The lost childhood of Turkey's refugee children and child labourers

The number of forcibly displaced people has increased significantly worldwide recently from various reasons; conflicts, violence, fear of persecution,  and climate change among them. Children are among the most vulnerable groups among the displaced community as they mostly live in precarious living conditions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data shows that an estimated 35 million out of 82.4 million displaced people are children, below 18 years old. In other words; if forcibly displaced children formed a country, it would be the 40th most populous country among the world’s 196 nations.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees across the world, with around 4.1 million refugees, including 3.7 million Syrians, as of June 2021. According to the Directorate General of Migration Management data, approximately 1.2 million of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are children between the ages of 5 and 18, but not all have attended school so far. The Minister of National Education, Ziya Selçuk stated that 432,956 Syrian refugee children who are of school age are out of school as of June 2021. Put another way, this means that almost 35 per cent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey are not receiving education. Researchers estimate that Syrian refugees who are out of education mostly work illegally in the labour market with low wages and poor conditions to support their families. Hence, refugee children suffer from a double vulnerability as refugees and child labourers. 

Syrian refugee children in Turkey work in various sectors, including agriculture, the garment industry, and construction, as cheap labour. Most of them work under the most hazardous and exploitative conditions as they do not have any legal protections in the labour market. According to Health and Safety Labour Watch organisation’s data, between 2014 and 2019, at least 367 children lost their lives while they were working in the labour market in Turkey. Around 20 per cent (72 children) of those who lost their lives were refugee children from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the most common reasons that contribute to the rise in the number  of refugee child labour is financial difficulty. UNHCR’s report indicates that over 64 per cent of urban Syrian households live below the poverty line in Turkey. Therefore, precarious socioeconomic conditions of refugee families may force children to take on the role of breadwinner for their families. In this context, refugee children have become the victims of poor living conditions. 

The child labour is a widespread problem among children from Turkey too. The Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TUIK) report titled “Child Labour Survey Results of 2019” indicates that 720 thousand children between the ages of 5-17 works in the labour market even though child labour is outlawed in Turkey. According to the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey’s research, the number of child labour is by far higher than the TUIK’s data. It is estimated that there are over two million child labours, apart from refugee child labour, in Turkey.  

There are international legal regulations to protect children’s fundamental right to ensure that all children have a decent life, no matter who they are. In this context, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989, is particularly valuable as it emphasises the special need for assurance and protection of every child. Turkey ratified this Convention in 1995. Article 28 of the Convention states that all children have a right to receive education for free, and States Parties must “take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.” This means that Turkey is responsible for protecting children’s rights regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity. If the Turkish state fails to provide quality education to Syrian refugee children, a lost generation may grow in the near future. That is why it is vital to ensure every child is protected and educated based on children’s rights. 

Finally, child labour is a violation of children’s fundamental rights for both refugees and locals in Turkey; it may harm the children’s social and mental development in the future. The Turkish Government is responsible for eliminating and preventing refugee child labour for the social cohesion of refugee children in society. Moreover, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), particularly those working to improve children’s welfare, should work closely with the Turkish government to provide cash assistance to refugee families who live below the poverty line. It is essential to point out that no children should be left behind at any time.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.