MALATYA, Turkey — When Turks are delighted, they often say Bundan iyisi Şam’da kayısı, or “The only thing better than this would be an apricot in Damascus.” It’s ironic that Syrian apricots are used to invoke the best of all possibilities given just how much Syrians in Turkey are now vilified.
As is often the case, their scapegoating has an economic context. Turkey is in the midst of an unprecedented financial catastrophe. Its currency has lost half its value in the last year, and the country has been hit by rocketing inflation, officially almost 80 percent but unofficially more than double that. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compounded the crisis, sending commodity rates soaring.
Ahead of national elections in Turkey next year, politicians have seized on discontent about the economy to blame the country’s influx of Syrians for working class unemployment. In May, the Turkish government promised that a million Syrians would be “sent back” within a year.
The resulting tension is acutely felt in the country’s orchards. Turkey has long been an agricultural giant; farms are the country’s largest employer. But over the last decade, the million growers here have halved and cultivated land has decreased by more than 18 percent since the year 2000.
Production expenses have climbed. Growers complain that the cost of diesel fuel has shot up over 300 percent and prices for fertilizers and pesticides fourfold, and that state subsidies are insufficient, prompting many to retire or find new work. The average Turkish farmer is now 55, according to the Agriculture Ministry, and the workforce’s age is likely to climb further as young people move from rural to urban areas, leaving even more swaths of land barren. With spending outpacing profits, Turkey’s agrarian heartland may be without enough planters soon.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees have helped keep the agriculture sector alive through work as seasonal laborers traveling across the country for seemingly endless harvests. But that labor in far-flung fields is some of the least regulated in Turkey, placing Syrians in vulnerable positions. Farmers and intermediaries often pay Syrians half what they pay Turks for picking, hauling and sowing.
Conversations in some of the country’s most important farming centers, including the provinces of Malatya in the east and Adana in the south, reveal the precariousness of life for Syrian field workers in Turkey’s agriculture sector as they fill shortages needed to keep fruit exports afloat, performing low-cost, thankless labor, while steadily becoming a perceived bugbear for the country’s deepest domestic problems.
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Turks have long felt animosity toward their southern Arab neighbors. Many believe they were backstabbed after World War I, when Arab leaders entered into secret alliances with Western powers, revolting against their Turkish imperial rulers, helping lead to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of status as a great power. Sayings like “I don’t want sugar from Damascus if I have to meet an Arab” are still common.
It’s possible that kind of rhetoric has now reached a new low. In the face of mounting food prices and wider economic woes, Turkish politicians have doubled down on condemning Syrians. Seemingly every social ill is laid at their feet inside the country, a key tactic ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
Umit Ozdag, head of the Zafer Party, is currently at the forefront of Turkey’s nativist rush, arguing that that the ruling government has allowed a Syrian takeover. He funded a viral short film, “Silent Invasion,” set in a dystopian Istanbul in 2043. Featuring a Turkish doctor unable to find work or food as he hides in the dark from marauding Syrians, the film received four million views on YouTube in two days.
Lütfü Savaş, the mayor of Turkey’s southern Hatay municipality near the Syrian border, has similarly stoked anti-immigration fervor. In 2021, he explicitly blamed Syrians for pushing Hatay’s native farmers out of work. And last month, Ömer Fethi Gürer, an MP from Nigde, an agricultural province in Central Anatolia, also pinned Turkish growers’ struggles on Syrians.
The anti-Syrian mood goes beyond escalating rhetoric.
With the government’s popularity threatened, this year the interior minister announced for the first time that Syrians in Turkey would not be able to temporarily make visits to Syria for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, the two most prominent holidays in Islam. The authorities had allowed such trips for Syrians under certain conditions since 2014. The decision reflects the words of Nationalist Movement Party chairman Devlet Bahçeli: “Irregular migration is an unnamed invasion.”
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Malatya lies at the heart of the fertile crescent where food production began 12,000 years ago. Later, elites there built one of the first societies based on class. Today, it is the apricot capitol of the world. Between June and July each year, seasonal workers descend on the yellow orchards to pick roughly 85 percent of global demand for dried apricots. Locals call the fruit mishmish—its Arabic name—and celebrate it as the “golden egg of the sun.”
Although mechanization of apricot shaking and stoning has progressed, the majority of the harvest is still carried out using traditional manual labor, which requires migrant seasonal agricultural workers. This past spring, a frost killed many of Malatya’s apricot flowers, leading to a price bump. Combined with an already weak domestic market, that development has put farmers in a frenzy to dry and export their apricots abroad.
