When thirteen-year-old handball player Merve Akpinar posted about her problems – being told: “You’re a girl, you can’t wear shorts, you can’t play alongside boys” – she received huge support on social media. Akpinar is supported by the Handball Federation and large football clubs. She was born in Turkey’s southeastern city of Urfa (Riha), in a province that tops the nation’s list of possessing the most child labourers.
Thousands of children here, unlike Akpinar, cannot wash off the prejudice they face, and are made to work for long hours under harsh conditions, collecting cardboard, polishing shoes or working in fields under the scorching heat. Some children become “casualties of the bosses’ greed for profit.”
According to the Statistics Institute of Turkey (TÜİK)’s “Children by Statistics” report of 2019, the number of children between the ages of 5-17 being made to work totalled 720,000. This figure does not include children forced to come to Turkey for refuge and asylum.
The exact numbers are not made public, so are not known, but every year thousands of children travel from Urfa to different cities for seasonal work, while others work in the fields around Urfa itself for 14 hours a day.
One of these child labourers is 17- year-old NK, who left school in Year 7, who now dreams of getting her younger sibling to study rather than her, MA reports. NK has been working in the fields for 15 years of her life. She talks of the difficulties of working in the fields: “I have been in this field since I was three years old. A lot of problems arise from working in the fields, and when you are a child, these problems are multiplied. Health problems start in childhood, for example, and you can get back pains.”
NK’s father has rented the field she works in this year, so she is working for him, but in previous years, she worked in other places like Düzce, İzmir, Adana and Nevşehir as a seasonal agricultural labourer. She was forced to leave school in Year 7 because her mother was ill: “I left, but I loved it there. I dreamt of going to university, but it did not happen. My younger sibling is nine, going into ‘year four.’ I am not going to allow them to leave school, I’m going to do all I can so they can study. My dream is for them to study at whatever school they want.”
She said that she had dreamt of studying health, becoming a nurse and making her mother well again, “but I am working in the fields. If there is an open university course available, I still want to become a nurse. My mother is ill. She has a slipped disc, asthma and a tumour in her neck. If I become a nurse, I can look after her too.”
NK reiterates that she has to work for 14 hours a day in temperatures which can reach 40 degrees under the sun: “When I’m working in the fields, I still have to look after my siblings and do the housework as well, because my mother is ill. I don’t like working in the fields, it’s not a good job. And it’s not enough for me to work in the fields. I have to work at home as well. I get up at five in the morning, and I’m in the fields until six in the evening. When I come back from the fields, I make the meals and do the cleaning. It’s impossible for me to set aside any time for myself. But most of all, I want my mother to get better.”
Refugee children who settled in Urfa having fled the war in Syria cannot realise their dreams either. Most of these children go through rubbish skips searching for reusable materials, others work in various ways.
Nine-year-old YA is one of hundreds of children who settled in Urfa three years ago. She polishes shoes outside the mosque and in the city squares with the shoe polish she keeps in her school bag. She says her dream is to keep books in her school bag instead of shoe polish, and to study at school.
She has another dream too: to meet up with her friends in the town of Binnish, near Idlib in Syria, where they lived their lives before coming to Turkey for refuge.