Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

BBC 1’s Panorama investigation, ‘Undercover: The Refugees Who Make Our Clothes’ has drawn attention to the informal refugee labour and child labour in Turkey engaged in production for well-known international brands. The programme, broadcast on 24 October, has led to many debates about ethical trade, the exploitation of vulnerable people, and Turkey’s informal sector.

In this blog piece, I would like to provide a general picture of the employment of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Before going farther, however, it is important to bear in mind that such informal employment and child labour issues are not new problems for the labour market in Turkey. The informal sector has been active since the 1960s and child labour has been used widely in many industries, including also in the service sector.

Here it is important to understand the relation between the informal and formal sectors in Turkey and how such a relation has affected the survival strategies of Syrian refugees. In turn, we must understand how the participation of Syrian refugees in the informal economy has changed this historical relation between formal and informal employment.

Refugee and/or economic migrant

In the literature there are many debates on the relation between refugee law and immigration law. The 1951 Refugee Convention does not address the employment of refugees, focusing instead on their humanitarian needs. However today it is becoming much more difficult to neatly separate a ‘refugee’ from a ‘migrant’, and we must take into account the mixed reasons and motivations for migration (Kubal, 2016).

The mass movement of Syrian refugees into Turkey began in 2011. Today Turkey hosts 3 million refugees, the world’s largest refugee population, of whom 2.75 million are from Syria. 290,000 Syrians reside in 26 state-run camps, and the rest live in almost all parts of Turkey and try to survive by their own means.

As a consequence of the protracted war in Syria, the mass movement of refugees fleeing conflict zones has not ended. However there are millions of Syrians that have now been living in Turkey for years, and who are building their lives and futures in Turkey. I argue therefore that a strict demarcation line between refugee and economic migrant has begun in this case to be eliminated.

Turkey, with its population of 80 million, is an important industrial centre within the broader Middle Eastern region and attracts migrants from neighbouring countries as well as from farther-flung countries, including those in Africa, due to its transportation links. Apart from its large industrial and service sectors, it has an informal sector which comprises approximately 40%, and creates large revenues and provides employment for millions, despite there being no monitoring and inspection of it by the state. However the flexibility of the informal sector, which does not have any requirement to obey any laws and regulations, enables refugees and irregular migrants to pursue survival strategies based on employment or entrepreneurship1.

This necessitates a dual approach towards Syrians in Turkey, considering them simultaneously as both refugees fleeing from their countries due to civil war, as well as active economic agents looking for opportunities to work or invest. 

Being a ‘conditional’ refugee under 'temporary’ protection

The Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) (pdf) came into force in April 2013. According to the LFIP, those refugees coming from outside Europe are accepted as ‘conditional’ refugees and are given temporary protection until they can find a new and safe third country of residence.

While Turkey has made a geographical distinction by only accepting people coming from Europe as ‘refugees’ and deeming those from outside it ‘conditional’ refugees, those arriving from the East are supposed to be treated equally based on the 1951 and 1967 UN refugee conventions, to which Turkey is a signatory. However, Turkey’s insistence on preserving the geographical distinction hinders the integration and naturalisation processes of those deemed ‘conditional’ refugees (İçduygu and Millet, 2016).

Since January 2016, those Syrian refugees who have been in Turkey for more than six months are permitted to apply for work permits.

According to the Regulation on Work Permit of Refugees Under Temporary Protection, the act that governs this process:

  • Refugees cannot be paid less than the minimum wage which is 1300 TL, or 340 GBP per month;
  • There must be a maximum workplace quota of 10% refugees;
  • Work permits are issued at the request of an employer prior to signing an employment contract with an employee;
  • Refugees must be treated as equal to local workers and must enjoy the same rights and liberties.

As of September 2016, figures show that only 5,500 temporary work permits have been granted, where hundred thousands of refugees are already employed, but under informal and often exploitative conditions of employment (Kaymaz and Kadkoy, 2016). So the main question now is to understand the reasons for such low levels of applications for work permits, when there are so many workers to whom this new regulation applies.

