On May 12, Turkey welcomed a new citizen. Smiling 7-year-old Syrian refugee girl, Bana Alabed, who has become the iconic face of the Syrian war for tweeting along with her mother from war-torn Aleppo, proudly received a Turkish national ID card from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey also granted citizenship to Bana’s parents and two brothers. For them, a new chapter has officially begun. But the “Twitter girl’s” story is not a typical one for a refugee. As the war in Syria has entered its 7th year, many of displaced people continue to struggle to make ends meet.
Turkey has become home to the largest number of refugees in the world. Along with some 3 million displaced Syrians, the country hosts almost 310,000 registered asylum-seekers from other countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, Turkey has become a transit territory for migrants trying to reach the European Union. According to UNICEF, more than a million people have traveled from Turkey to Greece since 2015. Many of them did not survive the journey.
A Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed ashore after he drowned in the Aegean Sea, has become a tragic symbol of this crisis.
“While no official data for this population exists, assessments show that refugees transiting through Turkey are particularly vulnerable, due to their reluctance to register with the authorities and thus access health and other basic services,” Sema Hosta, Chief of Communications for the UNICEF in Turkey told The Globe Post.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 1.3 million of Syrian children are registered under temporary protection across Turkey. They compose 45 percent of 3 million Syrians living in the country.
However, less than 10 percent of these refugees reside in official camps along the Syrian border, with the majority living in communities in Turkey’s southeast, Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
Ms. Hosta said despite efforts by the Turkish government, UNICEF and other international groups on the ground, the refugee flow has put an enormous strain on basic services and infrastructure of the country.
“The needs remain particularly acute in the areas of education and child protection,” she noted.
Many of the children have been living as refugees in Turkey for several years. However, as of January 2017, some 370,000 of them remained out of school, according to UNICEF data.
Nevertheless, the situation with education is slowly improving. About 500,000 Syrian children are currently enrolled in schools across Turkey, representing a 50 percent increase from the end of the last school year in June 2016.
At the same time, Ms. Hosta noted that many of the Syrian children, particularly those who remain out of school, have endured a psychological trauma and are vulnerable to isolation, discrimination, economic and sexual exploitation as well as child marriage.
“Though official data is scarce, children and youth continue to face material deprivation, lack of opportunities to interact with their peers, and limited access to basic services,” she said.
At present, the use of child labor, particularly in Turkey’s agricultural sector, has become another cause for concern. A study published by the Resources Center for Foreign Isolated Minors in June 2016, showed that there were more than 1 million children involved in economic activities in Turkey. The children, whose average age is 14 to 15, work in garbage collection, construction, clothes shops and restaurants, while some 40 percent of them were employed in harsh and dangerous jobs. For most of the children, who worked over 8 hours a day, daily earnings were under $12.
“As in education, the challenge here is to maintain a high level of services for children, while strengthening existing systems to improve identification and referral of at-risk children, with a particular focus on girls and victims of gender-based violence,” Ms. Hosta concluded.
Unlike Bana Alabed, whose story received a lot of media attention, thousands of Syrian refugee children in Turkey remain unheard and continue to face uncertain future.
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