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'Waste pickers' in Istanbul are being targeted for deportation

DAVID GURA, HOST:

In many parts of the world, scrap metal, plastic and cardboard are taken out of the trash by street collectors and sold to wholesalers. These waste pickers are often undocumented migrants who have few other options. And in Turkey, immigration raids have recently made their work far riskier. Durrie Bouscaren has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET NOISE)

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: A few blocks from Istanbul's largest courthouse in a tidy neighborhood of apartment buildings, 22-year-old Zikrullah Majidi (ph) pulls foam from a mattress box spring found in the trash. It's a lucky find. It weighs about 15 pounds. He'll make a $1.50 when he turns it in at the depot.

ZIKRULLAH MAJIDI: (Through interpreter) If the situation gets better in my country, I don't want to work here.

BOUSCAREN: He's from Afghanistan. He says if the situation there were any safer, he'd go back to his parents and his siblings in a heartbeat. In Turkey, he's worked in textile factories, but there, bosses occasionally refused to pay him. Picking through trash is harder work, but it pays.

MAJIDI: (Through interpreter) We make better money. I worked in other places for a few months, but they didn't pay me my salary. I worked in textile. I worked with Afghans in municipality, but they didn't give me my salary.

BOUSCAREN: In Istanbul and other cities around the world, spotty municipal waste management leads to unofficial networks like this. Waste pickers, or toplayicilar in Turkish, carry large, plastic sacks on wheeled, metal frames throughout the city streets, picking plastic, cardboard and metal out of residential dumpsters. The materials are sorted and weighed at a warehouse then trucked off and sold wholesale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATERIAL BEING SORTED)

BOUSCAREN: In this warehouse, where we were let in on the condition that we wouldn't identify where it is, we met several Afghan teenagers working together as waste pickers. One said he started the job at the age of 13, earning up to $20 a day and sleeping at the job site. The site's manager is Ugur Sevinc (ph), a Turkish man who says he learned the trade from his father in the '90s.

UGUR SEVINC: (Through interpreter) Before, it was only the Turks who did this job. Now it's Afghans. About 80% of the people who do this job are Afghans. Now the Turks won't do it. The work is hard, and the pay is low.

BOUSCAREN: It's an industry that is rife with abuse and child labor. Sevinc is open about the fact that he hires children.

SEVINC: (Through interpreter) I don't want them to work here. I have 14- and 15-year-old children myself. But the economic situation in Afghanistan forced them to come over here, and they're working. Maybe the solution is for the government or international organizations to make them go to school.

BOUSCAREN: Recently, Istanbul riot police conducted a series of raids where waste pickers work. In press statements released by the regional governor's office, officials said the warehouses were unsanitary and against the law. Hundreds of people were arrested and sent to deportation centers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI MENDILLIOGLU: (Non-English language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: In an interview with Yol TV, a Turkish broadcaster, the head of an association for the waste pickers, Ali Mendillioglu, claimed that the raids weren't really about immigration, but were an attempt by the Turkish government to reduce competition for private companies trying to corner the recycling market. He calls it a classic capitalist love story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENDILLIOGLU: Non-English language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: Sonia Dias studies waste pickers around the globe for WIEGO, a Brazil-based think tank. She says she isn't surprised by this accusation because the privatization of trash is a trend in countries in the West.

SONIA DIAS: In many cities in the global south, they are mimicking their policies.

BOUSCAREN: That means an emphasis on mechanized recycling programs that don't need a lot of labor.

DIAS: They are looking at cities in the global north, and they're going for capital-intensive technologies instead of building from what they already have.

BOUSCAREN: Dias says governments use poor conditions for waste pickers to justify outlawing them. But some countries, like Colombia, incorporate waste pickers into their formal systems and have improved working conditions along the way. For NPR news, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Durrie Bouscaren