Covid-19 and displaced Syrians' livelihoods along the Turkey-Syria border

“We survive from one day to the next”, Um Khaled  explained when we interviewed her in her living room in the old city centre of Gaziantep, southern Turkey, at the end of last year.

Originally from the Palmyra region in central Syria, Um Khaled* and her husband have a background in farming. They now live with their five children in a big city, but most of their income still comes from work in agriculture and food production.

Occasionally, her sons find employment as day workers on a farm half an hour’s drive away from Gaziantep. One quarter of their daily salary of 40 Turkish Lira (approx. USD 6) goes to the owner of the bus who transports them to the fields. Um Khaled herself took part in short-term agricultural trainings with humanitarian organisations, but her lack of Turkish language skills prevented her from finding a more permanent job. These days, some extra money from home-based catering complements her pay from doing shifts in a nursing home.

While many Syrian refugees have been stuck in exile, often for almost a decade, their income is more mobile: it crosses borders through informal channels, and represents a lifeline to loved ones elsewhere, especially inside Syria.

Outside the town of Tarsus, in western Turkey, we spoke with Ahmed, a young Syrian man who lives with his wife and baby daughter inside a container on the grounds of a plant nursery. The nursery owner himself is Syrian, and he pays his employee the Turkish monthly minimum wage of 2020 Turkish Lira (USD 289). Ahmed works as a night guard at the nursery. As he benefits from free housing, water and electricity, he manages to send USD 100 every month to his parents in Latakia, on the Syrian Mediterranean coast.

Um Khaled and Ahmed’s cases exemplify the predicament of many Syrian refugees from rural areas who live at subsistence levels in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, and get by with menial jobs. They struggle to accumulate savings and lack a financial safety net to weather out sudden shocks in the production system.

We interviewed many of them when we carried out our fieldwork in and around the Turkish cities of Adana and Gaziantep in December 2019. Their economic activities and remittance-sending strategies in the informal sector are absent from national statistics, and Um Khaled’s mixed experiences with vocational trainings seldom appear in optimistic NGO reports.

Turkey, northwest Syria and Covid-19

There are over 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and 98% of them do not reside in camps. Local aid providers estimate that on the Adana plain alone, 260,000 Syrian refugees work in agriculture, and often live inside informal tent settlements.

As coronavirus and its health and economic effects spread across Turkey, the livelihoods of Syrian day labourers are particularly vulnerable to the restrictions imposed by the government to slow the spread of the virus.

In the first half of April 2020, Turkey had one of the fastest rising infection rates globally, with several thousand new Covid-19 cases per day. In response, the country has implemented lockdowns on weekends and holidays, as well as full curfews for the elderly and youth under 20 years of age, and tightened its borders.

In recent years, Turkey has come to rely on the import of vegetable and animal products and agricultural inputs like seed and fertilizers. Recent border closures have caused price hikes and import restrictions, putting additional strain on the country’s flagging agricultural sector – and vulnerable populations who work in it, including Syrian refugees.

On the other side of the border, by 6 May the Syrian Ministry of Health confirmed 45 cases of coronavirus, including three fatalities. All over Syria, the prices of food (especially vegetables and chicken) and fuel have skyrocketed, while the informal exchange rate of the Syrian pound has reached its lowest point on record.

As of 2 May, there are no known cases in northwest Syria, which comprises the opposition-held enclave of Idlib, and areas north of Aleppo under Turkish control. Home to 4 million people, this is an area with very limited capacity for medical testing and treatment. Even before the outbreak, the food security situation was dire. Since a ceasefire on 6 March 2020, 135,000 internally displaced people have returned home, but another 846,000 recently displaced people remain in limbo.

Most of the latter live in informal camps with acute sanitation, shelter and nutrition needs. In spring 2020, three out of ten pregnant or lactating women were acutely malnourished. Since December 2019, 150,000 hectares of arable lands have been lost due to recent displacement, and the large-scale movement of people, but also livestock, has increased the risk for animal disease outbreaks.

Since the onset of the pandemic, border crossings between Turkey and northwest Syria have been closed for individuals, but remained open to humanitarian shipments and the minimum movement of NGO medical staff. Humanitarian actors providing cross-border food assistance also face operational delays due to new protection measures.

Even if additional funding becomes available, international assistance to Syria is still very challenging to operationalise. Responders need to negotiate for permission with multiple local and international authorities, and state and non-state actors in border areas. While some markets have been closed, so far, 81% of essential shops remain open.

The recent restrictions and closures are likely to have a significant negative impact on the livelihoods of Syrians on both sides of the border. Our fieldwork findings can help throw some light as to why this might be the case.

Mobility, remittances and trade networks

Mobility is key to displaced Syrians’ agricultural livelihoods in Turkey. In December 2019, we found that Syrian refugees in western and southern parts of Turkey live and work in a diverse range of agricultural settings. Some Syrians intermittently stay in informal tent settlements on agricultural land. Having joined seasonal mobility circuits, they work alongside, and sometimes replace domestic migrants from southeast Turkey.

Outside Adana, we visited the tent of a Syrian family, pitched on the side of a country road between orange groves. With no Turkish skills, the family relies on a Turkish intermediary from a nearby village to find them daily work on the surrounding farms. As the Turkish farm owner explained to us, he simply orders Syrian day labourers per busload - an “autocar” (a Turkish minibus) transports seventeen workers. In exchange for providing jobs and transport, the middleman takes a heavy cut on Syrians’ daily wages. He also charges them for tapping into village water and electricity supplies.

