Combatting loss: refugees, employment and social entrepreneurship in Turkey

Turkey, at the crossroads of refugee flows, hosts 3.4 million refugees, while not granting them refugee status but a state of exception. Hospitality and hostility go hand in hand.

Fiona Murphy Evi Chatzipanagiotidou
8 January 2018

Life and waiting in a Greek refugee camp. Mehmet Kurt. All rights reserved. This week’s series, 'Turkey: crisis and loss', curated by Mehmet Kurt, will unpack the connections between crisis in contemporary Turkey and a politics of loss. It is inspired by a recent collaborative Queen’s University Belfast and Bilgi University Istanbul Global Challenges Workshop which took place in Istanbul in June 2017.

The workshop chose the concept of ‘loss’ to better understand social transformation in the context of internal/international migration and displacement in Turkey. We discussed ‘loss’ both in its psychosocial reading as a form of mourning, melancholia, nostalgia, sadness, trauma, and depression and within a social-scientific frame as contested sets of relations and structures of feeling in historical, economic and socio-political processes.


Dazed by the rush of French motorists, lorry-drivers, and holiday makers, we take a sharp turn off the frenetic motorway past an imposing hyper-market and warehouse packed with Saturday shoppers. Our car creeps slowly down a dusty sand-track, past blemishes of outcroppings and pock-marked hill-sides into the makeshift refugee camp. This strip of road appears harsh even with the sun bright on the stony sand. We pull up onto the side of the road, parking behind another car. Beyond the road, a large field, soft and damp in places, like volcanic ash stretches before us.

It has been raining for days but today we are embraced by the warm spring sunshine. The saccharine sound of pretty birds float above us, spring is here but yet somehow there is chaos in the rippling trees beyond the field. Pebbles of eyes stare upwards and out at us as we unfold heavy boxes of clothes from the boot of our car. On hearing that our team of volunteers are about to distribute t-shirts, shadows move towards us shifting like lacework on the pale green muddied grass. Our companion, a young British woman, shakes the hands of a number of men who are walking down the track. Introductions are made – many of the men are Turkish and Syrian Kurds who have made the long arduous journey to Calais in the hope that they might cross into the United Kingdom. Conversation turns to Turkey – and Adnan – a tall blue-eyed Syrian refugee, tells us that while he had lived in Turkey almost since the beginning of the Syrian war, the lack of employment opportunities had finally forced him to think about moving to the UK. (Fieldnotes, Calais, May 2017).

That we live in a time of crisis and loss might seem like an understatement to someone like Adnan. In 2018, more people than ever have been forcibly displaced from their homes, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees claiming that there are now over 65 million people globally suffering forced displacement. Many countries have failed to adequately deal with issues of forced displacement, with asylum seekers and refugees continuing to live their lives in protracted crisis situations.

Turkey is the largest host of refugees in the world with over 3.4 million now living in the country, and with 90% of Syrian refugees living in urban centres. Whereas the dominant representation of a refugee is of someone living in a refugee camp, the largest percentage of the recently displaced are living in urban centres. Istanbul hosts the largest number of refugees out of all Turkish cities. This has had an enormous political, social and economic impact on both refugees and local communities.

Turkish citizens have become witnesses to the multiple incursions and worlds of loss engendered through conflict and forced displacement. Loss, indeed, as we well know, permeates all of our lives in one way or another – we all know its force. As human beings, we know that it is constituted in multiple forms, that it shapes our worldviews, even our way of being in the world. But the losses carved from conflict and forced displacement are even more all-encompassing. Loss is visible everywhere in this contemporary border crisis –persons, families, connections both physical and metaphysical-objects, things, even memories are lost in the experience of forced displacement. Loss shrouds the experience of seeking refuge like an immense force-field. One might go as far as to say that loss is embodied by those who move in this particular crisis context.


For Adnan, however, narrating his experience of forced displacement, his time in Turkey meant confronting yet another loss – the loss of his sense of self-worth. He, like many young men of his age, defined that sense of self-worth and value through his professional status. Adnan’s main reason for leaving Turkey was because he could not find any suitable employment. He told of an impoverished life of loss, of waiting, of hoping, of disappointment. No longer able to tolerate his life in Istanbul, he left for the United Kingdom. As a Syrian living under Turkish asylum policy, Adnan like other Syrians, was treated as a ‘guest,’ and not as ‘refugee.’ Syrians reside in Turkey under a temporary protection scheme which operates the principles of an open-door policy, humanitarian assistance and non-refoulement. Turkey is not obliged to grant asylum to asylum seekers outside Europe as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  

Adnan, an articulate educated man in his twenties, bemoaned the complexities of being treated as a ‘guest’ without the legal rights of someone with refugee status. For him, the category of guest was ambiguous at best, signposting the lack of rights accorded to Syrians living in Turkey. Syrians in Turkey were only granted the right to work in Jan 2016 but this right to work is highly contingent on quotas and often limited to particular areas within Turkey. Many Syrians in Turkey remain unemployed or underemployed as a result, and continue to be a target for unscrupulous and exploitative employers. Labour market abuses remain a critical issue which needs to be better addressed.

