Photos by Jodi Hilton for the Daily Mail
At least one sweatshop in Turkey is hiring Syrian refugee children to make camouflage uniforms for military groups such as Islamic State and Ahrar al-Sham, according to the Daily Mail. In a report published in the British tabloid on Tuesday, reporters Isabel Hunter and Salem Rizk described boys and girls as young as nine piecing together uniforms in the border town of Antakya for about 40 Turkish lira ($14.50) a day. This isn’t an isolated incident. Cast out of their homeland, thousands of Syrian children are toiling in sweatshops, factories, or farms so they and their families can survive.
The United Nations Children’s Fund says that more than half of Turkey’s 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees are children. Moreover, nearly 80 percent of them are not in school.
Lack of financial support isn’t the only thing prevent children from attending school, said Selin Unal, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey. The obstacles are manifold, among them language barriers, uncertainty about enrollment procedures, and difficulties securing transport.
But there are also factory owners in Turkey who see no issue with exploiting children of war; in fact, they are glad to.
“You can overwork the children and they’re not going to be oppositional, they’re not going to ask for their rights,” Leyla Akca is a psychologist who treats Syrian child refugees and their families, told CBS News in May. “They don’t know their rights. So they’re just going to work like slaves and it’s easier to keep them as slaves than doing it to an adult.”
Then there’s the fact that children are especially vulnerable to abuse, whether physical or sexual in nature.
“Sexual harassment is very common, and so is physical abuse,” Syrian Relief Network’s Kais al-Dairi told the Guardian last month. “I have interviewed kids and they say in their innocent way, ‘this guy held my hand, this guy tried to lead me here, this guy tried to touch me here.’”
At the factory featured in the Daily Mail, Syrian children spend 12 hours a day cutting, sewing, and finishing uniforms, which are then smuggled across the border to various rebel factions. The younger ones are assigned simpler tasks such as measuring the camouflage material, which can be light brown or military green depending on each group’s aesthetic preference.
For factory owner Abu Zakour, where the uniforms end up is of little consequence; he says he just wants to make a living.
“The only reason that these children work with me is for the money. If there were no war in Syria, these children would be in school—and school would be a much better option for them,” he told the Daily Mail. “Sometimes the family sends very young children to work, and I don’t like to say no, so I let him work, to benefit from this.”
Because the Turkish textile industry typically consists of larger production houses that subcontract to one or more smaller, unregulated facilities, labor groups warn that European brands need to be vigilant of this new complication in their supply chains.
“The treatment of Syrian refugees in their supply chains is a litmus test for high street brands’ concern for human rights in the clothes they sell across Europe,” said Phil Bloomer, executive director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “It is also the key way that business can contribute to solving the refugee crisis. Yet for many, refugee workers are out of sight, out of mind.”
In a policy paper drawn up by the Fair Wear Foundation in November, the apparel-industry nonprofit cautioned its affiliates about the high risk of child and refugee employment in Turkey’s garment sector.
“Under no circumstances should the vulnerability of refugees be used to deny them their basic human rights,” the organization said. “Child labour is never acceptable. Efforts must be made to prevent it, and appropriate steps must be taken to remediate child labor when it is found.”