This relationship of dependency adds to the volatile nature of farm workers’ living situation: sometimes young Syrian men have to commute hundreds of kilometres for a single day of work. On other days, they are told in the morning that there is no work at all.

Access to means of transport is also crucial for Syrian refugees who engage in home-based food production in urban centres, like Um Khaled. Even before the pandemic, the success of Syrians’ small-scale food businesses was hampered by lack of access to local markets and distribution challenges.

Transnational remittance networks are another key dimension in Syrian livelihoods across the two countries, and provide a lifeline for Syrians inside Syria. Despite their economic hardship, many Syrian refugees in Turkey assist relatives inside their home country. Many young men like Ahmed are willing to accept substandard living conditions on agricultural sites – often nurseries – in exchange for an income and the opportunity to support parents and siblings back home.

Sending money via informal channels – often through kinship-based networks – is nothing new to many Syrians. Before the war, there were almost one million Syrian emigrants, most of them in neighbouring countries, and pre-war remittances made an important contribution to Syria’s dwindling domestic economy and livelihoods, especially in rural areas. Already back then, poor Syrians were often excluded from formal financial services and had to rely on informal and expensive money brokers instead.

These days, studies with Syrian refugees in Jordan show that many use individual businessmen and family connections to transfer money to their home country. Financial support from relatives elsewhere helps Syrians inside Syria cope with rising prices for food, fuel and medical supplies.

Syrian agricultural entrepreneurs also benefit from established transnational trade networks in and beyond the Middle East. Local, national and international humanitarian actors and policymakers tend to focus on the dire living and working conditions of Syrian day labourers, and the “refugeeisation” of mobile workforces in host countries.

However, what is less studied is the role of Syrian entrepreneurs in cross-border agricultural economies. As a Turkish academic from Gaziantep University jokingly told us, “from Gaziantep, Aleppo, Damascus to Istanbul, you can find a Syrian network in every village”.

During our fieldwork, we came across several examples of Syrian entrepreneurs whose pre-war expertise, capital and connections had allowed them to start new agricultural businesses and reactivate old export channels.

We spoke with Faisal, a 59-year old Syrian entrepreneur in Gaziantep who had worked in honey production in Saudi Arabia, and later owned a pharmacy in Aleppo.

After 2011, Faisal sold his belongings and transferred his capital to Turkey. He used it to buy beehives and bees. Through an NGO training, he also got in touch and learned from other Syrian beekeepers. In 2019, Faisal struggled with recent travel restrictions imposed even on registered Syrian refugees, changing regulations and lack of access to domestic markets. Given his existing networks in the Gulf, he decided to focus on export to Kuwait and Iraq.

The expected effects of Covid-19 mitigation measures

So what do these findings tell us about the current situation? Many Syrians in Turkey and northwest Syria are likely to join the ranks of food insecure people around the world – a population that, according to the World Food Programme, might double over the next year.

Our research shows that mobilities and transnational networks are central to Syrian employment in agriculture and food production in Turkey. Refugees’ income in Turkey, and other host countries, also sustains vulnerable Syrians inside Syria.

We expect that local and cross-border movement restrictions due to Covid-19 will not only impede food supply chains and cause significant increase in food prices. These measures will also have cascading effects on interrelated agricultural Syrian livelihoods in Turkey and northwest Syria.

In Turkey (as well as in agricultural areas inside Syria), curtailing Syrian workers’ access to agricultural workplaces and markets, and disruptions to day labourers’ seasonal migration circuits will disproportionately affect poor refugee households with no savings.

In northwest Syria, the dwindling of remittances from abroad will make many families, especially internally displaced people, lose their only stable source of income. Despite the hardships of war, there is some hope in the fact that the Syrian cross-border remittance and trade ties have shown to be robust. These informal networks might once again prove to be crucial when dealing with the livelihood shocks caused by the pandemic.

*All individuals' names are fictitious.

Dr Ann-Christin Wagner is a lecturer in anthropology of development at the University of Edinburgh, and does research on refugee labour in the Middle East.

Dr Anas Al Kaddour is a university lecturer and potato breeding expert with over 20 years of experience in the agriculture, food security and livelihoods sector. He currently works as the Syria Senior Food Security and Livelihoods Technical Advisor for Global Communities, a US-based NGO, and is a research fellow at the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading.

Dr Shaher Abdullateef is an independent researcher and a specialist in agricultural science and food security. He is currently involved in several multidisciplinary studies, including the Syrian Food Futures Project at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of Edinburgh.

Dr Lisa Boden is a specialist in veterinary epidemiology and public health and leads the Syrian Food Futures Project at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of Edinburgh.

Starting in April 2020, and thanks to funding from the UK ESRC-Global Challenges Research Fund at the University of Edinburgh, our new "From the FIELD" project uses remote surveys and ethnography with displaced Syrians, to assess the impact of Covid-19 on local food supply chains and displaced people’s agricultural livelihoods in the Middle East. For updates, follow the principal investigator Dr Lisa Boden @Lisa_A_Boden and co-investigator Dr Ann Wagner @ann_wagner_ed

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times’ editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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