Turkey is not an exception in this regard. In many contexts, asylum seekers and refugees are treated as people who only possess vulnerabilities ­– their capabilities, creativity and resourcefulness are frequently overlooked or undermined. There is an urgent need to develop and implement better integration strategies through which to better the lives of people seeking refuge. Integration is a hotly debated concept, but one which must be considered a framework through which to better service provision and support to people seeking refuge.  Education, skills-building and employment all play a pivotal role in social inclusion for asylum seekers and refugees: however, many countries fail to fully implement employment rights for asylum seekers.

Social entrepreneurship

Turkey recognizes the role of building better labour market opportunities for refugees through the 3RP Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan 2017-18.  It goes without saying that better labour market integration links to poverty and inequality reduction, and the development of more sustainable livelihoods for the displaced. There are many possible pathways to achieve this and while a substantial amount of humanitarian initiatives are channelled to address these issues, state support continues marginal at best.

Social entrepreneurship is one such pathway into the labour market for refugees, and provides a step towards a more inclusive type of urban citizenship and integration. In addition to international and state aid, social entrepreneurship has been recognised by the UNHCR as a crucial avenue for alleviating poverty and enhancing the integration of refugees. In the lively cities of Istanbul and Ankara, there are a large number of social entrepreneurship projects run by refugees and local NGOs that provide spaces for up-skilling, education and training. These initiatives offer diverse services; from technology projects and training to art galleries that provide visibility for the work of refugees, and craft classes that are aimed at women, who gain skills and income.

Similar stories and initiatives are unfolding elsewhere in Europe. In Ireland, Syrian chefs have come together to cook, fundraise and create awareness of the refugee experience. The Our Table Project in Dublin, Ireland is a restaurant project run by an asylum seeker, Ellie Kisoymbe to highlight Ireland’s system of detention for asylum seekers with view to becoming a properly functioning business. In Slovenia, a restaurant called SKUHNA run by asylum seekers and refugees serves different foods depending on the nationality of the chef (who rotates nightly). In Denmark, participants in the Refugee Entrepreneurs Denmark have created an Assyrian catering company and a car washing enterprise that provides job training for other refugees.

State support

We are careful, however, not to construct social entrepreneurship as an ultimate solution or as a panacea for the ‘refugee crisis’. Indeed, an over emphasis on labour integration or on the economic resilience of refugees can also be read as a state attempt at deferring the responsibility of addressing the protracted crisis situations of asylum seekers and refugees. ‘Social entrepreneurship’ has also in some cases been appropriated by neoliberal rhetoric that individualises and quantifies ‘loss’. We see labour integration as just one part of the multiple services and supports needed for asylum seekers and refugees in Turkey and elsewhere.   

Rather then, grassroots social entrepreneurship projects are important portals to enhancing skills, providing outlets for creativity, connecting individuals to broader networks, and finally, when properly supported becoming fully functioning enterprises with the ability to scale. Many of the existing social entrepreneurship projects in Turkey also positively impact the local communities in which they are situated, thereby enhancing the visibility of refugee communities, and more broadly, the cultural, creative and economic makeup of the city. They also work to attenuate many of the losses felt by people seeking refuge.   

Adnan would have liked to have worked in Turkey. However, the ideological underpinnings of Turkish migration management prevented him from doing so. So many like Adnan are routinely underemployed and exploited. Adnan also told us how this leads to a deskilling and demotivating of individuals who have no professional outlet. Many of the Social Entrepreneurship initiatives in Turkey work to combat this by highlighting the depth of creativity and entrepreneurship that exists amongst people seeking refuge. Right across Europe, there are examples of how refugee entrepreneurs are leveraging their creativity and skills to build a better world for their families and the societies in which they now live. Better state support needs to be put in place to allow them to continue to do so.


Life and waiting in a Greek refugee camp. Mehmet Kurt. All rights reserved.

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