Syrian refugees and the transformation of Turkey’s rural areas

The arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led to what has been termed the “refugee-ization” of theTurkish agricultural and local labour market. In this post, the second in a two part series, Selma Akay Erturk draws on her own field work in Hatay province, and traces the changes that have taken place in rural areas where Syrian refugees have settled. Following the mass migration of Syrian refugees seeking refuge in Turkey, Akay Erturk describes how their ongoing precarious status and circumstances has left them vulnerable to exploitative working conditions, including lower wages and worse working conditions than their Turkish counterparts.  Akay Erturk also traces the differences in gendered working patterns amongst Syrian refugee agricultural workers, and the conceptualisation of Syrian workers by domestic agricultural workers, who believe that “Syrians are taking their jobs from their hands.”

You can read the first of this series of posts,  ‘Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey’, which explores the evolving relationship between Syrian refugees and their host communities within the physical and social space of Turkey, and within the context of Turkish history, here.

If you find this piece of interest, you may also like to access the suggested readings at the end of this piece.

Syrian refugees and the transformation of Turkey’s rural areas

by Selma Akay Erturk, Associate Professor of Human Geography in Istanbul University and Visiting Fellow in UCL Migration Research Unit

Turkey continues to host 3.57 million Syrian refugees. The vast majority of these people – 98.2% – live outside of refugee camps in cities, towns and villages, with only 63,443 Syrians living in refugee camps. A range of social, economic, cultural and spatial changes have taken place in the urban and rural areas where Syrian refugees have settled. In the first of this two-part series, I traced how these changes have emerged in urban areas, especially in Istanbul. In turn, this blog post examines a range of changes that have taken place in rural areas where Syrian refugees have settled in Turkey.

Rural areas in Turkey after the 1960s

Since the 1960s, internal migration in Turkey has occurred from rural areas to cities and towns, including due to population growth in rural areas, the increase in unemployment due to the mechanisation of agriculture, a lack of diversification of economic activities, and a lack of improvement in housing, health and education conditions. At the same time, the increase in job opportunities in urban areas – due to the development of industrial activities and service sector, and good conditions in health and education services in cities – has attracted this population. Currently, 92.3% of Turkey’s population of Turkey lives mainly in cities and towns, and only 7.7% live in villages.

Throughout this period, a considerable number of unemployed young people living in rural Turkey have moved to the country’s big cities to work in the industrial sector and service sector. As most of the middle-aged and older population have remained in the villages, the number of labourers able to complete agricultural activities has substantially decreased. Mostly performed by family labour in the past, the need for the paid workforce in agricultural production has continued to increase.

Although the agricultural sector’s overall contribution to Turkey’s economy has decreased over time, agriculture remains necessary, with 18.4% of the population working in the farm sector, which is relatively high when compared with some EU member countries (for example, the equivalent rate is 3.5 per cent in Italy and 10.7 per cent in Greece – EUROSTAT, 2016). Turkey needs labourers in the agricultural sector, especially in livestock production, greenhouse cultivation, and the harvesting and processing of various crops (olives, cotton, hazelnuts, tea, pistachio, citrus fruits and stone fruits, vegetables). Until recently, the domestic labour force has mainly satisfied the need for labour in the Turkish agricultural sector, although this has included seasonal migratory domestic agricultural workers and domestic temporary farming workers. Given the lack of local labour, seasonal internal migrant workers, mainly from eastern and southeastern Turkey, have traditionally worked in the agricultural sector in many provinces in Turkey.

The employment of foreign migrant workers in the farm sector in Turkey is a quite recent phenomenon in comparison with EU countries, even if the internal migration of temporary farm workers has existed for a long time. Migrant labour in the agricultural sector in Turkey dates back to the early 1990s, and foreign labour migrants have usually been employed without work permits in rural areas in different regions of Turkey. For instance, Georgians and Azerbaijanis (from Nakhichevan) work in hazelnut and tea plantations in the eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. At the same time, migrants from Central Asian countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and Afghans and Uzbeks from Afghanistan are involved in stockbreeding in the Marmara region, Central Anatolian region and Eastern Anatolian region.

