In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive


ISTANBUL, Turkey ; Muna Awwal wants to go to school. But she needs to go to work.
Muna says she is 10 years old. Nine, corrects her father, Mahmud, as they sit in the family’s second-floor flat in Istanbul’s textile district.
Muna and her family arrived in Turkey from Syria in 2013. For the past few weeks she has helped her father and 13-year-old brother Muhamed in a basement they rent, making cheap tops, dresses and T-shirts for other textile suppliers. Her father Mahmud says some of the clothes are sold in Europe.
The family comes from the city of Aleppo and fled fighting in May 2013, he said. He shoos his children out of the room and settles on the carpeted floor. Now, he says, he relies on three of his five children to get by.
The Awwal family’s situation is not unusual. It adds to questions about how safe Turkey is for families fleeing war.
“It’s not normal at all to make my child work — with me or with anyone else,” Mahmud Awwal said in June. “It’s not good. But we have no other choice. It’s very common here in Turkey.”
Over a few days in April and May, Reuters met 13 Syrian children in three Turkish cities who said they have jobs making clothes or shoes, even though Turkey bans children under 15 from working. Another four who were older than 15 said they worked up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, despite a law that says those up to 17 can only work 40 hours weekly. Dozens more children who were working were unwilling to talk.
In March, Brussels and Ankara agreed a deal that allows Europe to send back to Turkey migrants who came through the country on their way to Europe. Brussels has pledged up to 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to help migrants and refugees, and the deal states that when people are returned, they will be “protected in accordance with the relevant international standards.”
The European Union says Turkey is a safe country: In April, European Council President Donald Tusk called Turkey “the best example in the entire world of how to treat refugees.”
The United States is not so sure. Turkey’s “efforts to protect the growing and highly vulnerable refugee and migrant communities in the country remain inadequate,” the State Department said in a July report.
And rights groups say Turkey is far from safe. Groups such as Amnesty International have documented Syrians being shot at by Turkish border guards as they try to cross into Turkey, living in squalor, or deported back into the fighting. And they note Syrian children, who are often unable to get to school in other frontier countries such as Lebanon, are part of the labour force.
Turkey houses more refugees than anywhere in the world: 2.73 million of them Syrians by the last count, more than half of whom are under 18. Ankara says it has spent more than $10 billion helping refugees. It doesn’t recognise them as refugees, but at least on paper it does offer protection, including free education and basic healthcare, to those who register. The government has denied sending back any Syrians against their will and says no refugees have been shot at. President Tayyip Erdogan has said some Syrians may even win Turkish citizenship.