GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AFP) – In the Turkish city of Gaziantep, home to around half a million Syrians who fled the civil war south of the border, hundreds of Syrian businesses are thriving in a boost both for the displaced community and their host country.
Over 3.5 million Syrians are registered in Turkey, far more than in any other country that has welcomed refugees of the seven-year war.
Turkish officials highlight the major economic burden of hosting so many refugees but the presence of this new population – many well-qualified and multilingual – and the success of their businesses have also been a fillip for the Turkish economy, contrary to widely-held assumptions.
More than 6,500 companies founded or co-founded by Syrians have been registered in Turkey since the 2011 start of the war, according to the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey.
And the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF), an organisation which aims to develop entrepreneurship among the Syrian diaspora, estimates the number in fact to be over 10,000 when the informal sector is included.
In Gaziantep alone, 1,250 Syrian companies are registered with the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Rami Sharrack, deputy executive director at SEF.
In a large complex in Gaziantep’s industrial zone, Syrian businessman Amer Hadri, head of prominent crisp and snack packaging company Zirve Extrusion, has succeeded in resuming his business, once based in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, just 125 kilometres south of the Turkish city.
“We have been producing machines for manufacturing and packaging crisps for over 20 years,” Hadri told AFP.
“Before we exported to the Arab world but since we set up in Turkey, we have realised our ambition to export to the whole world,” he added.
All the packaging has a “Produced in Turkey” label, which Hadri said was a “guarantee of quality” on the European markets.
Like Hadri, many Syrians arrived in Turkey with their experience and customer base.
While some target increased exports and access to international markets, other entrepreneurs have more local ambitions.
Dania Abdulbaqi, a civil engineer who came to Turkey from Hama in 2013, opened a creche in August 2016 for children of all nationalities between three months and five years old after not being able to find one in the area.
“Mothers who work in this district are near their children and can come and breastfeed them during their breaks.”
For this project, Abdulbaqi attended management training courses with NGOs in Gaziantep, and her husband raised funds from relatives to finance it.
“The massive influx has stimulated growth and attracted new investment by providing cheap labour and boosting consumption,” the International Crisis Group said in a report this year. It added that some experts believe the presence of Syrians added about three per cent to Turkish economic growth in 2016.
Fatma Sahin, mayor of Gaziantep and prominent member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said she welcomed the opportunities offered by joint ventures between Turkish and Syrian entrepreneurs.
“People from Gaziantep and Syrians have started businesses together because the fact that they speak two languages, including English and Arabic, is an important advantage, especially for international trade,” she told AFP.
The economy has generally been a trump card for Erdogan in his 15 years in power. But, with both unemployment and inflation at over 10 per cent, there are fears about the economy’s underlying health.
Mustafa Turkmenoglu, a Turkmen Syrian originally from Aleppo, left Syria five years ago and created a textile company in Gaziantep.
“All the traders here receive dollars from abroad,” he said. “We benefit from it but others too.”
Turkmenoglu employs 40 Syrians in his workshop, and five in his shop. He said Turks seek higher wages and are more demanding regarding insurance.
The government even relaxed rules to make it easier for Syrians to open businesses although in the face of tensions over favourable treatment, Ankara agreed to impose the same conditions for all.
But in the case of Syrian businesses, authorities seem to have, for now, put “on hold” a rule that a company should employ five Turks for every foreigner, Omar Kadkoy, research associate at Ankara-based TEPAV think tank said.
Yet major problems remain, many linked to the long-term issues of how – and whether – to fully integrate such a large refugee community into Turkish life.
Although Ankara allowed work permits to be issued to Syrian refugees in January 2016, less than one per cent have one at present, even though two thirds of the refugees are of working age, said Kadkoy.
He added another obstacle was that a large part of the Syrian refugee population did not know Turkish – which belongs to an entirely different language family to Arabic – and there is no active policy to teach them.
Syrians also fear losing their access to aid, for which as refugees they qualify, if they enter the formal labour market, Kadkoy said.
“They figure if they get formal employment they will be cut off from aid, which is true, (but) the issue there is the aid will certainly not last forever.
“The sooner they get a job, the better it is to sustain an income in the long term,” he said.