Analysis |

It’s Been Nine Years but Syrian Refugees Are Still Waiting

Syrian teachers in Turkey are subsisting on a meager wage, but in Jordan, Syrian refugee children can’t even go to school. Meanwhile, aid money is steadily dwindling

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Syrian man shovels dirt next to his tent near the refugee and migrant camp at the Greek island of Samos island, in 2019.
A Syrian man shovels dirt next to his tent near the refugee and migrant camp at the Greek island of Samos island, in 2019.Credit: Petros Giannakouris,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Syrian teachers who are working in Turkey have an urgent request. They want a raise and they want their employment conditions to be put on a par with the standard ones in the Turkish school system. The problem is they have no one to turn to.

Their salary is paid by UNICEF, the Turkish government does not officially recognize them, and they can only appeal to Syrian National Council – the Syrian opposition coalition in Istanbul – to pursue their request. But the council can’t help either – it isn’t responsible for the refugees in Turkey. So the teachers will have to somehow keep surviving on a monthly wage of just $292, a meager sum far below a living wage in Turkey, where the country’s currency, the Turkish lira, has steeply plummeted.

More than 3.5 million refugees live in Turkey. Most came from Syria, and many of them are not formally registered with the UN aid agencies and cannot obtain humanitarian aid. Most work in the black market, without benefits or insurance, and only several tens of thousands have been lucky enough to obtain work permits. A small number also managed to obtain Turkish citizenship.

When Syrian refugees began streaming into Turkey at the beginning of the civil war there, the government opened 55 Arabic-language learning centers based on the Syrian curriculum for them. Most of the refugee teachers ended up working at these centers while also finding employment at Turkish schools where Arabic is taught, or at religious schools where Islam and the Koran are studied in Arabic.

A Syrian refugee boy looks out from a tent window at a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May, 2020. Credit: ALI HASHISHO/ REUTERS

Three years ago, the Turkish government decided to integrate Syrian children into Turkish schools and began closing the special learning centers. This year, the last center was closed, leaving the Syrian teachers without steady work. Some were able to find work in Turkish schools as interpreters or liaisons between the school and the parents, but these jobs are expected to be only temporary.

Turkey, which has 80,000 Syrian pupils attending its schools for free, is proposing that the Syrian teachers undergo professional training, after which they could be hired as regular teachers in the school system. But this is a long and difficult path. The training takes two years, and during this time the teachers have to also learn Turkish and familiarize themselves with the Turkish curriculum. And if they do pass this stage, they can expect to be sent to teach in rural areas, far from their families and their homes.

Despite these difficulties, Turkey’s absorption of the Syrian refugees is considered a success story. Turkish media has reported on thousands of Syrian companies that have opened during the nine years of the war, on refugees who became millionaires and on the refugees’ contribution to the country’s economy – Turkey has received aid from international organizations and donor governments.

A family of Syrian refugees are seen in the living room of their apartment in Athens, Greece, June, 2020.Credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/ REUTERS

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fond of saying that his government has spent $40 billion to date on aid to the refugees, but this figure is apparently exaggerated. Reports issued by the government itself over the years indicate the real figure is about half of that. But it’s not just the amount of money invested by the government and the international organizations that affects the quality of life for the refugees in Turkey. In recent years, they have encountered increasing hostility from Turks who view them as an economic burden on the Turkish taxpayer. They accuse them of stealing Turkish jobs and swelling the unemployment rate.

This attitude is also being bolstered by Erdogan’s public policy of using the refugees to justify the establishment of security zones within Syria, where he seeks to resettle about a million refugees. These security zones, which were agreed upon between Turkey and Russia, give Turkey a pretext for maintaining its military presence in Syria as part of its battle against the Kurds. But despite Turkey’s aggressive policy to encourage the Syrian refugees’ return, they are in no hurry.

Turkey is not the only country trying to get the refugees out of its territory. Lebanon and Jordan, each with over a million Syrian refugees, would also like to ease the heavy burden they put on the public coffers. But while in Jordan the refugees enjoy relatively good living conditions, government aid and personal security, in Lebanon they’ve become political dynamite.

Syrian refugee students in a school in Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey, near Syrian border, November 30, 2016. Credit: UMIT BEKTAS/ REUTERS

Syrian refugees in Lebanon aren’t eligible to work and about 90 percent work in menial labor on the black market. Refugee children aren’t admitted to state schools and have no health insurance, and many of them live in difficult conditions in urban areas, often without water or electricity. According to a report from Save the Children, more than half a million refugee children suffer from hunger and could die of hunger if aid does not arrive.

The severe economic crisis in Lebanon, combined with economic stagnation due to the coronavirus pandemic, have made the refugees there not just an economic burden but also a target for an extremist nationalist policy that calls for them to be returned to Syria. This policy is dividing the leadership between supporters and opponents, with the opponents of sending back the refugees arguing that doing so would require negotiating with the Syrian regime, thereby lending it legitimacy, while supporters claim to have the Lebanese national interest in mind.

The international institutions and Western countries that are hosting millions of refugees have not found any solution for the Syrian refugee issue aside from providing funds for humanitarian aid that are not sufficient to truly address the problem. This aid money also steadily dwindling, and is expected to fall by at least 10 percent this year. Without a diplomatic solution in Syria, the refugees’ future looks to be a dead end for years to come.

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