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Childhood lost: Kimlik crisis reaches Syrian refugee children in Turkey

In Turkey, residency restrictions for Syrian refugees are one factor driving children out of classrooms and into factories. 

22 April 2022

PARIS — Searching for a better life for her three sons, Muzna al-Ragheb risked the smuggling route from northwestern Syria to Turkey in 2021. More than a year later, she feels sorry. “They have not gotten their rights in their new place of residence, after having their share of war in Syria.” 

In January 2021, al-Ragheb, 38, decided to leave the city of al-Bab, in the northern Aleppo countryside controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, with her three children. She made the choice after “suffering for a long time with poor living conditions” in Syria, especially after her husband was killed in early 2017 by the Islamic State, which controlled al-Bab at the time. 

After leaving Syria, al-Ragheb and her children spent six months in Mersin province, southern Turkey. There, she was issued a temporary protection card, or Kimlik, the official identification document through which Syrian refugees can access government services such as healthcare and education. But after spending the first several months in Mersin unable to find a job, al-Ragheb moved with her children—ages 7, 13 and 16—to Istanbul “to live near my married sister there and look for a work opportunity that is appropriate for my health situation,” a herniated disc, she told Syria Direct.

In Istanbul, al-Ragheb’s children could not continue their education in Turkish public schools “because the Kimlik is from another province, meaning they would lose their right to an education here,” she said. After multiple attempts, “the principal of one school sympathized with my situation and agreed to register my youngest child,” al-Ragheb said, while the other two started working to help support the family. 

On March 31, a report by Turkey’s Ministry of National Education stated that 393,547 Syrian children—35 percent of the estimated 1,124,000 school-aged Syrians in Turkey— are not able to go to school.

Making a living at the expense of education

In late 2020, Kholoud al-Masri, 40, arrived in Turkey with her husband and three sons. They came from Lebanon after the economic situation there had deteriorated until “it became worse than Syria, which we left for the same reason,” she told Syria Direct

Al-Masri’s arrival coincided with Turkish authorities’ increased restrictions on issuing Kimliks to Syrians in Istanbul, so she and her family procured it in southern Turkey’s Urfa province. They then returned to Istanbul because “there are more job opportunities there,” she said. But because of the move, her children—ages 10, 13 and 15—were denied access to Turkish schools. 

Al-Masri repeatedly visited multiple public schools in Istanbul to enroll her children, she said, but each time “the official requested an Istanbul Kimlik as a condition of admitting them.” Even so, “returning to Urfa isn’t possible,” she said. “If we go back, how will we eat and drink?”

After al-Masri’s husband was unable to find a job in Istanbul, two of their sons had to work to help their mother, who works “in the sewing field, intermittently.” The children receive 6,000 Turkish pounds per month, or approximately $400, for their work. 

While the employment of children under the age of 15 is prohibited in Turkey, child labor is a longstanding issue in the country, particularly among refugees who struggle with poverty and have difficulty obtaining work permits in the formal economy.

Although al-Masri acknowledges her children’s right to an education, and its importance for their future, she was faced with two choices: Either stay in Istanbul to make a better living, or return to Urfa. She chose the first option, as did al-Ragheb, who chose her children working in Istanbul over going back to Mersin, given their living conditions and the absence of another breadwinner. 

Omar al-Abed, an 18-year-old from East Ghouta, was also unable to complete his education in Istanbul. He arrived there with his family in February 2020, when he was 16 years old. His father, through an exception because of his health, was able to obtain an Istanbul Kimlik, but al-Abed says he was denied, attributing it to “the mood of the migration official.” 

He attempted to obtain an Istanbul Kimlik twice—first when his father successfully applied, though the rest of the family was rejected, and again alongside his younger brother. According to al-Abed, on the second attempt his brother did receive a Kimlik, but he was denied once more. 

