travel to Greece, is just one hour from Torbali, but the smugglers’ fees are out of reach to many laborers.

With a monthly salary of $200 – if they are lucky enough to be paid, and paid on time – saving up the average fee of $1,500 per person for the crossing is financially impossible.

Furthermore, since the E.U.-Turkey deal to detain migrants upon arrival in Greece and deport them back to Turkey was instituted in April, it is now logistically impossible as well.

“One of my sisters is in Germany now,” says Rana, a 30-year-old mother of five, while preparing a glass of Nescafe in Torbali. She thought about joining her sister, but never felt that the time was right for her to travel. Besides, between herself, her husband and five small children, the cost would have been enormous for them to all make the trip together.

“More than anything, I want to return to Syria,” Rana says. “But the first thing I want to do is get out of this camp.”

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