ILO’s support to refugees and host communities in Turkey

With 4 million refugees, as of 2020, Turkey is the country hosting the largest number of refugees in the world for the seventh year in a row. The vast majority, close to 3.6 million, come from Syria, while 400,000 are Afghanis, Iranians and Iraqis. Ten years after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, one quarter of the world’s 25.9 million refugees are Syrian.

Recognizing the need to design long-term approaches that bolster the resilience of refugees, the Turkish government has designed strong protection frameworks that grant access to education, the health system, social services, and the labour market. Since 2016, refugees can obtain a work permit through their employer.

The ILO places decent work, including the promotion of international labour standards, at the heart of its interventions. Being the only tripartite UN agency, the ILO closely cooperates with the government, employers’ and workers’ organizations to support access to economic opportunities that are central in restoring hope, dignity and human security to refugees. In Turkey this means supporting the government and social partners to manage the increased pressure on the labour market and support access to decent work – for both refugees and host communities.

This is part of the wider effort of the international community as coordinated under the Turkey chapter of the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP). As an active member of the Livelihoods working group, the ILO together with other UN agencies and NGOs supports the government to strengthen the resilience and self-reliance of refugees. The 3RP Turkey country chapter 2020-2021 found that many Syrian refugees have gradually been able to access work opportunities, however, only 3 percent of working refugees were doing so formally and 71 percent of households were unable to access skilled or reliable work. This is further accentuated by rising unemployment rates, especially among youth.

The ILO is guided by the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR). Representing a milestone for global solidarity and refugee protection, the ILO supports the practical implementation of the GCR in Turkey. As such, the ILO contributes to the achievement of two essential goals of the GCR: to ease pressure on Turkey as a host country and to enhance refugee self-reliance. As a co-convener of the Global Refugee Forum, the government of Turkey showed a strong presence and the 3RP was portrayed as one of the good practices show casing innovative ways to respond to refugee crises.

ILO’s approach is also consistent with the pledge to “leave no one behind” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the ILO supports the implementation of Goal 8 on inclusive, sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Challenges faced by refugees in the Turkish labour market

Refugees in Turkey face challenges when accessing the labour market and again when they are employed. The challenges in accessing the labour market include:
  • low employability (due to low levels of education and technical skills),
  • limited language skills,
  • restrained access to information and services (mainly due to the language barrier).
Since 2016, refugees can obtain a work permit through their employer, however, to date, very few have obtained a work permit and very few Syrians are working formally.

Out of 2.16 million Syrians of working age in Turkey, 1 million are estimated to participate in the labour market, most of them informally in low-skilled and low-paid jobs.

The majority of refugees are employed in the manufacturing sector, mainly in the textile industry, as well as in construction and trade and hospitality sectors.

Refugees often face poor working conditions: Next to occupational safety and health risks, they work long hours and earn below the minimum wage. Limited bargaining power, the need to earn an income, as well as a lack of language skills, make it challenging for refugees to change these conditions.

According to an ILO study based on 2017 data, Syrian men earned on average TRY1,337 – 5% below the minimum wage applicable in 2017 – and Syrian women earned TRY1,083. On average, Syrian women earned almost 20% less than their male counterparts and nearly 25% below the minimum wage. Moreover, 75% of Syrian workers put in more than 45 hours per week in 2017, and nearly 9.8% had extreme working weeks of more than 70 hours.

ILO’s support to refugees and host communities in Turkey

To support refugees and host communities gain a living in decent working conditions, the ILO in Turkey is implementing the Refugee Response Programme. It is guided by a Programme of Support spanning from the years 2017 to 2021 and is contributing to the targets of the Turkey chapter of the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP). The programme is built on three pillars:


  • Investing in people and skills
  • Supporting employability through skills development
  • Assessment of refugees' skills and needs
  • Providing Complementary skills training on, for example, labour law, social security, occupational health and safety
  • Building skills through training (vocational, language, core skills and on-the-job training)
  • Enhancing workplace adaptation 


  • Enhancing economic growth
  • Supporting the creation and retention of formal jobs
  • Formalization of informal businesses
  • Supporting new and existing enterprises
  • Incentivizing formal employment of refugees and host community members
  • Entrepreneurship training


  • Strengthening fair and effective labour market governance
  • Promoting decent work for all
  • Fostering coordination between institutions and improving service delivery
  • Supporting employers to increase formal employment and obtain work permits for their workers
  • Strengthening labour law compliance and enforcement
  • Increasing knowledge of labour rights for refugees and host community members

Main achievements

Investing in people and skills

Supporting employability through skills development

  • Employability of more than 23,000 refugees and host community members increased through vocational, language and core skills training.
  • Social cohesion supported through design and implementation of a workplace adaptation programme matching Syrian and Turkish workers.
  • Gender equality supported through provision of gender-sensitive training (more than 60% of training graduates were women).
  • Skills matching enhanced through an increased focus on work-based training (on-the-job training, apprenticeship).

Enhancing economic growth

Supporting the creation and retention of formal jobs

  • Assessment of potentials to integrate refugees into value chains. For example, the shoemaking sector in Konya as well as the furniture-making sector in Hatay have shown great potential to integrate Syrian refugees into value chains.
  • 900 entrepreneurs trained and 150 micro grants awarded to support innovative business ideas.
  • First women-led cooperative composed of Syrian, Turkish and Afghan women established in Gaziantep in March 2019.
  • More than 600 SMEs supported through business advisory services and support for formalization.
  • To employ refugees and host community members formally, employers received incentives covering work permit fees and social security contributions for
  • 2,340 Syrians. In total over 4,500 refugees and host community members have been employed formally with the support of the ILO.

Strengthening fair and effective labour market governance

Promoting decent work for all

  • The capacity of public officials, workers and employers organizations to better respond to new challenges in the labour market was improved.
  • 15% of all social security auditors, 20% of all labour inspectors and 20% of all labour and social security judges trained in the legal framework protecting refugees in the labour market.
  • Service delivery capacity of public institutions improved.
  • Awareness raised on the importance of decent work, especially formal work and the elimination of child labour.