Osama Hanafi, a former Turkish Ministry of National Education employee who follows Syrian student affairs in Turkey, said “poverty and material need are the main reasons Syrian children drop out of school.” That does not negate the fact that Kimlik problems are another reason, he explained, stressing that “refugees who hold a Kimlik from a province other than the one they live do not have the right to enroll in public schools.” 

The repercussions of the Kimlik on the rights of Syrian children to an education started after 2018, Hanafi said. Before that, refugees were allowed to “obtain the Kimlik from the province in which they reside,” rather than the first province in which it was issued, “and their children could get education in public schools.” 

But after 2018, Turkish authorities stopped issuing Kimliks to Syrians in crowded cities, such as Istanbul, although they “exempted those living there before this date with the Kimlik from another province, and allowed their children to continue their education where they live.” 

The Ministry of National Education’s report published in late March attributed students dropping out of Turkish schools to a number of factors, including the difficult financial situation of Syrian families which pushes children to work, in addition to the language barrier. The report did not mention the Kimlik.

Lost rights

The Ministry’s recent statements about Syrian children dropping out of school have brought the problem of Syrian refugees with the Kimlik, as well as the repercussions for the children of “violators” being deprived of their basic rights, including to education and healthcare, to the fore. 

Mahdi Daoud, the general coordinator for Solutions Table, a group of organizations and academic figures concerned with Syrian affairs in Turkey, said that for a Syrian family, not having a Kimlik means “depriving the child of health, education, and humanitarian and social assistance, except for emergency cases.” 

Al-Masri does not receive aid allocated by the Turkish Red Crescent for Syrian refugees with Kimliks despite meeting the criteria for assistance “that the family consist of parents and three children,” she said. “Because we are staying in a province other than the one in which we got the Kimlik, we lose the right to assistance.”

To access free health services for her children that they would otherwise have access to, al-Ragheb sometimes goes outside the law and uses her nephew’s Istanbul Kimlik. At the beginning of this year, “my son injured his nose, so I had to go to a hospital using my nephew’s documents,” she said.

More than that, however, is that the family’s living conditions have forced two of al-Ragheb’s sons to work at a factory for a low wage and long hours. “They work 12 hours a day, and are sometimes forced to work on official holidays,” she said, for TRY 300-500 ($20-30) a week. 

Psychological pressure

Amid the crisis of official papers Syrians in Turkey face, and their children consequently being deprived of some of their rights, temporary alternatives emerge, but “there are no fundamental solutions except for refugees to return to the province in which they were issued the Kimlik, or to transfer it to the province where they are [now] living,” Hanafi said. 

For children who are not able to study in public schools, Daoud said, the best solution is “remote study, or free study, which is an option in Turkey. Students enrolled in these programs receive official diplomas authenticated by the Turkish Ministry of National Education. 

Better than that would be for Syrians in violation of Kimlik regulations to try to get a work permit where they are currently living, “and then transfer the Kimlik to their place of residence,” Daoud said. “It is difficult, but it is not impossible.” 

For healthcare, al-Abed has found Syrian health centers, which offer services at reduced prices, to be an alternative to Turkish hospitals and medical centers that require Syrian refugees to have a Kimlik from the same province. 

Facing this reality, al-Masri feels guilty about her children’s situation, as if she “destroyed their future,” even though she left Damascus for Beirut, and then traveled to Istanbul, “searching for a better life for the family.” But on the contrary, her children go without an education, spending long hours at work unlike their peers. 

This sentiment has been growing within al-Masri in recent months, especially as Turkish authorities ramp up measures against Kimlik violations. She feels there is no choice now but “to allow my children to migrate to Europe through smuggling.” 

Al-Ragheb, too, is living under psychological pressure, increased by “my children’s anxiety and tension, afraid they will be deported to Syria if they are caught at work or while traveling.” Their life today is “an extension of the psychological crisis that hit us in Syria.” 

She has not lost sight of a better future for her children, but unable to do anything for them and without solutions in the foreseeable future, “the fear grows inside me, and my mental state worsens.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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