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In Turkey, Syrian Workers Struggle To Obtain Official Employment


Some 3 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. They're part of that country's economy - the black market economy. Most of them work informally for cash. With the Syrian war in its seventh year, Turkey has opened a path for official employment, but few Syrians have been able to take it. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Istanbul.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Majd al-Hassan whips up avocado cream smoothies at the cafe where he works. He's a Syrian refugee paid under the table. He's been here two years but has yet to learn much Turkish. He doesn't need to. His Istanbul neighborhood is filled with fellow Syrians.

MAJD AL-HASSAN: (Through interpreter) We've got Syrian supermarkets, Syrian restaurants just like back home. I haven't even applied for a Turkish ID card. If peace comes to Syria, I'll go home tomorrow.

FRAYER: Nearby, a Turkish resident, Tulay Suleyman, says she doesn't recognize her street anymore. Nearly all the signs are in Arabic, and that upsets some locals.

TULAY SULEYMAN: Some Turkish people - they don't like these people, you know - culture a little bit different than ours, mostly ignorant people, homeless people.

FRAYER: Many Syrians here are actually educated professionals who are underemployed, working off the books for low pay. Turks have been worried about having their wages undercut, says labor lawyer Mehmet Ata Sarikatipoglu.

MEHMET ATA SARIKATIPOGLU: There was a public concern the Turkish people would be unemployed because of the Syrians being employed with lower fees.

FRAYER: Turks worried about a political backlash.

SARIKATIPOGLU: We see what happened in Europe and how the politics of Europe has changed after that.

FRAYER: So 18 months ago, Turkey started a program to increase work permits for refugees, and companies have to give Syrians the same pay and benefits as Turks. But the rollout has been slow.

YAHIYA OSMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: In a municipal office, Yahiya Osman helps Syrians register for ID cards and health care. He's a Syrian refugee himself who's worked here for four years even though he only got a work permit two weeks ago.

OSMAN: (Through interpreter) It makes me eligible for private health insurance, a pension and worker's comp. You've got to think ahead. We're not sure what's going to happen in Syria. We might have to stay here in Turkey forever.

FRAYER: But Turkish government statistics show that out of 3 million Syrians here, fewer than 14,000 had work permits by January, a year into the program.

SULE AKARSU: It's a very exhausting procedure.

FRAYER: Sule Akarsu runs a charity teaching Syrians masonry in the basement of the municipal building.


FRAYER: Even she has not gotten work permits for her Syrian staff.

AKARSU: And it takes nearly three month to get permission for the Syrian. It's also difficult for Turkish industry doing all these procedures.

FRAYER: Only companies can apply for these permits, not workers, and they have to pay Social Security. There are questions about how much Turkey really wants to implement this. It says it will fine companies that hire Syrians without permits, but that goes unenforced. At an Istanbul cafe, another Syrian, Adnan Hadad, says it's not just the bureaucracy. He's dragged his feet, too, because when he arrived four years ago, he thought he'd be in Turkey only...

ADNAN HADAD: A couple of years. But the Syrian war and how it eventually evolved made me realize that I'll be here for a lot longer.

FRAYER: He still dreams of growing old in Syria. But for now, he's starting in on some Turkish paperwork. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.