It's Only Getting Harder To Be A Syrian Refugee In Turkey

The four million Syrians living in Turkey were already facing great difficulties, and the pandemic only made their lives more uncertain. But there's another truth they know must face.

A sewing workshop in Gaziantep, Turkey which was set up by Syrians refugees
A sewing workshop in Gaziantep, Turkey which was set up by Syrians refugees
Catherine Chatignoux

GAZIANTEP — The lives of Adnan, Yasmin, Ajib and Muhammed, Syrian refugees settled in Turkey, was already a long, long hardship. When the coronavirus arrived, hardship turned into devastation.

While refugees in Lebanon and Syria are housed and fed in camps, the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey are integrated within major cities and suburbs, and must find work. These families — which rarely have fewer than four children — live on a single daily salary, usually in the construction, agriculture or small businesses sectors. With COVID-19, these opportunities have become scarce, plunging entire families into destitution.

Since arriving in 2015, Adnan, a 35-year-old construction worker from Aleppo, has never been able to find the stability needed to build a better future for his family of five. When the lockdown began last year, even the part-time work dried up in Gaziantep, a city that has swelled to 450,000 new inhabitants since the start of the war in Syria.

"I would like to work in a big workshop or a factory, to get a permanent job. But it's very difficult," he said. Few Turkish companies apply for a work permit or pay insurance for Syrian refugees. It is more attractive for them to pay an undeclared half salary.

These extreme conditions have pushed Syrian families to send their children to work. This is the case of Yasmine's two boys, both minors and part of a six-person family living in one room. They describe themselves as being in a state of "great poverty." Employed in small shops, the children earn 80 Turkish lira ($9.16) per week at best.

Eight out of 10 households have had at least one family member put out of work because of COVID

Without financial assistance, a large majority of the four million Syrians in Turkey would simply not have the means to survive. Of the six billion euros promised to Turkey in 2016 for keeping and managing refugees on its soil, 40% is spent on humanitarian aid. Criticized for making Europe bend to the whim of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who can open his borders at any time — this pact, sealed in the midst of the migration crisis, has finally proven itself useful. Discussions to renew the funds are currently underway.

Bülent Öztürk of the Turkish Red Crescent, one of the 20 or so NGOs funded by the European Union to provide support to the vulnerable, says that eight out of 10 households have had at least one family member put out of work because of COVID. "The debt of families has doubled," says Öztürk.

The EU's flagship program, set up in 2016, takes the form of a credit card, the Kizilaykart, granted to more than 300,000 households, or about 1.63 million Syrians. "This is the largest humanitarian program ever set up by Europe," says a representative of the European Commission.

The card is credited with with the equivalent of $18 per family member each month, with a quarterly "bonus' for larger families. The Kizilaykart is a modest boost, but it allows the family to meet its basic needs: rent, food and clothing. As a result of the severe devaluation of the Turkish currency in recent months, the refugees received an extra 1,000 Turkish liras (about $115), during the pandemic.

A social event hosted by the Zenobia Syrian Women's Association intended to support Syrian women refugees in Turkey and their families — Photo: Muhammed Ibrahim Ali/IMAGESLIVE/ZUMA

In the most blatant cases of poverty, NGOs take out their checkbooks and pay the family's rent for a few months. They also provide food vouchers and distribute carpets and clothes. However, the general feeling among the beneficiaries is one of insecurity: "We are very dependent on the NGOs whose aid can be interrupted overnight and we don't know what the future will bring," says Emina. "It's been 10 years since we arrived, and our situation has not changed at all. I don't see how it could change."

Refugees, many of whom do not speak Turkish, also visit NGO offices for help with hospital appointments and administrative assistance with registration procedures required for access to education and free health care. At the Danish Refugee Council, legal support is provided to help courageous couples build a case for an unlikely transfer to a European or North American country. In the wake of COVID-19, many requests concern school enrollment or re-enrollment. Many of these families were unable to send their children to the online school the government had set up.

Access to education, made compulsory in 2016 by President Erdogan, is still out of reach for nearly one in two of these children. "About 400,000 children — more than half of the young refugees — are out of school. Some have never set foot in one," says Iren Wall, an American who works with refugees in the city of Sanliurfa in southeast Turkey.

Convinced the only chance of integration for these Syrian children is through education, Wall and her team of teachers are working to give the 2,600 enrolled students a three-month rehabilitation period and upgrading sessions. In one of the rooms of what looks like a small community school, educators teach Syrian, Kurdish and Iranian children to regain their self-esteem, an appetite for learning and the basics of the Turkish language.

The Turkish government has gradually realized that the refugees will not go back home

To encourage families to send their children to school rather than to work, the EU is financing a vast humanitarian program deployed by UNICEF. It gives these households an income of 15 Turkish liras per week per child if they attend school regularly. More than 700,000 children remain covered by this program until the start of 2022.

Those who have returned to school, have progressed at lightning speed. The youngest speak Turkish and some are even forgetting Arabic. "The Turkish government has gradually realized that the refugees will not go back home," says a European official.

In some cities, such as Gaziantep, refugees now account for up to 30% of the population. In Kilis, near the border, their number has exceeded that of Turkish natives. Yet it is not the new arrivals from Syria that are making the statistics soar, but a high birth rate. Every year, 100,000 children are born into these refugee families.

Despite their eagerness to reach Europe or even Australia, these kinds of statistics are making it increasingly clear that the future of Syrian refugees lies in Turkey, no matter how difficult their slow integration may be.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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