Workers use a tractor rigged with a system of ropes to shake apricots from the tree
“Last year, we had 20 days to finish the harvest. This year, the owner wants it done in seven,” Ahmed, a 30-year-old originally from the countryside near Damascus told me. For the first time, Ahmed and his crew of four used a system of ropes and a tractor to vigorously shake all the fruit from one tree. The method is risky for workers and trees alike, but the proprietor wanted no delays in getting his fruit to market.
A few miles down the road, Tarek, a Syrian intermediary between a farm owner and his workers, rested in a chair as several Syrian women sat on the ground removing apricot pits. “Everyone here is Syrian,” Ahmed said, his arm in a cast and sling. He told me he won the fight, but I try to get back on topic. Stroking his long black beard, he continued, “The Turks go work in the cities, but this is what we have. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.” The other workers nodded in agreement.
Agricultural labor demand is met by immigrant labor in many countries. In Turkey, seasonal labor was initially carried out by local landless peasants, who were eventually replaced by internal migrants from the country’s southeast, then ethnically Kurdish and Arabic-speaking Turkish workers escaping insurgency and instability in the 1990s, and more recently Syrians. Alongside Georgian, Azerbaijani and Afghan migrants, Syrians now dominate the country’s seasonal agricultural labor force, helping cultivate everything from cotton to citrus in the country’s great plains.
“Everyone who works with me is Syrian, so now I am too,” joked Serkan, a landowner and farmer from Malatya who has been cultivating apricots for nearly three decades. Most of his field hands are still primarily Turkish, but the jest cuts to the reality that Turkish farmers and workers are increasingly concerned they no longer can cover their costs during the harvest.
In another apricot grove, Dursun Şahin, a septuagenarian Turkish farmer with a bushy white moustache, said “We are feeding the country but can barely afford tea.” No wonder his children left the fields for other professions, he explained.
Collectively, the majority of the millions of Syrians who crossed the border have become the new poorest group in Turkey. Their sudden surge in the country, slowly evolving into a permanent presence, has created deepened competition, tension, and labor exploitation among the lowest rungs of society.
Turkish workers who remain aren’t happy about the development. “Syrians stole all our jobs,” a group of Arabic-speaking Turks who had travelled for the season from the southeastern city of Sanliurfa told me while enjoying a tea break. When their field overseer whistled, the group got up to resume collecting fruit.
Many Syrians have little sympathy. “What are we supposed to do?” Ismael, originally an agricultural engineer from Homs, a city in Syria, responded miles down the road. He explained how Turkish laborers can demand minimum wage and health insurance. “Syrians need jobs. Believe me, if we had a choice, we would take it.”
But looking more deeply, the picture becomes complex: Research published in 2017 found limited negative impacts of Syrian refugee inflows on the Turkish labor market. Employment losses in the informal labor sector were offset by gains in formal work due to increased demand for goods and social services. In the agriculture sector, tasks requiring more specialized knowledge, such as spraying and pruning, are still primarily carried out by local workers.
Positive gains from the influx of Syrian labor—new opportunity for landowners, increased overall production, more competitive food exports—are not felt equally, of course.
For Syrians, seasonal agricultural work comes with bad pay and working conditions. Off the books means a degree of invisibility for workers, and a lack of legal protections enabling abuses. Farmers pay workers less than the official rates set by the government, approximately $10 per day, for more than 10-12 hours of grueling work. Syrian farmhands are not covered by basic labor laws, including the provision of social security or holidays, and have access to medical facilities only in the provinces in which they originally registered.
Farm work typically includes all family members, women and children among them who are kept far from health centers and schools. One employee from an international labor organization who was not authorized to speak on the record said children working in the fields are set up for a lifetime of illiteracy and poverty.
At the same time, Turkish government policy acknowledges the importance of Syrian labor in agriculture. Syrian seasonal workers are exempt from needing work permits. And while Syrian refugees are restricted from travel to different provinces without permission, seasonal workers are largely free from the regulation.
“This policy is an admission that the Turkish economy depends on informal labor,” Ilke Sanlier, a professor who directs Cukorova University’s migration center, explained. Without Syrian farm laborers, Turkey’s current economic collapse would have come even sooner, she added.
In southern Turkey, the Cukorova plain has some of the most fertile soil in the world, and with its 10-month harvest, locals say the soil never sleeps. Today, the region is a leader in the country’s fruit and vegetable production, yielding half of its citrus exports.
Climate change may unravel that, however. The area is experiencing the worst drought in a century, and this past winter, farmers were ill-prepared for frost that destroyed much of the country’s crops including the majority of Cukorova’s citrus.
Evren, who knew he’d be a farmer since his father told him at age 10, owns 200 acres of citrus groves. With his army brown cap tucked tightly on his head, he boasted about the richness of the land his father left him, amid the sound of his workers’ snipping tangerines with scissors. “You just put a stick in the ground and it becomes a tree,” he said.
