TORBALI, Turkey – As in any small agricultural town, cars in Torbali share the road with tractors, driven by men with weathered skin and rough hands, pulling gurneys of seedlings and produce.
But in this Turkish district about 30 miles (50km) from the western port of Izmir, many of the farmhands are refugees. Having fled Syria’s unceasing war, they are living here and working illegally.
Around 10 minutes by car from the town center, a road starts behind an old factory and runs along the edge of a field then hooks sharply to the right, leading up a hill toward the faded white facades of a defunct apartment complex. On either side of the road are rows and rows of white tents. The balconies of the apartments at the top of the ascent are hidden behind a patchwork of multicolored clothes drying in the sun.
Set against a backdrop of rolling, pine-covered hills, this place is home to around 1,500 people, all Syrian refugees, who are squatting on the land. “We came here from the camps in the south,” says Abu Khalid, one of the encampment residents. This is not his real name – like all Syrians in this article, he agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
Abu Khalid is a deeply tanned man with an impressive mustache and several missing teeth. He makes himself at home, inviting me to do the same.
“We came here to work because there was no work there,” he says, referring to the official camps in the south.
There are 2.75 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. About 90 percent of them live outside the 25 official camps in Turkey’s southeast.
The refugees in Torbali are mostly from northeastern Syria; places like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor that are now under the control of the so-called Islamic State. Before Abu Khalid and the others living here fled the war they were already among Syria’s poor. As generational herders, they barely made a living in the arid countryside.
”We would make milk, we would make cheese and sell it in the market,” Abu Khalid says.
The prospect of escaping to Europe in search of greater security and opportunity is not a thought that crossed their minds, despite being an hour from Turkey’s main smuggling port of Izmir. The journey across the Aegean Sea, made by more than 1 million refugees since January 2015, costs between $500 and $1200, depending on the season. The price is too steep for Abu Khalid and the other residents to afford. In recent weeks, in any case, the E.U.-Turkey deal that is being credited with bringing about a steep decline in the number of people landing on the Greek islands has nearly closed down that option.
With Europe out of reach and war raging back home, Abu Khalid and the other residents of this informal encampment are stuck in Turkey for the foreseeable future. Their lives provide a snapshot of the conditions faced by the poorest of Syrians who have sought refuge in Turkey: the lack of educational resources for their children, their exploitation as laborers and their precarious living situation.
The first thing that sticks out in the encampment is the number of children. They swarm around the taxi and press their faces against the window, making it hard to open the door. Easily outnumbering the adults in the encampment, the crowd of children is overwhelming. “Not a single one of them is in school,” says Abu Ayad, a stocky, balding man with a deeply wrinkled forehead.
More than 400,000 Syrian children of school age are not receiving any formal education in Turkey, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. Since September 2014, Syrian children have been able to attend Turkish public schools. But attendance rates have remained low due to language barriers, lack of information about the policy, issues with social integration and the economic destitution of this particular demographic of Syrians.
In Torbali, education is not even an option. “There is no school available for those who would like to go,” says Stephanie Kim Gee, a fellow at HRW who recently visited Torbali.
The alternative to education here is either whiling away time or working on the farms nearby.
Tareq is one of the children who labors in the fields. His 14-year-old body is a contradiction. His stunted growth makes him look younger than his age but he has the muscular forearms, dry, cracked hands, windbeaten face and eyes of someone beyond his years. We sit in the shade of a tree practicing counting in English with several other boys. It’s been at least two years since Tareq, or any of these children, attended school.
Instead, when they reach 14 or 15 years of age they try to find work like the older men. “I pick leeks in the field nearby,” Tareq says. But the work is inconsistent because the supply of laborers outstrips the demand and often depends on the season’s yield. Pay is around 35 Turkish lira ($12) per day for 12–14 hours of work.
Minimum wage in Turkey is 1,300 Turkish lira ($455) per month, or 43 Turkish lira ($15) per day. The hunger threshold for a family of four is 1,450 Turkish lira ($508).
Despite the long, grueling hours, the men and boys are often unable to make ends meet for their families. The maths simply does not add up.
