The central role of Decent Work in addressing the Syrian Refugee Crisis: The ILO Experience

As a side event to the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, the ILO organized a panel discussion to review good practices using decent work to strengthen the nexus between humanitarian assistance and development cooperation in situations of forced displacement.

The global refugee crisis has reached an unprecedented level not witnessed since the early part of the last century, including a surge of displaced people from Syria into Turkey. The World Humanitarian Summit presented an important opportunity for the international community to continue its search for effective responses to meet such humanitarian and development challenges. The magnitude of the challenge demanded increased international attention. It was important that the World Humanitarian Summit established firm commitments and a shared responsibility for action.

Just returning from a visit to the temporary resettlement centre in Harran, Turkey, near the border with Syria, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder applauded the Turkish government along with the support of the social partners and civil society for the generous assistance and leadership provided in responding to the large wave of refugees that have settled within its borders. The ILO is supporting activities in the resettlement centre and surrounding area by promoting decent work opportunities for refugees and host communities. This includes labour market and value chain analyses, attitudinal surveys of employers and national workers, skills assessments and upgrading, promoting employment services and local economic development.

The Director-General affirmed that addressing the impacts of this and other crises must be recognized as a global shared responsibility. He stated that it should not be just a few countries that carry the heaviest burden simply due to their geographical position. Further, the ILO encouraged a global discussion that recognizes an obligation to meet humanitarian needs with developmental solutions. He underscored that decent work served as an important bridge between the humanitarian and developmental dimensions of the UN’s role. Jobs give meaning and purpose to people’s lives and this applies to refugees as strongly as it applies to anybody else. It was important to get the humanitarian and development nexus right because the potential benefits could be enormous. However, if not properly managed, they could unravel progress for generations.

In his keynote address, H.E. Mr Süleyman Soylu, Minister of Labour and Social Security, Republic of Turkey, highlighted the efforts undertaken by his government to lead the way in providing assistance to refugees. He recalled that the long history of Turkey’s open-door policy has forged a strong sense of solidarity within the country that is now host to some 3 million refugees. He underscored however, that this moral imperative to assist has come at a tremendous economic cost. Turkey was bearing the financial cost of providing for the basic needs of refugees, including education and health services as well as vocational training and skills development. Greater support to offset these costs was needed by the international community. Humanitarian responses would not go far enough to meet the needs of refugees. In response, Turkey had adopted the Temporary Protection and the Work Permits Regulation which had opened up pathways for refugees to find decent formal employment.

Mr. Ergün Atalay, President, Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, TÜRK-İŞ, underscored the humanitarian imperative felt throughout the community despite the strains that such a population influx is placing on education systems, hospitals and other public services. Despite an unemployment rate of around 11 per cent amongst the Turkish population, it was fundamental to ensure refugees gain access to decent formal sector jobs. He stated that low wages, poor and unsafe working conditions, and denial of labour rights would perpetuate negative socio-economic effects. Increased public private cooperation and international support was needed to meet the needs of the refugee population and also to open up decent work opportunities for both refugees and host communities.

Mr. Erol Kiresepi, Vice-President, Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations, TİSK, reminded that high levels of economic insecurity ultimately lead to disturbing forms of exploitation, such as child labour. Therefore, labour market solutions, including reforms of labour laws were needed to prevent exploitation and to protect a downward spiral in the form of lower salaries, job insecurity, exploitation and denial of labour rights both for refugees as well as for host community workers. He stressed the need for skills and language programmes to help refugees enter labour markets. Opening up formal avenues for decent work through work permit procedures was a vital first step towards improving decent work opportunities and access to social and workplace protection.

Mr. Süleyman Tapsız, Governor of Kilis, underscored the heavy strains and challenges facing his region of Turkey where the Syrian refugee population has now exceeded that of the local population. He reminded of the complex challenges of creating jobs and supporting access to labour markets for refugees. Strong labour market information systems and public employment services were helping to foster refugee skills and jobs matching to meet labour shortages. He lauded the ILO’s efforts for helping to profiling of Syrians regarding their professional skills as well as in setting up public training centres, providing vocational courses and entrepreneurship learning which had helped employers identify suitable candidates to meet labour market needs. He mentioned that the textile industry in Kilis held the potential to employ a significant number of refugees but further technical training in this area was needed to enhance employability.

Ms. Adalet Budak Akbaş, Social Affairs Coordinator, GAP Regional Development Administration highlighted the importance of increasing women’s access to public services and enhancing their employability. Towards this end, further efforts were needed to provide language and vocational training, apprenticeships and enhance employment opportunities for women and young refugees. Ms Akbaş hence pointed to the importance of joint efforts with the ILO in providing Turkish language courses, vocational training and skills development for refugees. She said that entrepreneurship training were also in the pipeline.

In conclusion, Minister Soylu affirmed his commitment to continue increasing job opportunities for refugees and host communities. He reinforced the need for the international community to assume its humanitarian responsibilities and work together in solidarity to resolve humanitarian crises.
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder closed the meeting by reiterating the importance of tripartite engagement in finding labour market solutions. He stated that the knowledge amassed through Turkey’s experience could inform viable future interventions in other countries. Access to decent work opportunities provided an effective bridge for linking humanitarian and development solutions. This was an issue that should continue to be carried forward by the international community, including during the UN Summit Addressing Large Movements of Migrants and Refugees as well as a Summit hosted by the United States on the global refugee crisis, both scheduled to take place in September 2016.