Landowner and Syrian Refugee share lunch
Landowner and Syrian refugee share their lunch in olive grove in Tokaçlı village in Altınözu, Hatay province. © S.Akay Erturk, April 23, 2014

Syrian refugees in rural areas

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Syrians taking refuge in Turkey have become another critical source of agricultural labour in rural areas, which has led to what has been called the “refugee-ization” (Dines and Rigo, 2015) of the local workforce and labour market. A substantial number of refugees escaping from the war work in different agricultural areas of Turkey, primarily in provinces near to Turkish-Syrian border where they have sought refuge. Syrian refugees work in Hatay province (in the cultivation of olives, cotton, citrus and carrots), Sanliurfa province (in the cultivation of cotton, pomegranate, red pepper), Gaziantep (in the cultivation of red pepper, onion, cotton), Kahramanmaras (in the cultivation of red pepper, pistachio), Malatya (in the cultivation of apricot), Kilis, Osmaniye, Mardin (in the cultivation of wheat, red lentil); in Adana (in the cultivation of cotton, citrus, watermelon, vegetables), Mersin (in the cultivation of citrus, vegetables), Antalya province (greenhouses and citrus and flower cultivation) and Denizli province (in greenhouse horticulture) in the Mediterranean Region of Turkey; in Konya, Eskişehir, Kayseri, Yozgat and Nevşehir (in the cultivation of wheat, sugar beet and potatoes) in Central Anatolian Region; in Izmir and Aydın (fruits and vegetables cultivations), Afyon (cultivation of potatoes and cherries) in Aegean Region; Düzce and Samsun (hazelnut cultivation) in Black Sea Region and in stockbreeding in Kars and Ardahan in Eastern Anatolian Region.

Under the Regulation (which came into force on January 15, 2016) on Work Permits for Foreigners who have been extended temporary protection, Syrians wishing to work in seasonal jobs in agriculture and animal husbandry may be exempted from the requirement to obtain a work permit. Applications for exemption are to be handled by provincial governorates where temporary protection is granted. These applications are notified to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security by the relevant governorship. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security has the right to establish limits on the employment of Syrians in the farm sector by province and by quota.

Syrian refugees settle in areas where seasonal migratory domestic agricultural workers and domestic temporary agrarian workers and foreign migrants are also employed, and some Syrian refugees have become seasonal migratory agricultural workers to earn a living.  Due to their precarious situation, Syrian refugees usually work longer hours, accept lower wages (sometimes for half a standard daily wage and sometimes only in exchange for food) and live in worse living conditions (in tents near to the fields) than domestic agricultural workers and foreign migrant agrarian workers.

According to my observations during field research in Hatay province in April 2014, some agricultural intermediaries who enable Syrian agricultural workers to find jobs, take a part of these workers’ daily wages. For Syrians doing daily work in farms, workers’ markets, sides of main roads, parks and workers’ coffeehouses can be considered as places that bring together workers and prospective employers. On almost all occasions, no official, written agreement is made between them.

Syrian male refugees at collection point for finding daily work on Altınözu-Hatay main road and a refugee man travelling unsafely in a pickup truck on Altınözu-Hatay main road. © S.Akay Erturk, April 23 & 24 2014

The vulnerability of their situation has turned Syrian refugees into cheap labour reserves not only in the industrial and service sector but also in agricultural production. The plummeting of daily wages resulting from the inclusion of Syrian refugees as labourers in the agricultural sector in Turkey has deepened the exploitation of labour and sharpened clashes between different worker groups, and not just against Syrian refugees.

The most visible competition – which is frequently covered by the media – is between seasonal migratory domestic agricultural workers from eastern and southeastern Turkey on the one hand, and Syrian refugees on the other. This situation has been defined by some academics as “the competition of the poor.” There is also a general perception that Syrians’ presence is pulling wages down in the farm sector, and that domestic agricultural workers believe that “Syrians are taking their jobs from their hands.” As I argued in the first part of this two-part blog series about the presence of Syrians in the urban areas, locals in Istanbul held similar views.

The forced displacement of Syrians in Turkey, and their employment in the agricultural sector in rural areas, represents a case of proletarianization, which is peculiar in the context of Mediterranean agriculture. However, there are some similarities with what has been called the “refugee-ization of the workforce” (Dines and Rigo, 2015) in southern Italian rural areas and in rural areas in Greece, where the participation of asylum seekers and refugees in the agricultural labour market has increased.