Abu Khalid, Abu Ayad and two other men sit on the floor inside one of the buildings. They recline on cheap, imitation oriental rugs, resting their elbows on permanently darkened pillows, sipping tea. They speak optimistically about a new law enacted in January granting Syrians legal access to the labor market.
But so far, fewer than 0.1 percent of Syrians in Turkey have received work permits. The process requires employers to apply for the permits on behalf of the workers. And many Syrians are employed in textile work and factories precisely because employers can get away with less than the minimum wage.
Having legal employment status would be a big improvement, but seasonal agricultural work is regulated by a separate set of laws in Turkey. “Particularly for this group of … workers, these are the last people who will see any benefit from [the new labor law],” Gee says.
Without legal status, exploitation of the Syrian workers in Torbali is rampant. “Even when I do find work, I usually don’t get paid my full salary,” Tareq says. Often the employers or middlemen who arrange the employment keep a cut of the workers’ salaries for themselves or withhold the entire amounts.
“Employers hold so much power over these people and can withhold wages as much as they want and there’s nothing these people can do,” Gee says.
The room in which Abu Khalid and Abu Ayad sit is sparse. Other than the carpets, the walls are covered in cement and scrawled over with English and Arabic letters. Outside it’s sunny and warm. But in here the air is heavy with a dampness that makes the bones ache.
Conversation shifts to a recent visit from the police. “They came with a piece of paper written in Turkish and said it was an order that we had to move the tents. It’s OK for us to stay in the buildings, but there’s not enough room for everyone inside,” Abu Khalid says. “Where will people go?”
The municipality in Torbali informally allows the refugees to squat on this land, but it’s a precarious arrangement. The residents worry that with one misstep or change of heart from the authorities they could be forced back to the camps in the south. Because of the language barrier, the refugees do not always grasp the details of this ad hoc arrangement.
Most of the people here are registered with the government, which means they have access to basic health services. “Women who are pregnant give birth in the hospital,” Abu Khalid says. But no other services from the state or from international organizations exist, except for some medical visits by a small volunteer team.
The refugees buy their electricity and drinking water from one of the farmers at the bottom of the hill. This cost is their biggest burden. “Mostly, we want better access to electricity and water,” Abu Khalid says, adding that housing for everyone to live in would also be nice.
Sustenance comes primarily from bread and tea. Sacks of flour cost 75 lira ($26), or about two days’ wages. Abu Khalid shares a living space with 15 people from his extended family. “We finish a sack of flour in two days,” he says. Only two of his sons can find work.
Still, the people living here are comparatively content because there is safety, something they lacked in Syria.
“We were regular citizens. The regime, ISIS, all the sides dropped bombs on us and killed [many of] us. No one cared,” Abu Ayad says, with his elbow resting on a pillow and his fingers playing with the rim of his tea glass.
Despite the exploitation and hardships, Abu Ayad, Abu Khalid and the others were planning to stay in Torbali as long as their Turkish hosts would have them. “We’re staying here. There’s no other place for us to go,” Abu Ayad says. “Our country is destroyed.”
But that welcome apparently wore out. Mohamed, a frequent volunteer at the encampment, went to visit on April 19 and found it empty. “It was like war or something. Everything disappeared,” he says over the phone.
There were four or five men who were gathering the last of the belongings and setting fire to anything they couldn’t bring with them. Several days before, the Turkish police arrived at the camp and gave people the choice to leave on their own or be forced back to the camps in the south.
Conditions in the informal encampment had been improving, according to Mohamed. The residents had organized themselves and started a small school for around 40 of the children. Volunteer organizations were supporting the school, providing medical care and working to diversify the diet. “The situation was becoming better … but it all went away,” Mohamed says.
The people who were living here are now dispersed around Turkey. “They’ll just have to go somewhere else and start again from scratch,” Mohamed says.
Several times displaced and leading a forced nomadic life, families like those of Abu Ayad and Abu Khalid are further impoverished, with their children lacking the routine and grounding needed for their general development.
“Route Mediterranean” is our series following one of several refugee routes that form the Mediterranean crossings.
This series has been produced with support from Medium online magazine.