I was approached in an outdoor cafe one evening by a boy about 8 years old. As he neared, he noticed the large stray dog seated calmly beside me as I scratched behind its ears. The boy’s eyes lit up and with a shy smile and nod of the head, asked if he could touch the animal, tentatively reaching out with one hand. I noticed the small bag full of tissue packets in his other, momentarily forgotten as he enjoyed the simple pleasure of petting a dog.
I’ve seen them every night on the streets of Izmir and Istanbul; children as young as 5 years old, peddling for change. Some play simple off-key tunes on a plastic recorder. Others have created a makeshift drum kit from discarded cardboard boxes, tapping out a rudimentary beat to catch attention and hopefully some empathy in the form of a lira or two. More often, they are hawking tissue packets or bottles of water to help feed their families.
These are the children of Syria, at risk of becoming a lost generation. Driven from their homes and often traumatized by their experiences, they now face the prospects of poverty, exploitation, abuse and even death.
The numbers are staggering. According to UNHCR statistics, more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees have registered to December 31, 2015, with 1.9 million in Turkey alone. More than half of those are children under the age of 18, split almost equally between male and female.
To address the influx of asylum seekers overwhelming the traditional refugee process, the Turkish government enacted the law on Foreign Aid and International Protection in 2014 that ensured Syrian asylum seekers registered had access to health care and education.
Although the numbers have increased from 16% in the first years of the conflict, only 25-30% of eligible Syrian children regularly attend classes. Outreach workers are attempting to help families access schooling and increase the numbers of children enrolled, recognizing that parents often lack the money to provide the most basic tools students need. Turkey’s National Education is also working towards developing improved access. Lack of access, however, isn’t the primary reason for low enrollment.
Some aren’t in school because they are working to help support the family. The risks of exploitation are high and child labour has become an increasing concern for support agencies who hear the stories of boys as young as 14 being paid as little as 100 Turkish lira per week, the equivalent of US $33.00, often for dangerous work. Unscrupulous business owners will turn the fathers away, claiming they’re too old for the work while encouraging them to send their sons instead.
For girls, the situation is worse. In the hope of securing a better future for their daughters and with the prospect of one less mouth to feed, some parents are making the desperate decision to marry off girls as young as 13. The practice is illegal in Turkey but continues at an alarming rate. Social workers with the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) are working to educate families on the legalities and health risks to young girls, including infertility, in the hopes of stemming the practice and finding alternate solutions.
These are choices of survival. Families would prefer to return to their homes and former lives, but with nothing left to which to return and no end to the conflict in sight, they have no choice but to attempt to eke out a living in a land not their own. Without government housing or financial assistance, these educated and skilled workers, their savings depleted, have been further hindered by language barriers and a bureaucratic oversight that has prevented them from working legally.
Resettlement isn’t a guaranteed option. Only those in greatest need are referred by the General Directorate of Migration Management and the process could take up to a year to complete. With limited options and buoyed by stories of friends and family members finding success in Europe, many are placing their futures in the hands of human traffickers. According to the UNHCR report released December 30, more than 1 million refugees attempted the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing in 2015. Of those, 3735 died or went missing.
The casualties will continue as long as the conflict does. On January 1, a 2 year old drowned when the boat he was in struck rocks off the coast of Lesvos. Five days later, 34 bodies, including 3 children, were discovered on the shores of Ayvalik and Dikili. As anti-refugee sentiments increase across the EU and governments implement protectionist policies to curtail the flow across their borders, the situation for those escaping the same horrors which we fear becomes more tenuous.
It is not my place to judge those decisions made by desperate men and women trapped in circumstances I cannot begin to understand. Similar decisions have been made by families during the great depression and in occupied territories throughout history. Judgment solves nothing and only further marginalizes those who have already lost everything. This is not a Syrian issue or a Muslim issue; it is a human tragedy and the children have the most to lose.
It’s another night and another child roams Istiklal Caddesi, hands full of tissue packets. Passers by avert their eyes and quicken their pace, wearied by the demands of a war not their own. The children are no longer seen; their pasts obliterated, their futures uncertain, their presence no more noticed than those shadows stenciled on the walls of Istanbul.