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Syrian refugees’ perceptions of the (formal) labour market in Southeast Turkey

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In 2016 the Government of Turkey adopted a work permit system for the first time allowing registered Syrian refugees to access formal employment.
This was an important step towards ensuring a broader economic inclusion of refugees in the Turkish economy. Notwithstanding these efforts, existing research has shown that refugees still face restrictions in accessing the formal labor market. According to official statistics, between 2016 and 2019, a total of 132,497 work permits were issued to Syrians registered in Turkey, which includes renewals of already existing work permits.
It is estimated that approximately 1 million Syrians are working informally without legal protections and rights and 45 percent of Syrians under temporary protection are living below the poverty line.
The number of Syrians working in formal employment in Turkey is therefore concerningly low, for both the size of the working Syrian population in Turkey, as well as the length of time that the work permit system has been active. Although evidence suggests that there has been a gradual decline in the informal economy, the official estimate is that the informal sector comprises one-third of Turkey’s economy.

Structurally speaking, the informal labour market in Turkey is already high, and this may be a contributing factor to the lack of permits given.
However, whilst the rates of informal employment were already embedded in the Turkish economy and labour market, Syrian refugees face unique challenges in accessing formal employment as well as in their working conditions in the informal market. Those without a work permit are working in the informal market in low paying jobs that tend to be highly exploitative and physically demanding. Indeed, one study published in 2020 found that Syrian refugees working in the informal sector work, on average, five more hours per week than Syrians with a work permit and their Turkish counterpart without a work permit.
Moreover, three out of four Syrians earn less than the minimum wage per hour.

Most of the existing research specifically on Syrian refugees’ access to the formal labour market has pointed to the extensive bureaucracy involved in applying for work permits.
Complicated procedures, fees, and long-waiting times are creating significant disincentives especially for employers from hiring refugees, many of whom will prefer to employ Turkish citizens instead.

However, research looking specifically at the views and perceptions of refugees of the informal versus the formal market are largely absent. This study seeks to therefore address this gap by looking at refugees’ motivations and decision making when navigating the job market. The study will seek to identify practical recommendations on how to ensure a wider access of refugees to formal employment. The study will also seek to better understand ways to tackle existing misperceptions that attract refugees to precarious and irregular jobs and that may discourage employers from hiring refugees.