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World Humanitarian Summit: Syrian Child Refugees in Turkey

The summit is a timely opportunity to turn the world’s gaze to the protection needs of the displaced Syrian children.

May 23, 2016

The summit is a timely opportunity to turn the world’s gaze to the protection needs of the displaced Syrian children.

Many heads of state, UN agencies, and relief organizations will assemble in Istanbul in the highly anticipated World Humanitarian Summit with the commitment to address forced displacement humanitarian financing.

The summit is a timely opportunity to bring the world’s gaze on Turkey and the protection needs of the most vulnerable refugees, the displaced Syrian children.

There are currently more than 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. Half are 17 and younger. More than a million are younger than 11, of which half are girls. The average length of time spent as a refugee is now 17 years according to a new report by Save the Children.

Turkey does not have the social and financial capacity to adequately protect the refugee children and provide them with the basic requirements of their human development.

Without a radical intervention, most Syrian children in Turkey will spend their schooling years in protracted displacement without protection. The situation will lead to irrepressible negative outcomes for the refugee children, and pose additional security risk to the region and the world.

Except for a small fraction housed in camps, the Syrians in Turkey are largely urban refugees. They fend for themselves and their families with limited to no private endowments, and search for jobs in the informal sector and the non-regulated labor markets in Istanbul and other cities.

Available data paint a gloomy picture. Some 60% of Syrians in Istanbul live with a household income of 500-1500 Turkish Liras ($166-500). Monthly expenses almost always exceed the household income.

Entitlement failure

Despite a recent law that aims at facilitating the labor market participation of Syrian refugees, finding legal employment at the prevailing minimum wage has proven nearly impossible for many.

Syrian refugees are now allowed to apply for work permit. Obtaining a permit, however, requires a contract signed by an employer.

For most Syrians, that remains unattainable. Small and medium size employers, the main source of jobs for Syrians, largely shy away from committing to such contracts.

In the words of the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, Syrian families suffer from an acute case of entitlement failure. They are unable to meet their families’ basic needs with the means available to them.

As a result, for many households, particularly those headed by women, relying on their children’s labor has increasingly become a matter of survival. Child labor helps Syrian families partially close their entitlement gap.

While some Syrian children beg on the streets, polish shoes, sell tissues, and compete with the Turkish and Roma children for handouts from generous passersby, others labor under arduous conditions in textile sweatshops across the country.

Working 12 hours a day and six days a week, they earn an average of $160 a month, nearly one-third of the official monthly minimum wage.

Schooling is a luxury most Syrian child refugees cannot afford. They are robbed of the most fundamental tenet of their human development.

Underpaid refugee children

Some 60% of textile workers in Turkey are unregistered. The industry’s largely unregulated structure is an important source of employment and livelihood for Syrian children who produce items for the domestic market and exports to the EU.

Ranked after China and Bangladesh, Turkey is the third largest supplier of textile to Europe. Underpaid and overworked Syrian refugee children have become an integral part of the global supply chain used by European brands.

Despite a new law and the government’s attempts to facilitate the enrollment of Syrian children in Turkish schools, many obstacles remain in practice. Some schools demand illegal payments beyond the means of the refugee families.

The bureaucratic process for obtaining the needed documents is also discouraging. Caught between the economic needs of their families and the challenges of the educational system, many Syrian children are practically locked out of schooling for as long as they remain in Turkey.

Out of school, and abused at work, they are easy targets for criminal gangs, and the jihadist groups who pay up to $400 a month to their recruits. Girls face even more challenging conditions. Prostitution and child marriage are common.

Sooner or later, even the cash-strapped Syrian families will find a way to brave the sea and save their children from their predicaments.

The EU’s closing of its borders, and Turkey’s pledge to be Europe’s external gatekeeper exacerbate the dire conditions of the entrapped children and their families, while only delaying their movement west.

The situation is not sustainable. A fresh approach to the humanitarian crisis and the entitlement failure facing the Syrian refugees in Turkey is imperative. The convening of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul presents a silver lining by putting the spotlight on Turkey.

Financial measures proposed

The summit’s High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable On Leave No One Behind has proposed commitment to collective work towards a global compact on responsibility sharing for refugees.

To that end, the summit has proposed increased financial assistance, investment, and other market-based schemes to help countries currently hosting most of the refugees. This is an important starting point.

These financial measures are indeed crucial and timely. But while they reduce the burden on the current refugee hosting countries, they are grossly inadequate for closing the protection deficit facing children and other vulnerable refugees.

The entitlement failures remain. Closing the gap also requires badly needed resettlement policies that lead to real access to schooling, healthcare, and other services needed for the children’s human development.

In the case of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, the commitment to responsibility sharing requires replacing the one-on-one swap of the EU-Turkey migration deal with a policy of orderly resettlement, particularly for refugee children and their families.

Syrian children in Turkey need to be rescued before boarding smugglers’ boats to Greece or other destinations in Europe.

Advantages of resettlement

Understandably, the EU cannot resettle all of the Syrian refugees. Many will remain behind. Financial assistance and other market-related measures will indeed play a key role in capacity building, and helping Turkey and other states in protecting the remaining refugees.

Meanwhile, the resettlement of children will transform them from a resource for family survival to an untapped source of potential human capital for the new host countries.

The resettlement policy can bridge the protection needs of child refugees and the European electorate’s worries about the negative economic and social consequence of migration. The resettlement ends the educational lockout and child labor for the displaced Syrians.

It also saves the children from potential recruitment by the jihadist forces. This is a win-win outcome for the refugees and the new host states. The sooner we come to this realization the closer we will be to meeting the objectives of the World Humanitarian Summit.


Turkey does not have the social and financial capacity to adequately protect the refugee children.

In the words of economist Amartya Sen, Syrian families suffer from a case of entitlement failure.

World Humanitarian Summit proposes increased financial assistance to places hosting most refugees.

Syrian refugee children are robbed of the most fundamental tenet of their human development: education.