ISTANBUL (IRIN) -- The ruinous state of the Syrian economy after 18 months of civil war has left few options for young men trying to support their families without taking up arms. Many see escaping to Turkey to find illegal work as their only choice. But it is a choice that comes with a price.
In a dimly-lit clothes factory in a basement under a drab street in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, Mohammad sits in front of a sewing machine. The whirr of the motor mixes with tinny Turkish pop music on the radio, as he makes sleeves for trendy blouses to be exported to Europe.
Mohammad is Syrian and has no legal right to work here. He fears that if he is caught by the police, they will send him to a refugee camp.
"That's why I work secretly," he said. "I can't live in a camp. They're like prisons. Anyway, I need to work to earn money.
"In Syria, we weren't living," he continued. "There was no work. The place was being bombed. I had to leave." He is now earning enough to send about $360 a month back to his family near the northern Syrian town of Idlib.
Turkey hosts more than 144,000 Syrians in 14 refugee camps along its southern border. Through the Turkish Red Crescent and the Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate, it provides them with food, shelter, education and basic medical services in conditions widely deemed to be above average compared to other refugee camps.
Still, many of those fleeing Syria choose to live outside the camps -- government estimates put them at 60,000, but local NGOs say the number could be as high as 100,000.
Under rules put in place by the Turkish government last year, Syrians entering Turkey without a passport are given a form of temporary asylum, but obliged to seek shelter in the camps. Many choose to avoid this, by smuggling themselves across the 822 kilometer border. Others enter legally with a passport but overstay the three months they are automatically entitled to.
"My visa has expired now, and if the police stop me, they'll send me to the camps," said Mohammad.
He and his friends say access to informal labor was their main reason for avoiding the camps.
"If I don't work, my family doesn't eat," said Muayyid, a 20-year-old from the Syrian capital Damascus.
He and his brother fled to Istanbul one year ago, after Muayyid was called up for military service. Between them, they now earn about $700 a month in a clothes factory. That is just enough to cover their living costs and send a little each month back to their family in Syria. With prices of bread and fuel in Syria skyrocketing, the cash is a lifeline.
But they say many Turkish employers see them as easy targets for exploitation. After working for a month, Muayyid and his brother's boss refused to pay them.
"A group of us went to see him, and we had an argument. He hit one of us," said Muayyid. "But we can't do anything. The police would stand with him, not us. We are afraid of the police."
Muayyid's brother, 17, is not yet trained as a tailor. Instead, he works as a "hawis" -- cutting cloth, tidying the factory and running errands. Some days, he works a 14-hour shift. He says when he comes home, he can hardly stand. He earns just $250 a month - a little over half the official minimum wage of $412. The arrival of Syrians seeking work has reportedly driven down wages for informal labor.
Hussein, 20, from Syria's largest city, Aleppo, says hundreds of Syrians work illegally in Istanbul, in restaurants, clothing stores and factories, and making shoes.
He said the Turkish police usually turn a blind eye, as long as the Syrians do not get involved in any criminal activity. He did not know of any cases of people being caught and sent to the camps, but said their illegal status makes them vulnerable.
"Most of the guys smuggle themselves in - they don't have passports," he said. "The bosses exploit them. They give Syrians half the amount they give Turks."
Hussein used to study computer science, but after the revolution broke out, he came to Istanbul. He worked for a travel agency for three months, but the manager paid him only $300 of the $1300 he owed him.
"He told me, 'go and complain (to the police)'. Of course, I can't complain."No right to work
When Syrians began fleeing to Turkey in serious numbers last year, the government in Ankara put in place a Temporary Protection Regime based on an European Union directive for mass influxes of displaced people. In principle, that framework guarantees temporary residence rights and access to basic services. But it does not give them access to the UN Refugee Agency's asylum system -- nor the right to work.
As such, like all foreigners wanting to work in Turkey, Syrians must apply for a work permit. This usually costs between $700 and $1000, said Fatih Erol of Calismaizin, a Turkish immigration consultancy.
"After getting a work permit, they have all the same rights as Turkish employees," he said.
But Zaid Hydari, of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly's Refugee Advocacy and Support Program, which gives refugees legal support, says the legal regime applied to Syrians in Turkey is incomplete, leading to a host of other issues -- particularly for Syrians living outside the camps.
"How are people supposed to survive for the time that they are here? Can they access social assistance? Without legal status, you cannot go to the hospital for medical assistance. They can’t access the same rights as legal employees."
The government says refugees can access all the services they need in the camps, where food, shelter, education and medical care are offered free of charge.
Osman Atalay, coordinator of relief efforts for Syrians at the Turkish NGO Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, said there was nothing NGOs could do to prevent employers from exploiting Syrians who are working illegally. He said most employers are fair, but admitted there are some cases of unfair treatment.
"They don't have permission to work so they depend on mutual consent and trust with their bosses. Many employers are really helping them."
Turkey’s policy is to deport people found working illegally, but there are some exceptions, according to Baris Vahapoglu, a labor lawyer.Legal twilight zone?
"I don't think that (the authorities) will use this law against Syrian refugees. Let's say this is just a legal loophole for now," he said.
Turkey is a signatory to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration, said the convention calls for equal labor rights for migrants and nationals, even in cases where employees do not have a work permit or a written contract.
But Atalay said that if Syrians without work permits were to take an employer to court, the judge would likely report them for working illegally.
Muayyid lives in a crowded two-bedroom flat in a southern suburb of Istanbul, with one Turkish Kurd and four other Syrian flatmates who work illegally in clothes factories. They heat the place by burning scraps of discarded fabric in an iron stove.
One of Muayyid's flatmates said he knew a Syrian in Istanbul whose boss had cheated him out of $1,100. The man gave up and went back to Syria.
"We are running away from destruction and problems and from Bashar Assad, leaving our families behind in that situation," Muayyid said, "and on top of all of that, people cheat us out of money."