Last week’s lethal shooting of 18-year-old Syrian refugee Ali El Hemdan could work to demoralize Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees as they grapple with increased hardship amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the afternoon of April 27, Hemdan was shot and killed by a police officer after allegedly failing to stop for violating Turkey’s nationwide stay-at-home order for those under the age of 20. While the Turkish government rightly imposes restrictions on movement to stem the spread of coronavirus, vulnerable refugee communities could be hardest hit by the economic and social repercussions of the public health crisis.
Informal Employment and Economic Hardship
More than one third of Turkish workers are employed informally and this figure is drastically higher for refugees in the country. While it is hard to ascertain the exact participation rate of refugees in the Turkish economy, a large-scale survey published by the World Food Programme and Turkish Red Crescent found that while 84 percent of refugee households had one family member working, only 3 percent were working with a work permit. This leads many experts to believe that the majority of employed Syrian refugees are working informally. The nature of informal work is precarious, and often means unstable working hours, low-pay, and poor working conditions. This unfortunate reality is compounded by the emergence of COVID-19 and accompanying measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Turkish government is currently enacting a continual stay-at-home order for those under the age of 20 and over the age of 65. The penalty for violating the order is 3,150 Turkish Lira (TRY), or approximately 450 US Dollars. This is nearly three times the average monthly salary of a refugee worker engaged in irregular employment at approximately 1,058 TRY. Moreover, this sum is over 26 times the amount of the 120 TRY offered monthly to the most vulnerable of refugees through the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSM) Programme, the largest cash assistance fund for refugees in Turkey. Immediately before his death, Hemdan was confronted with the potential of having to pay this significant fine.
The stay-at-home order and accompanying fines are avoidable for some. Those who are deemed essential and work in the formal sector are granted immunity by way of a social security document. Those employed in the informal sector, however, do not have the ability to receive such permissions and therefore risk confrontation with the police, paying the fine, and contracting COVID-19 when leaving the house to stay afloat financially. For some, it is worth the risk. As one Syrian refugee puts it, “we might not die from coronavirus, but we will die from hunger”. What’s more, informal workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits should they be laid off or furloughed as a result of the coronavirus.
Many of the industries affected by sweeping business closures are also known to employ refugees, whether regularly or irregularly. The textile industry, for example, is thought to employ more refugees than any other single sector, and boasts one of the highest rates of regular employment among refugees. Nonetheless, the industry has faced significant challenges as a result of COVID-19, laying off employees and closing their doors due to decreased global demand and social distancing measures. According to his father, Ali El Hemdan was a tailor at one such textile workshop but was unable to work for the month prior to his death because of these implications of the pandemic.
Challenges to Social Cohesion and Solidarity
The death of Ali El Hemdan may well be perceived as a slap in the face by Turkey’s refugee community. Trust between Syrian refugees and Turkish authorities is already on the decline as multiple reports suggest that Syrians legally residing in Turkey are being detained and deported back to active war zones in Syria. This comes as anti-refugee sentiment among the Turkish public is increasing and is further capitalized on by opposition and incumbent politicians alike.
Yet many in Turkey recognize the injustice of Hemdan’s death. The hashtag #AliyiÖldürenNerede (“where is Ali’s killer”) was trending in the Turkish Twittersphere the day after the shooting, illustrating how some challenged the impunity of the law enforcement officer who shot the young man. It might also be seen as a ray of light that the officer who killed Hemdan was in fact arrested and accused of “willful murder” the day after the incident.
As the Syrian Civil War shows little signs of abatement, Turkey’s massive refugee population continues to wait out the storm. But with each passing day, their hopes of returning to a peaceful Syria grow increasingly unrealistic. COVID-19 and the shooting of Hemdan have shone a spotlight on the difficulties facing this fragile community in its struggle to attain economic inclusion and social acceptance in Turkey.
This article was written by HasNa Program Associate John Dykes