But with compounding crises—including Covid-19, Turkey’s economic collapse and the conflict in Ukraine—Evren admitted that things were getting harder for his operation. Russia is the primary importer of his prized Super Nova tangerines. “Depending on whom you ask, our major market is under attack, or it’s attacking everyone else,” he said. The arrival of Syrian workers was a salvation, he said.
He estimated that Syrians make up 85 percent of his workforce. “They are our last option. We can’t find workers otherwise. Turks now want jobs with insurance,” he scoffed. The cost of Syrian labor seems one of his only feasible expenditures. “The cheapest thing is labor. Everything else is going up and up,” he said, citing petrol, fertilizer and pesticides.
Many of the Kurds who previously worked here have returned to the now-stable southeast, site of the geographic flashpoint of the four-decade conflict between the Turkish state and various Kurdish separatist groups. Meanwhile, many of their Turkish counterparts no longer have to travel seasonally to Cukorova to find work thanks to new areas being irrigated.
Evren’s intermediary with the day laborers, an Arabic-speaking Turk named Zeynep, said that Syrian workers have learned the work. “None of them were farmers before. They were doctors and repairmen back in their country. But I have brought them along,” she said. As she spoke, Turks and Syrians worked quickly beside one another. The acoustic sounds of the Turkish folk singer Selda Bağcan could be heard from a worker’s cell phone in one tree. In the row over, another phone played the Levantine diva Fairouz singing a song about a woman asking her lover to take her home.
A Syrian named Mohammad stood on the top of his ladder, snipping off select fruit to avoid overcrowding on the branch. He had worked in a shoe factory in Aleppo before crossing into Turkey in 2013. He knew nothing then about farming or highly coveted tangerines. “The farm is constant work. The Turks taught me a lot. I’m very thankful,” he said before returning to inspect the branches of his tree.
The inflow of Syrians has brought more than just cheap labor. Their know-how and rich culinary traditions have led to the planting of new crops such as bitter green mulukhiya leaves and tangy red eggplants for makdous, prides of any Syrian kitchen, and increased demand for certain spices, especially black cumin seeds.
Syrians have also provided new solutions for agricultural problems. One Turkish farmer, Mehmet, described how a Syrian laborer helped him solve the perennial issue of tiny furry moles who wreck irrigation systems and require expensive, dangerous pesticides. Since the laborer started placing sugar in strategic areas, the moles have stayed away from irrigation tubes but still aerate soil with their burrowing.
“This was not taught to me by foreign consultants or a university professor but a little old Syrian lady,” Mehmet said, marveling.
Despite that nod of appreciation, Syrians still face routine exploitation and violence. Drive east from the town of Bahce, and you’ll see windy Mediterranean scenes to your left and watermelon farms to your right. With no Turks in sight, a family of Syrian laborers, originally from Al Hasakah in Syria’s northeast, worked to remove plastic tarps that had protected the watermelon crop.
Ahmed, the patriarch with prizefighting fists, sat on the soil as his five-year-old daughter picked at the plastic. It was not yet 8 a.m. but the temperature was already around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The season has brought successes and failures for his family, he said. After years of being exploited by a Turkish intermediary, who pocketed 20 percent of the family’s daily wage each season—more than the standard 10 percent—Ahmed made a direct deal with the landowner and successfully cut out his middleman.
But months later, he said, a group of residents from the village used Bobcat tractors to raze the Syrians’ informal tent settlement, forcing Ahmed and close to 500 other Syrians to leave Bahce. Ahmed and his family moved to a new encampment down the road.
Asked what he plans to do next, he responded, “You can’t hold two watermelons in one hand,” an admission that he does not have the luxury of worry while sorting his family’s immediate future. He lifted his daughter off the ground and began carrying watermelons to crates for market.
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There is another saying about the apricot harvest, this one in Arabic—fil mishmish, which means “when the apricots bloom.” Apricots have a short growing season, so if someone responds he’ll do it then, it’s a soft way of saying “not likely” or “when hell freezes over.”
The agriculture situation in Turkey, with local workers aging, climate change and a massive class of Syrians stepping in to keep the agriculture sector afloat, is indeed not likely, the result of several unpredictable forces coming together. National security depends greatly on the health of a country’s food system, a consideration glaringly missing from Turkey’s anti-immigrant discourse. But what would happen if the government changed course by helping its farmers, as well as integrating and fairly compensating its Syrian workers for the critical role they are playing? The villains of today could become the heroes of tomorrow.
Ahmed requested only his first name be used to protect his identity. I use speakers’ first names unless given permission to provide their last names as well.
Top photo: Mohammad (left) travelled from Aleppo to nearby Adana in 2013. He previously worked in a shoe factory, but he was working to keep pace with the other Turks he works with in the citrus grove