As Turkey’s economy shrinks, Syrian refugees want out of the country


Nafees Mahmud is a freelance writer and journalist based in Istanbul. His work has been published in the Middle East Eye and The Guardian.

Fearing a worsening economy and talk of forced repatriation, many Syrians in Turkey are looking for ways to be smuggled into Europe, writes 
Nafees Mahmud in Istanbul.

On a mid-September evening, the surface of the Golden Horn in Istanbul looks placid from a distance. With fewer ships passing than usual the lack of ripples make it look more like a pond than an estuary of one of the world’s largest maritime trade routes.

But this sense of calm does not extend to the day-to-day reality of Turkey’s more than 80 million population. With unemployment recently rising again to 13%, GDP shrinking by 1.5% in the second quarter of the year and inflation still as high as 15%, financial worries are plaguing households.

Many of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees find themselves particularly vulnerable.

Sitting in a friend’s flat overlooking the Golden Horn, 50-year-old Jabber al-Kurdi from Deir ez Zor takes a deep breath. “I don’t feel settled here. The downturn in the economy this past year has hurt us.”

He drops his head, ashamed to admit he is struggling. “Food is too expensive now.”

Sending Syrians back

Earlier this week President Erdogan said Syrian refugees in Turkey might be moved to a “safe zone” set up in northern Syria. This comes after many have recently been relocated across Turkey, uprooted from jobs and families.

For Syrians like Jabber al Kurdi, the change in policy is heart-breaking and a frightening turnaround from the hospitality shown when he first arrived in 2016.

Jabber al-Kurdi

After ISIS took over his village and shrapnel from an airstrike severely fractured his knee, he decided to flee for Turkey. Whilst on crutches he took his wife, eight children and two grandchildren (the youngest being two weeks old at the time) and was smuggled between provinces in northern Syria then eventually across the national border.

“We were swapped between motorbikes, cars, all sorts of vehicles. I even had to walk 18km for part of the journey, with my knee in agony,” he said.

The pain was worth it. They settled in Yalova, northwestern Turkey, where they found a dilapidated house that neighbours helped them refurbish and settle into. “A local police officer bought us a fridge out of the goodness of his heart.”

His face lights up as he recounts his early experiences in Turkey. “The Turks treated us well. We got money from the government every month. Within a month of being here I was given an artificial knee replacement free of charge in a state hospital.”

Seeking a way out

A passionate farmer back in Syria, here al-Kurdi has been unable to find work because of his injury.

Some of his children (the eldest eighteen, the youngest twelve) are working to support the family but for the past year all income, including welfare, has only covered food and bills. For this reason he is now seeking to be smuggled into Europe with his family.

The proposed repatriation of millions of Syrians by the Turkish government is further motivation. “This country is being attacked in underhand ways. I know Turkey is under pressure and they think returning Syrians will ease the financial burden, but still Syrians are treated unjustly. This country gave me so much but now I cannot stay here. The war in Syria won’t end for another ten years. We can’t go back. My brother in Germany is able to work and send 200 Euros home to our mother in Syria every month. I have to go to Europe.”

Tightening regulations

Kurdi is not alone. This August saw the highest number of migrants arrive in Greece in three years. Of the 10,000 five per cent were Syrians. As conditions deteriorate in Turkey, many more could follow, including the likes of Ahmad, a tired, timid 27 year old from Aleppo, working as a tailor in Istanbul, where he is alone.

With a greying, unkempt beard and puffy eyes, he slouches from fatigue as he recounts his predicament. “I can’t afford to stay and I can’t afford to leave.”

Turkey’s economy is on a downward spiral

Ahmad got his job because it cost his boss less to hire an unregistered Syrian than a local Turk. Recently documentation rules were tightened and his boss fears being fined if he doesn’t hire Ahmad legally. To do so means a monthly fee equivalent to £85 (almost half his salary) for his work permit which the employer is obliged to pay. Ahmad’s boss issued him an ultimatum: either he’d deduct the fee from Ahmad’s salary or fire him.

Ahmad looks down at his holed trainers. “I had no choice, really. I have to take whatever I can get. But now the reduced wage means I can’t afford more than food and rent.”

Like Kurdi, he wants to leave. The Muslim culture of the Middle East will be difficult to leave behind but as he has no way of getting into the affluent countries in the region, like the UAE or Qatar, he has set his sights on Britain because he has heard “life is better there.”

He sees no way of being able to afford the smuggling fee, though.

More problems ahead

Last year the Turkish lira lost nearly 30 per cent of its value and is down 9 per cent so far this year. That conditions are so bad for people like Kurdi and Ahmad is no surprise to Firat Demir, a Professor of Economics at the University of Oklahoma. He says Syrian refugees are not the only ones leaving the country.

“With the 2008 crash money left emerging markets and then the peace process with the Kurds collapsed, problems arose with the EU and suddenly you had an increase in risk premiums; both political and economic risk. So investments stopped and then there was an exodus of human capital. The number of Turks leaving the country is also on the rise.”

And he thinks global conditions will make things worse for Turkey.

“There are new recessionary threats from the EU and U.S. This will mean a decrease in demands for Turkish goods abroad. There are also serious questions about the impact of the Iran and the U.S. relationship on Turkey and ambiguity over the future of Syria. It’s very hard to see a silver lining for the future of the Turkish economy.”

Lokman Gunduz, a former board member of the Central Bank of Turkey, thinks the root of the current economic woes cannot solely be tied to geopolitical instability.

“Political authorities in recent years have focused more on short-term political outcomes and hence avoided costly measures in order to win at the ballot box. The consequences of politically-motivated decisions have not got on well with economic rationale.”

So just as Turkey’s political decisions may have significantly contributed to its current economic challenges, perhaps the likes of Kurdi will only find more problems for themselves by being smuggled into Europe. The rationale of doing so at a time of rising racism and continuing reports of deaths at sea must be questioned.

But by Kurdi’s blunt response, it is hard to tell if he is fearless, desperate, or both. “No- one dies except when Allah wants.” Two things are clear though: times are tough and things are changing.

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