Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships. That was the one-word song that many nongovernmental organizations sang early on in the Syrian refugee crisis, as young Syrians who fled the civil war in their homeland struggled to gain access to higher education.
Over time the language has shifted to words like employment, entrepreneurship, and economic inclusion. Turkey, with the largest economy in the central Middle East and the most Syrian refugees, could be the primary testing ground for finding out if new migrants can participate in a host-country economy. Lebanon and Jordan, which already had high youth unemployment when the Syrian conflict started, have largely frozen Syrians out of economic participation.
The current state of economic integration of Syrians in the region was reviewed at a conference in Istanbul this month, “Economic Inclusion & Livelihood Development of Young Refugees in the MENA.” The conference was organized by Spark, the Dutch nongovernmental organization focused on higher education and entrepreneurship in post-conflict countries, with the support of multiple partners, including the Islamic Development Bank.
Statistics from the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management give a portrait of Syrian economic participation in Turkey. The Turkish agency says that out of the more than 3.5 million Syrians in the country, just over two million are of workforce age, from ages 15 to 64. Of those, more than 900,000 are employed.
But the participation is considerably out of balance between women and men: Some 832,000 working Syrians are men and 105,000 are women. A Turkish nongovernmental organization working with Dutch funding had similar results: Out of 3,000 work placements for Syrians, only 8 percent were for women, although the organization is now making strong efforts to ease that inequality.
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Nearly 38 percent of the Turkish work permits issued were for entrepreneurs. (The term is now broadly defined to include those trying to sell crafts or food, not just those trying to start a business that would employ others.)
“The market conditions in Turkey and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Syrians is helping their integration,” said Basak Saral, an administrator with Building Markets, a nongovernmental organization that supports entrepreneurs in multiple developing and middle-income countries.