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  • Lost Generation Turkey

    This work seeks to shine a light on the real situation for many refugee children in Turkey, particularly in view of the multibillion-dollar agreement made with the EU that came into effect in March 2016. Turkey is currently the country in the world hosting the highest number of refugees, having received over 2.7 million Syrians fleeing war over the past six years. According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, 54 percent of the Syrian refugees are minors, around 850,000 are of school age, and according to Human Rights Watch, 380,000 Syrian children in Turkey are not receiving an education. I focused on the situation for children who don’t have access to schools or have not been integrated into the Turkish system. The situation for these children and their families, and for unaccompanied minors is extremely harsh, because they live in great financial difficulty without access to financial support, health care or housing. To survive, many move to the outskirts of big cities or to smaller centers, or to the countryside, in search of cash in hand work in the hope of prospects for a better life.

    In the countryside of Izmir, I found families working in the agricultural sector, creating unauthorized camps near the fields with the hope of obtaining work from day to day. Pay is low – between 25 and 50 Turkish liras a day ($7-$14), and up to 38 Turkish liras (around $10) for women. The children are left to look after each other while their parents are out at work, missing out on an education and going forward in precarious living conditions. Even worse is the situation in cities such as Gaziantep, where Syrians, including children, find work in unauthorized workplaces such as garment factories, sometimes where clothes for the European market are made. Often unable to obtain official work permits, many refugees work illegally to support their families, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, and a generation of young people are growing up faster than they should, missing out on an education. UNICEF estimates that one Syrian child in 10 works to support their family, working six or seven days a week for more than eight hours a day.

    I had expected to find many barriers to photographing the situation of refugee children in Turkey, particularly those who were working. Instead, in Gazientep, some parents reacted positively. One told me that his heart breaks when he enters the factory because his son should be at school or out playing with other children. A custodian at one of the factories said that many of the boys working there had lost their fathers or that their fathers were unable to work, while others came from large families and one person’s wage only just covered the rent, so the son or sons needed to work so the family could survive. Sometimes the eldest adolescent boys take on this family responsibility consciously, expressing a desire want to work because they want to take care of their families and guarantee an education for their younger siblings. When I asked why the children were paid less than the adults, the custodian admitted there were budget pressures but said the final blame lies with the market. He said that since he had been there, they had only produced clothes for the European, Iraqi and Russian markets, and that at times they had to put the parent company labels on the clothes. You all want to save money, he said, and here in Turkey, now that’s possible, thanks to the Syrians who are just trying to survive.

    As the EU supports Turkey to host refugees and keep them from entering the EU, it is vital for Europe to see and acknowledge the real situation that refugees in Turkey face and the price children are paying as a direct consequence of war and Europe’s border control decisions and agreements – and hunger for cheap products. The real risk is that of a lost generation of Syrian children, growing up without a childhood and without an education.