Syrian refugees changing the economic face of a Turkish port town

MERSIN–Located on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey, Mersin is one of the busiest port towns in this part of the country.

 A Syrian woman gives a white rose to a citizen of Mersin as a sign of gratitude

A Syrian woman gives a white rose to a citizen of Mersin as a token of gratitude

Travelers approaching the town center from the east, where the nearest airport is located, are greeted by mountains of containers waiting for their turn to be loaded into a ship in a gigantic facility combining the port with a special economic zone.

Mersin is located at the crossroads of land and sea trade routes, which made the town a destination for traders and adventurers throughout history. Mark Antony was here to make a pact with Cleopatra. Romans named it Hadrianopolis after their traveling emperor.

Arabs came in the seventh century and captured the city from the Byzantines. It changed hands many times: Tulunids, Armenians, Mamluks and Ramadanids came and went, Ottomans took the city in 1517, and Mersin became a part of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

For centuries, people came here in pursuit of economic welfare and a better life, and these days it is the Syrian refugees who are coming.

A stroll along the streets of Mersin clearly reveals the impact of Syrians in Mersin. Numerous newly established restaurants offering Arab cuisine are scattered around the town, Syrian groceries supply all kinds of products to their customers, and Turkish shop owners, in turn, prepare advertisements and brochures in Arabic in order not to fall behind in the competition.

There are Syrian schools for kids, and Arabic is now a close second to Turkish as the language spoken in the city. Cars with Syrian number plates roll on the roads, much to the dismay of police officers who have to decipher the Arabic script and numbers.

Syrians are changing Mersin, and as the town changes, the locals are facing the necessity to change themselves as well. Turks were thinking that the Syrians were in their country for a temporary period of time, and when the fighting was over they would go back to their own homes.

With the number of Syrian refugees reaching 2.5 million now, and no end in sight  to the conflict in Syria, Turks have realized that the Syrians are here to stay.

So there are two options for the Turks: Either learn to live with the Syrians and incorporate them into the economy and social life, or keep them isolated and suffer from the consequences of an alienated community that is losing all hope and being forced to resort to whatever it takes to ensure survival. The choice is obvious.

According to official numbers, Mersin hosts 132,000 Syrian refugees, but the real figure is said to be much higher, estimated at 320,000 by local NGOs, in a town of 1.1million inhabitants. What makes Mersin different from other Turkish towns in the region with sizable Syrian refugee communities, such as Kilis, Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep, is that while Syrian families from low to middle socio-economic levels are establishing their lives in these cities, Mersin has become a magnet for richer Syrians with capital and business plans.

According to a survey undertaken by Gazi University, the average income level of Syrian refugees in Mersin is higher than the per capita income of the town. There are 620 registered companies with Syrian capital in Mersin, up from 28 in 2010, and they are involved in foodstuff, wholesale and retail trade, warehousing, telecommunications and construction services.

The reason why Mersin is receiving the upper strata of the Syrian refugee community in Turkey is related to economic opportunities. Kilis, Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep are landlocked provinces for which the only foreign trade route is to Syria. Mersin, on the other hand, is a major commercial port linking to the entire world.

Syrian businesspeople in Mersin are exporting to their homeland (companies based in Mersin had a total export volume of $121 million to Syria in 2015, with most of the exporting companies being Syrian-owned), but more importantly, they can use the special economic zone and the international port to export their products to the rest of the world.

Turkish companies seem to be happy about the Syrians’ contributions to the local economy, but there still exist problems. There have recently been reports about Syrians working in sweatshops around the town for half the Turkish official minimum wage, without being registered and without any form of social security.

It was only a year ago local business associations were complaining about unregistered Syrian workers and small businesses causing job losses and forcing Turkish companies to go bankrupt.

The idea is now different: If they are taken into the registered formal economy, Syrians can contribute to Mersin’s economy with their labor and capital; but if they remain outside the formal economy, this will hurt everybody.

A new law issued by the Turkish government can be helpful for integrating the Syrians into the economy. Out of the 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey, around 7,500 are already given work permits, whereas 500,000 are known to be working illegally.

According to the law that has entered into effect as of January 15, Syrians will be allowed to apply for a work permit within six months after receiving their temporary identity card, and they will be subject to Turkish minimum wage regulations. However, the number of Syrians will not be allowed to exceed 10% of the Turkish employees working in the particular enterprise.

The new legislation will be helpful in the sense that it will take the Syrians out of the shadow economy to the formal one. But this is only one part of the problem.

According to a study by the Ankara office of the International Labor Organization, the most important reason why Turkish employers hesitate to employ Syrians is the language barrier (50%), followed by social adaptation problems (32%). Work permits come only third in this respect (24%).

In other words, while making it easier for Syrians to obtain work permits is an important step towards their integration into the Turkish economy, this will be a slow and arduous process owing to the cultural and social barriers between the two peoples.

Mersin-based journalist Abdullah Ayan recently wrote, with regards to Syrian refugees, “We are all together on this boat. We will either exist together, or wear out together.”

Mersin’s experience so far shows that this boat can sail, despite the stormy waters, if the right policies are implemented, institutional capabilities are increased, and a relationship between the local Turks and the Syrian refugees, based not only on humanitarian goodwill but also on mutual economic benefits, can be established.

After all, there are not many options on the table.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies graduate program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and a senior research fellow at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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