By Payam Younesipour
May 8, 2021
It has been more than a year since coronavirus spread around the world and since it was classified a pandemic. Although long-term quarantine policies to control the virus in some countries have reduced the spread of the virus and reduced the number of deaths, in many other countries, this is not the case. At the same time, governments and their citizens almost everywhere are facing numerous economic problems, including recession and rising unemployment.
For Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey, life is even more difficult.
According to new laws introduced by the Turkish government, the country is in lockdown and under severe restrictions, a situation that started on April 29 and is due to last until May 17. Turkey, like several other countries, was enforced curfews and lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The government has tried to help a section of the society by paying a contribution of 1,500 lira (about US$181) in the form of subsistence packages to workers who are insured by their employers and whose livelihoods have been badly affected due to lockdowns. But asylum seekers are not included in this group, and they do not receive these benefits.
Vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees living in Turkey are among those who have suffered the most during the pandemic and successive lockdowns. And their suffering precedes the pandemic, of course. Prior to coronavirus, asylum seekers struggled to survive. Due to lack of work permits and insurance, they were forced to work as day laborers in cafes, bars and restaurants without contracts and illegally. Most asylum seekers in Turkey are forced to work illegally; if their work is not underground, it is usually manually intensive, low-paid work carried out in poor conditions over many hours, and they substantially increas their risk of physical and psychological harm.
Many of these asylum seekers worked in specialist, highly-skilled, professional jobs before being forced to leave their country and seek asylum in Turkey. Some asylum seekers do obtain work permits and are able to continue in their line of work in Turkey, but this is rare.
Many asylum seekers have lost those jobs due to lockdown. If they have been able to continue to work, the pandemic has made it even worse, paving the way for employers to abuse them and to refuse to pay them.
According to the Red Cross, which has repeatedly drawn attention to the hardship asylum seekers face, following the outbreak of coronavirus worldwide, this group is the most vulnerable group in society, exposed to a huge range of dangers that threaten their security.
The Story of Reza
IranWire talked to Reza, an Iranian asylum seeker living in Hatay, one of the most remote border cities in Turkey.
Reza is a graduate of literature and humanities and holds a Master’s degree. He has lived and worked Hatay for three years.
According to Reza, for people who enter Turkey as asylum seekers, especially in the city of Hatay, finding a job and earning a living, even a small one, is one of the most difficult things they face. “If you are lucky you will be accepted in a big city and are have a chance to find a job. But in most cases, the asylum seeker’s city of residence is determined not by himself but by the UN office at the time of registration, and in most cases we are sent to small and remote cities. The most fortunate asylum seekers are those who are accepted in industrial and non-tourist cities, although there is little chance of that. The cost of living in these cities is not as high as in tourist cities, and the black labor market is lively and it is easier to find work.”
Reza says when asylum seekers arrive in the city or town they have been designated, there is not even basic support for them. “Until we find a place to live, we wander and have to sleep in parks. Many are forced to do this. I myself wandered in the park and on the street for a week and then met an Iranian. I was able to find a job and a place to sleep in a sawmill on the outskirts of the city. The situation was exhausting. At first, I worked as hard as three people, but was paid as one. There were times when they gave me money too late or not at all. Sometimes they paid only half the agreed amount under false pretences. I could not complain. If I complained, I would get caught and lose the barn where I slept. Illegal workers have no rights here.”
The outbreak of the coronavirus destabilized Reza’s life. “It took me a long time to adjust to the situation, but with the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic and the long quarantines, my work and life returned to the previous unstable point. I was paid on a daily basis, and now the workshop has been closed since last year. I have no income and I do not know what to do.”
Reza’s only chance was for his employer to allow him to stay in the workshop to guard it, and to receive a small fee to do this — essentially the price of a meal. “I have to say I’m better off than many asylum seekers I know. I do not have to spend the night in the park or on the street corner. Many Iranian, Afghan and Syrian asylum seekers live in the city, but there is nothing they can do to get paid for, nor do they even have shelter. The police do not detain them because of the dangers of the pandemic, and they wander from street to street.”
Reza says that due to political issues, he chose the trafficking route from Iran and took refuge in Turkey. So there is no way back. He lost his father four months ago to coronavirus and was forced to mourn from afar. Reza’s mother lives in the city with his sister, but he cannot provide for them. “If I could return to Iran, I would not have endured this unfortunate situation even for one moment. But I have no way back and no way forward. Here, too, I have lost my only source of income due to the pandemic and long lockdowns and quarantine periods. My only hope is that this will end next week so that I can earn some money again.”
Many asylum seekers have expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with poor working conditions or the difficulties they face in acquiring work permits; many of these accounts have been published in recent years by IranWire.
Article 89 of the Law on Foreign Nationals and International Protection Related to the Employment of Applicants for International Protection, No. 26695, dated April 26, 2016, stipulates that in accordance with Article 4 of this Regulation, applicants and persons with international protection status, refugees, or persons with secondary protection status, are not required to obtain a work permit after receiving a Turkish ID card (known as the kimlik).
According to the same article, asylum seekers can work using the same ID card. Article 6 of this regulation also stipulates that a person applying for international protection or a conditional refugee can apply for a work permit six months after applying for international protection.
However, obtaining legal work permits in Turkey continues to be difficult, and in some cases impossible. Employers tend not to apply for work permits for migrant workers, both asylum seekers and refugees, because they may expose themselves to fines by government agencies that monitor the labor market.
Employers exploit asylum seekers in a number of ways. If they employ asylum seekers, they don’t have to pay taxes to the government for their wages. It is easy to see how asylum seekers without the right to work in Turkey have become cheap illegal workers.
Reza’s story as told IranWire is just one example of what thousands of asylum seekers experience in Turkey, and which is repeated every day. These people hope for a future, but the stories documented by IranWire and other media make it clear that little job security and peace of mind is on offer, or even possible.