They work up to 12 hours a day to help their families. Labor is part of daily life for many displaced Syrian children in Turkey. Studying is a luxury, and so is play. Julia Hahn reports from Istanbul.
It’s 8 a.m. The muffled clattering of sewing machines can be heard outside on the street. Aras Ali hurries down the stairs into the neon-lit glare to make sure she’s on time for the start of her shift. Aras is 11-years old, and the tailor’s shop in Istanbul’s Bagcilar quarter is her workplace.
The girl works with several other children to make sure the seamstresses are constantly supplied with material. She cuts the colorful fabric with a pair of scissors and sorts it so that individual sections of cloth lie ready for the clattering machines. The women are sewing them into ladies’ underwear.
Cut, pile up, cut, pile up. Twelve hours a day, Monday to Friday, for the equivalent of about 150 euros ($180) a month. Four years ago Aras fled the northern Syrian town of Afrin with her family and came to Turkey, first to Gaziantep, then Istanbul.
“Rent, food, the water bill: It’s all so expensive here,” the girl said. “My mother isn’t too well, and one of my sisters is sick, so I have to work to help them.” This is the kind of thing you hear from almost every child in this workshop. It’s apparent that these are children who have had to grow up much too fast.
‘Very widespread problem’
The issue is not new. “Child labor has been a structural and very widespread problem in Turkey for a very long time,” said Sezen Yalcin, who works for the rights organization Support to Life. “It’s even reflected in people’s mindsets: Many people think it’s not a problem in most of the cases.”
Precise figures aren’t available, but the number of children conscripted into the workforce in Turkey has risen sharply alongside the number of displaced people admitted to the country since 2011. So far, Turkey has taken in more than 3 million Syrians — more than any other country in the world. No other country has provided a home to so many displaced children: UNICEF estimates that there are 1.2 million living there. But only a few live in the official camps in the southeast of the country near the Syrian border. Most families try their luck in the big cities. As many as 1 million displaced people are estimated to be living in Istanbul alone.
“Most of the children working in Turkey used to attend school back home in Syria, so it’s a drastic rupture in their lives and childhoods,” Yalcin said. “When they start to work, their childhood ends — forever, or for a while at least.”
The law is unambiguous: Child labor is forbidden in Turkey. Anyone employing girls and boys younger than 15 is liable to be prosecuted. Nonetheless, the children work in the textile or agricultural industries, as cutters, or as harvest workers in the fields. Anywhere where the state doesn’t look too closely and where social security contributions and occupational safety are ignored.