They work 12 hours a day, six days a week, making $160 a month and suffering abuse from leather factory owners.
For thousands of refugee children, Turkey is the “safe country.” But the stories collected in recent months paint a picture of worse exploitation of children there than of adults. To survive outside of refugee camps, men accept low-paying jobs, and women sit on street corners begging passersby. But for children the tragedy is even worse.
Half of the 2.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are minors, according to UNICEF. Of these, over 80 percent do not go to school. Many end up in factories producing shoes, handbags and clothes. They are 13 and 14 years old, sometimes less, and they work to support parents: According to research by Hayata Destek, a Turkish NGO, 60 percent of Syrian families in Istanbul survive on between €150 and €500 per month. Stable work is rare, contracts are impossible; Syrian refugees are forbidden from obtaining work visas.
And so the children go to work. Hayata Destek reports that in many families children are the only ones bringing money home. “There’s no work for adults,” said Sezen Yalcin, head of the program for children under Hayata Destek. “Adults are less vulnerable and employers want young people so they can easily exploit them.”
In February, the child labor scandal in Turkey spilled into Europe as two clothing giants, H&M and Next, revealed the discovery of children in their supply chain. The news was suggestive of a much larger, shadowy problem that further links Europe to its gatekeeper and watchdog, Akara. Many other companies were less transparent, refusing to answer legitimate questions about their use of refugees; and others, such as Nike, Puma and Adidas, denied involvement.
In the background is an indolent country that does not invest in the protection of Syrians fleeing from a war it fueled and as a reward receives €6 billion from Brussels. And the abuses are increasing: labor exploitation, police beatings, abuse of women and children.
On Thursday, news broke that 30 minors, between 8 and 12 years old, were raped by a pedophile at the Nizip refugee camp, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel had visited in April to showcase “the best example of how to treat refugees.” The man, identified only as E.E., age 29, has allegedly confessed to paying boys a few Turkish lira to molest them in the bathrooms of a camp that houses 14,000 Syrians. He could receive cumulative sentences totaling 289 years in prison.
In January, Amnesty International issued a detailed report to denounce the abuse, rape and exploitation suffered by women at the hands of those who should be protecting them: police officers, border guards and camp staff across Turkey and Europe.