Labour networks for the employment of Syrian refugees

As the Turkish authorities insist on viewing Syrian refugees as temporary residents, the government focuses on the provision of their basic needs, while turning a blind eye to the informal employment of refugees which, furthermore, implies that fewer families would be dependent on government benefits.

Recent research (pdf) carried out by the Support to Life Association (2016) demonstrates that informal labour networks facilitate the relationship between refugees seeking jobs and local employers. So refugees may migrate from border regions within Turkey to Istanbul or other industrial centres with crucial information about availability of employment and other related issues such as accommodation. According to official reports, between 2013 and 2016, the number of Syrian refugees in Istanbul increased from 85,000 to 400,000 (Göç İdaresi, 2016). However we do not observe thousands of people desperately looking for employment on the streets of Istanbul; rather, labour networks facilitate (generally informal) employment for these people. Therefore identifying and understanding such labour networks is crucial to opening new channels of legal, formal employment.

However this is not an easy task. Because of their lack of appropriate permits, Syrian refugees are forced to work under poor conditions, with low wages (generally half of the minimum wage, approximately 650 TL, or 170 GBP per month), for long hours. As most of the refugees are from rural areas, they tend to be unskilled and not familiar with the concepts of industrial relations. Another significant problem is the language barrier. Added to the informal, exploitative conditions, employers often prefer to employ refugee children instead of adults, who can learn the job and language quickly, perhaps more quickly than adult workers, and who equally will not oppose the given conditions. It is not just employers, but also their families, dependent on the wages they bring, who force children to accept the given working conditions. This demonstrates that the granting of the right to gain a work permit does not solve the problem of informal labour in Turkey, including that of child refugees. Additional factors, explored below, also build on the decades-long, endemic problems of the Turkish garment industry.

The changing character of the informal sector as a result of refugee movement

A large informal sector, child labour, long working hours and problems over freedom of association are endemic within Turkey’s garment industry. The movement of the Syrian refugees and their participation in the labour market has made these problems much worse and much more complex.

In the garment-textile-leather sectors, in addition to one million formal workers, it is estimated that almost one million more workers are employed informally. Informal workers are defined as those who are not registered under Turkey’s social security system. They do not have the legal right to receive the minimum wage and their employers do not pay taxes and other social security contributions. This creates a competition between formal and informal workplaces in Turkey.

From another perspective, there is also a history of collaboration between both types of economies. As the Turkish garment industry relies on providing low-cost and quality products in a speedy way, there has been a long-standing relationship between formal and informal economies. As formal workplaces are generally suppliers to international brands, they usually comply with the requirements of Turkish law, international standards and the codes of conduct of international brands. When an abuse of these requirements is reported, it is easier for stakeholders to take measures for remediation. However there are no such binding rules in the informal sector, and authorities are not willing to take concrete and effective steps to eliminate such forms of business.

In order to produce low-cost, quality products rapidly, formal companies have been mobilising large networks of other workplaces, many of them informal, in order to meet deadlines. In the past, when such orders had been received, given that the workforce was almost entirely composed of Turkish citizens, it was easier to register these informal workers for a temporary period, hence complying with the necessary legislative requirements.

With the movement of Syrian refugees into Turkey, the character of informality began to be transformed. Before, informal and formal workers were Turkish citizens who provided the flexibility to shift from informal to formal conditions and vice versa. Now, since the informal sector began to employ Syrian refugees, this has been complicated. Before January 2016, the employment of Syrian refugees was illegal, but since the change in legislation, a right to acquire a work permit has been introduced for these workers, but there are many associated bureaucratic procedures which, in fact, eliminate the flexibility offered by the previous arrangement.

As the informal sector mainly employs refugees, this has caused an ethnicization of the sector. This means that we begin to define informal employability with certain ethnic groups. For instance, instead of talking about ‘informal workers’, people within Turkey begin to talk about ‘Syrians’. As the informal sector is mainly producing for the domestic market, it does not necessarily work with exporters and does not therefore have to accept the conditions imposed by international brands. The only actor which could take steps to rid the sector of these exploitative practices is the state, and the authorities have other priorities.

