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February 19, 2015

Is Turkey’s Refugee Work Permit Program Doing Enough?

by Asylum Access

In late 2014, Turkey committed to issuing Syrian refugees temporary work permits and identification cards, which allow them access to basic services like healthcare and education. It remains to be seen whether all refugees will have access to lawful work, and whether the new regulations will be implemented with the issues of gender, labor rights, and fostering entrepreneurship in mind.

The temporary identification card program would secure Syrian refugees’ legal status in the country, after years of being considered “guests” under temporary protection. However, the cards do not grant them official refugee status, which would entitle them to broader benefits like housing, public relief and various social services. In addition to the identification cards, the accompanying measure allocates work permits to the nearly 1.7 million Syrians in the country.

According to Nurcan Onder, the Turkish Deputy Director for Labor, the goal of the work permits is to legitimize refugees’ work status in order to avoid the exploitation of those who often work for below minimum wage and without any social security. Although many Turkish citizens are concerned that this may lead to more job competition, Mrs. Onder asserts that,

“The regulation will clearly define specific sectors and locations where Syrians can apply for work permits, and quotas will be applied in workplaces to manage the supply and demand.”

This step by the Turkish government represents exciting progress for refugee rights in Turkey and a model for other similar initiatives in other countries. As implementation of the program begins, questions around equitable permit distribution, attention to gender issues, and support for labor rights of the refugee population are crucial to take into account. These considerations can help ensure increased refugee self-sufficiency while providing opportunities to support Turkey’s economy.

First, gender equity must be taken into consideration when applying these new regulations. Mrs. Onder stated that the regulation would define specific sectors in which Syrians could apply for work. It is important to allow access to sectors that are equally open to men and women. In particular, jobs that are deemed culturally inappropriate for women may mount an informal barrier to the labor market, even though access is theoretically open to all.

Second, because the regulation will name specific sectors, these new work permits should be allocated for positions in industries where there is a demand for employment. To accomplish this, a further market analysis may be necessary. This approach would fill market needs and increase the likelihood that refugees will find jobs, while improving Turkey’s economy in the process.

Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Celik points out that preliminary studies on the employment of Syrian refugees were drafted by the Directorate General of Migration Management working under the Interior Ministry. While these studies stressed that the proportion of Syrian refugee workers in any workplace must be no higher than 10 percent, they also outlined the employment of refugees in “vacant positions.” This is an excellent first step to determine eligible employment sectors, and should be supplemented by additional research.

Third, to ensure the new work permits protect both refugees and the formal economy, Turkey must emphasize the enforcement of labor laws. It is imperative that these and any other enforcement measures that exist be applied to guarantee refugees’ protection in the workplace, which addresses refugee rights and prevents the creation of a black market that undercuts wages or working conditions for all workers.

The fourth recommendation is to support refugees as innovators and entrepreneurs with ideas and skills through the legalization of refugee self-employment. It is a relatively under-acknowledged fact that refugees tend to be highly innovative populations. Turkey should explore ways to ensure that refugees are able to start businesses and engage in entrepreneurial activities that can benefit its economy over the long-term.

As a concluding note, Turkey’s failure to officially recognize their “guests” as refugees still leaves these asylum-seekers economically and socially vulnerable. Along with labor market access, Turkey should grant this population access to financial institutions; the right to own capital and secure loans; the right to own assets and protection against asset seizure; legal protection against theft of tangible and intangible assets; freedom of movement; and the right to enter into contracts.

These rights and considerations mentioned above would create better conditions for refugees and immigrants alike to engage in productive, meaningful employment and entrepreneurship, which in turn could boost Turkey’s economy over time.

Axel Santana is an Executive Intern at Asylum Access. He has a Master’s in International Policy with a focus on Human Security and Development from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.




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