Pass Blue: Why Turkey’s Model Work Permits for Refugees Don’t Actually Work

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A major problem with Turkey for the millions of refugees there, it has a model work permit system for the newcomers, but it still bars them from the country’s labor market. Such problems can be overcome, experts contend, so that the refugees can work for decent wages in Turkey.

Izza Leghtas, a Refugees International senior advocate, and Kirsten Schuettler, a senior program officer at the World Bank, discussed these challenges for refugees in Turkey at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University on Jan. 22. Leghtas, noting that Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, at 3.5 million, of whom 3.2 million are Syrians, shared her recent report, “I Am Only Looking for My Rights; Legal Employment Still Inaccessible for Refugees in Turkey.”

Many outsiders think that refugees live mostly in camps, which is hardly true in Turkey, Leghtas explained. In fact, Istanbul, despite being an expensive city of 14 million residents, is a metropolis that attracted many refugees at first or who gravitated to it eventually. About 530,000 officially registered Syrian refugees live in Istanbul, although the total number may well be more than 700,000.

Article 17 of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Schuettler pointed out in a policy brief that she wrote with two others, gives refugees “the most favorable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engagement in wage-earning employment.”

However, the brief, titled “Refugees’ Right to Work and Access to Labor Markets,” also says “some countries completely legally bar refugees from work, be it as an employee or starting a business.”

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