Women in Turkey’s agricultural industry

Female labour force participation in Turkey is remarkably low compared with other OECD countries, and yet the rate of female employees working in the agricultural sector in Turkey is 26.1%, which is the highest rate among OECD countries (these rates are 22.1% in Romania, 11.3% in Greece, and 2.3% in Italy). When the proportion of employees in the agricultural sector in Turkey is examined by gender, it is seen that the rate of women working in agriculture was higher than that of men (14.9%) in 2018. Accordingly, Turkey exhibits a “feminization of agriculture”.  In fact, for the majority of women engaged in this sector – including foreign migrant women working in the farm sector in Turkey -, their labour is typically informal and unpaid.  Importantly, the agricultural industry is a main sector where Syrian young refugee women work. A study conducted in Adana province – where one of Turkey’s large and fertile plains, Cukurova, is located – shows that 40% of Syrian refugee women in the area work as agricultural workers and refugee children under the age of 18 make up 1/3 of all agricultural employees in the area. While such employment is highly precarious, from this perspective, agriculture is a key sector in Turkey because it provides employment opportunities to Syrian women (see the 2018 Turkey Demographic and Health Survey Syrian Migrant Sample Survey here).

Syrian refugee woman works in olive grove
Syrian refugee woman works in olive grove in Tokaçlı village in Altınözu, Hatay province. © S.Akay Erturk, April 23, 2014
Syrian refugee child works in olive grove
Syrian refugee child works in olive grove in Tokaçlı village in Altınözu, Hatay province. © S.Akay Erturk, April 23, 2014

Changes in rural areas

The poorest Syrian refugees in Turkey live in villages and in tents near to the fields of rural areas, often because they thought that rents and the cost of living is very high in the cities. Syrians who have settled in villages have sometimes formed their own neighbourhoods and have sometimes concentrated in specific neighbourhoods. However, according to my interviews with locals and my observations in villages of Hatay province, it could be said that they often tend to live apart from the local population for different reasons.

Location of refugee camp in Cevdetiye, Osmaniye province which was established in agricultural lands of Cevdetiye. Cevdetiye refugee camp hosts 12.610 Syrian refugees in December 31, 2019 (Google Map).

Location of refugee camp in Sarıçam, Adana province which was established in rural areas near to Buruk village. Sarıçam refugee camp hosts 20.700 Syrian refugees in December 31, 2019 (Google Map)

In my previous post I noted that municipalities play an important role in supporting Syrian refugees in cities, and yet this situation is not the same in villages. Local village councils (muhtarlik in Turkish) do not have a budget to allocate to support Syrian refugees. Besides, another significant spatial effect of the presence of Syrians in rural areas is that most of the refugee camps in Turkey are established in rural areas. Sometimes the fields that were previously used as agricultural land were expropriated and a refugee camp was established on it.

From a broader perspective, the employment of Syrian refugees in the agricultural sector in Turkey shows how geopolitical conflicts and wars – such as the war in Syria – can have unexpected effects on the restructuring of agriculture, rural areas and the labour market in the host country. Displaced people (who are sometimes themselves displaced farmers) are turned into precarious and poor proletarians who enter the agricultural labour market in the receiving state. On the one hand, the contribution of Syrian refugees is crucial for the sustainability of the agricultural sector and rural areas in Turkey. Indeed, recognising the wide-ranging significance of the agricultural sector for Syrian refugees and Turkish host communities, agricultural training has been provided by the FAO in cooperation with Turkish institutions (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, Directorate General of Migration Management and Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock). On the other hand, many changes have yet to be made in the agricultural sector to improve work conditions for all, such as ensuring that equal wages are paid for similar jobs, improving the working and living conditions of seasonal domestic migratory agricultural workers and Syrians farmworkers alike, taking security measures to prevent accidents, and ending child labour. These are amongst the challenges that remain for people living in rural areas of Turkey, today and in the future.

**

You can read the first of this series of posts,  ‘Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey’, exploring the evolving relationship between Syrian refugees and their host communities within the physical and social space of Turkey, and within the context of Turkish history, here.

If you found this piece of interest, you may like to access the suggested readings below:

Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction

Carpi, E. (2017) “Syrians in Akkar: Refugees or Neighbours?”

Delioglu, F. (2019) The ‘Al Shami Kitchen Project’ – Solidarity amongst Syrian Refugee Women in Izmit, Turkey

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Representations of Displacement Series: Introduction’

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon Face an Uncertain 2017”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Greatrick, A. (2018) ‘Hearing Marginalisation and Agency in Istanbul: Sounds from Istiklal Street

Greatrick, A. (2017) “Photo Gallery: Istanbul”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Ozturk, M. (2018) ‘ Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Refugee Hosts (2018) ‘Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches

Rowlands, A. (2018) ‘Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Steinberg, A. (2019) ‘Sustaining Protracted Displacements: A brief history of labor policy for Jordan’s refugees’

Featured image:  Elderly woman in Tokaçlı village in Altınözu, Hatay province. © S.Akay Erturk, April 23, 2014

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