For decades, Turkey was known for being a source of guest workers, especially those headed to Germany. Now, Ankara is grappling with a migrant-labor issue of its own.
Ankara’s relatively relaxed attitude toward visas and illegal labor had long made Turkey a popular destination for people seeking work from formerly Soviet states. Last month, though, Turkey tightened visa regulations in an apparent effort to bring its practices into line with European Union standards. As a result, many migrant workers find themselves in career limbo.
In a tale that represents the typical plight of an illegal worker, 57-year-old Moldovan villager Eleni is living in Turkey on a three-month-tourist visa; the stamp has been her ticket to employment as a live-in house cleaner for the past 12 years.
The biggest change for Eleni and tens of thousands like her is that they can no longer automatically renew their visas by leaving the country for a day, or paying a fine for overstaying. Since the new regulations went into effect, migrant workers have to wait at least 90 days before re-entering the country on a new visa. Authorities have warned that the new requirement will be stringently enforced.
"We are all afraid about what will happen. When my visa ends, I will have to leave," said Eleni who supports her husband, five children and grandchildren on her monthly salary. "My whole family is depending on me.”
Although Moldova’s official rate of unemployment is lower than Turkey’s (7.6 percent versus 9 percent), over a quarter of its population of roughly 3.7 million people are estimated to be battling poverty.
Like other Moldovans in Turkey, Eleni sends home not only money, but food and living essentials. An elaborate mini-bus system that operates each weekend out of a parking lot in downtown Istanbul delivers the items.
"They are sending everything from food to clothes, and even washing powder and baby diapers,” recounted 30-year-old Maria, who came to Istanbul from Moldova two years ago, and is in charge of coordinating the transport of money and goods from the parking lot. “Many people depend on what is sent from here."
A large percentage of illegal workers are women, who work as live-in cleaners, nannies or domestic aides for the sick and infirm. Under the new system, employers are now expected to pay social security for them – a requirement that could discourage many from opting for their services.
Marko, one of the mini-bus drivers to Moldova, says the new visa regulations are already having an effect. "People who leave when their visas end are going back [to Moldova]. Because of the three-month ban to re-enter [Turkey], they lose their jobs. No one will wait for an employee to come back,” he said.
There are few official figures on the number of illegal workers in Turkey. In 2009, the Turkish daily Zaman quoted an unpublished report by the Ministry of Labor that put the number at over 1 million.
Many illegal workers have some kind of connection with Turkey. The Gagauz minority in Moldova, for example, have a cultural bond with Turks. Meanwhile, Armenians share a complicated history with Turks, and they can draw on the assistance of Istanbul's substantial Armenian-Turkish community. The Turkish Employment Agency in 2009 claimed that as many as 70,000 Armenians worked illegally in Turkey. Many illegal workers are also believed to come from the Turkic states of Central Asia and Azerbaijan.
A desire to prevent such illegal workers from encroaching on Turkey’s job market might explain the visa crackdown, commented Soli Özel, a professor of international affairs at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and a columnist for the newspaper HaberTurk. “The numbers of illegal workers may be growing because of our booming economy and that may be becoming a factor on unemployment numbers."
The new regulations were implemented without warning and with little explanation, other than the aim of bringing Turkey into line with European Union standards. But it would seem Ankara is intent of getting more Turks back in the workforce.
Turkey has escaped relatively unscathed from the worldwide economic crisis, making “everything . . . fantastic in the Turkish economy . . . relative to most of the G20 [states],” said Emre Yigit, an economist at the international trading house Global Securities. "We are outgrowing our European trade partners by a factor between five and 10 times this year,” added Yigit. “However, we do have our own unemployment problem."
Official unemployment rates have fallen from 15 percent in 2009 to a current 9 percent, but many believe the actual figure is higher. Meanwhile, thanks to the country's comparatively young population (the median age in Turkey is 28), 5 million new workers are entering the labor force each year.
With Turkey scrambling to find jobs for them all, visa regulations are unlikely to be relaxed. In an interview with the semi-official Anatolia News Agency last month, Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin promised further reforms. "The ministry has prepared a bill on international protection of foreigners, and it will be presented to Parliament soon," Sahin said. He did not elaborate.
For many migrant workers like Eleni, the thought of regulations tightening further is not reassuring. Citing the lack of firewood in her home village amid record cold temperatures during the winter, she worries about the future. "So many people depend on me . . . What will happen to us if I lose my job here? I just don't know."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul. This story is part one of a two-part series.