Developing a comprehensive approach

As has become clear, we are talking about long-standing, systematic problems within Turkey which have become more complex with the involvement of refugees and, to be sure, the situation cannot carry on as it is. Different industry stakeholders have played a role in the creation of these problems, so there would not be any meaningful change by insisting on doing business as usual. As just one step forward, I suggest that the purchasing practices of international corporations/brands should be questioned: they apply pressure to their suppliers to produce in a short time at a low cost, pressure which is transferred to workers by suppliers. Such pressure also feeds the informal economy as suppliers strive to produce more in a shorter time with lower costs. Authorities, furthermore, do not inspect and monitor the implementation of legislation effectively.

The BBC Panorama investigation has acted as an important catalyst to foster the resolution of these issues. However a comprehensive approach, as well as collaboration, is needed in order to combat child and informal labour, and to provide decent work for all workers, irrespective of nationality. Otherwise the risk is that efforts to improve the situation might have a discouraging effect on supplying from Turkey and/or employing Syrian refugees. What is required to work towards a solution in this case, therefore, is sincere political engagement as well as an understanding of the complex issues at play historically and in today’s context of Turkey’s Syrian refugee population.


1 See Baird, 2015 who explains how Nigerian migrants in Istanbul use the flexibility of the informal sector to shift from sweatshop employment conditions to entrepreneurship. We encounter similar stories for refugees and migrants in Turkey.


Baird, Theodore (2015) 'Nigerian entrepreneurs in Istanbul, Turkey: Spatial and temporal dimensions of mixed embeddedness'. International Migration Institute Working Paper No. 115. Oxford: International Migration Institute.

Göç İdaresi Genel Müdürlüğü (2016) 2015 Türkiye Göç Raporu. Göç İdaresi Genel Müdürlüğü Yayınları, No. 35.

İçduygu, Ahmet and Millet, Evin (2016) Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Insecure Lives in an Environment of Pseudo-Integration. Global Turkey in Europe.

Kaymaz, Timur and Kadkoy, Omar (2016) 'Syrians in Turkey - The Economics of Integration'. AlSharq Forum, Expert Brief.

Kubal, Agnieszka (2016) 'Refugees or Migrant Workers? A Case Study of Undocumented Syrians in Russia- LM and others v Russia (ECtHT 14 March 2016)'. Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Law, 30 (3).

Support to Life Association (2016) Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Turkey.

About the author

Dr Korkmaz is a post-doctoral researcher at the International Migration Institute and as a Newton International Fellow is focusing on the public sphere of immigrant workers. He is a political scientist and in his current research project aims to understand the dynamics of representation and participation of Turkish immigrant workers at trade unions and works councils in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

His areas of expertise also include the labour market involvement of Syrian refugees in Turkey and he contributes to the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Turkey Program as a consultant and blogger.

About this piece

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

Blog posts

Climate refugees: The fabrication of a migration threat

In recent years, it has become popular to argue that climate change will lead to massive North-South movements of ‘climate refugees’. Concerns about climate change-induced migration have emerged in the context of debates on global warming. Without any doubt, global warming is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity, and the lack of willingness of states and the international community to address it effectively – particularly through reducing of carbon emissions – is a valid source of major public concern and global protest.

The unfolding of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Denmark and Sweden

MSc Migration Studies student Katryna Mahoney reflects on a recent study trip to Copenhagen and Malmö

Migration from Turkey to the UK

Professor Ibrahim Sirkeci charts the history of reciprocal migration between Turkey and the UK and predicts future movements

The potential cost of visa regimes

Dr Emre Eren Korkmaz pleads for greater equity and transparency in visa regimes

Turkey’s diaspora engagement policy under the Justice and Development Party

Dr Bahar Baser tracks the development of Turkey's diaspora-building