It has been more than a month since the first COVID-19 case was detected in Turkey. Since then, the number of cases has shot up significantly, placing Turkey among the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of cases. Government efforts have kept the number of deaths relatively low, and the health system so far appears to be coping reasonably well. However, real challenges in managing the pandemic remain.
One of the most acute challenges relates to Turkey’s vast refugee and migrant population. The number of Syrian refugees, asylum seekers from a range of countries, and irregular migrants in the country surpasses 5 million. Most of them lead precarious lives in difficult circumstances, making them particularly vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus.
The Turkish government needs to consider the specific circumstances and needs of this population. Bearing in mind that COVID-19 does not recognize borders — and that protecting refugees is an international responsibility — improved international cooperation is urgently needed.
Refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants in Turkey
In 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey became the country hosting the largest number of refugees in the world. According to the latest figures from the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM), the Syrian refugee population alone is close to 3.6 million. They reside in towns and cities across practically the whole country, with only less than 2% living in camps. They were granted “temporary protection” upon their arrival and enjoy access to a range of free public services, including education and health care. Additionally, there are an estimated 370,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and elsewhere. They too have access to public services.
Finally, there are irregular migrants. This includes asylum seekers whose cases have been rejected and who have not been able to go back to their home countries. There are also undocumented migrants who have become stranded in Turkey in their quest to travel onwards to the European Union. In the last five years, Turkish authorities have detained 1.2 million irregular migrants and have been able to return only a small percentage of them. Considering that not all Syrian refugees are registered, a conservative estimate would put the number of irregular migrants at over one million. This, together with registered Syrian refugees, constitutes close to 6 or 7% of Turkey’s population.
The greatest challenge to these refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants is economic. The March 2016 deal on refugees between the European Union and Turkey and the accompanying Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRIT) provides close to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees and 200,000 non-Syrian asylum seekers with a modest financial support. However, this program — known as the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) and implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent — is not comprehensive and is far from meeting the basic economic needs of the refugees. Hence, an estimated one million of Syrian refugees must work to be able to sustain themselves.
In an economy that has been struggling, and where close to one-third of nationals work informally, the overwhelming majority of refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants are employed informally in very precarious conditions. The massive economic downturn caused by the pandemic, together with measures to prevent the spread of the virus (such as closures of small businesses, social distancing, restrictions on travel, and a ban on people under 20 and over 65 leaving their homes) is further complicating this picture. It is causing many refugees to lose their jobs and their meager income on the one hand, and on the other it is pushing them into such desperation to consider accepting jobs that many refuse to do because of COVID-19.
Registered Syrian refugees and other asylum seekers enjoy access to basic health services. The Turkish health system so far, has been able to cope with COVID-19 cases. This could dramatically change in the coming weeks and months, complicating access to health services. Furthermore, most refugees live in crowded and often particularly squalid conditions, making them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. But it is irregular migrants who are especially vulnerable, as the fear of being detained prevents them from seeking access to health services. Reports that health services are being denied complicates their situation and heightens their risk of exposure to the virus, as well as the risk of spreading it.
COVID-19 has forced Turkish schools to introduce distance learning, like elsewhere in the world. The transition is still ongoing, lack of access to the equipment necessary for online learning is complicating matters for poorer families with children. Enrollment in the Turkish public school system has increased considerably during the last few years. The Conditional Cash Transfers for Education (CCTE), funded by the EU, subsidizes families committed to sending their children regularly to school instead of informal work. With uncertainty around when normal schooling will again be possible, it is going to be important to mount a concerted effort to ensure that refugee and migrant children are able to continue with their schooling to preserve the modest gains of the past.
A final challenge has to do with public attitudes towards refugees and migrants. A significant proportion of the Turkish public has become resentful of them. Initially, the public welcomed Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. However, as years went by and prospects of their return diminished, this welcome wore out. Growing economic hardship in Turkey and rising unemployment have made matters worse. A survey conducted late in 2017 found that more than 71% of respondents believed that Syrians were taking jobs away from people in Turkey, while another survey found that almost 65% thought the Turkish economy risked deteriorating because of the burden of looking after the refugees. In 2019, 83.2% of those surveyed called for the return of all refugees and disagreed with the government’s policy of hosting them. These results suggest that refugees and migrants risk being stigmatized or even the targets of violence, especially if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens and the economy falls further.
What can be done?
So far, the government has not taken any specific measures with refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants in mind. It has only posted and disseminated its decisions in various languages, including Arabic, concerning the fight against COVID-19 through the DGMM website. U.N. agencies as well as various non-governmental organizations have introduced programs to keep the refugee and migrant population informed of government decisions. However, the government must develop and implement policies specifically targeting the needs of refugees and migrants.
One important step would be to include a migration expert in the social sciences advisory council the government is planning to establish within the Ministry of Health to address social aspects combating COVID-19. This would enable the government to examine the specific needs of refugees and migrants and also advise on how to avoid the dangers of stigmatization. Some locals resent sharing health services with refugees and irregular migrants, as well as accuse refugees and migrants of spreading the virus.
The fear of stigmatization then deters refugees and irregular migrants from seeking health care, which in turn increases the risks for all. The government’s recent declaration that in the context of combating the coronavirus, “all persons” can enjoy access to health irrespective of their social security status is an important positive step. It resolves any ambiguity over the access of irregular migrants to public health facilities, and acknowledges that COVID-19 does not differentiate between its victims.
Finally, and more challenging, the computer needs of refugee and migrant children will need to be addressed to enable them to benefit from distance learning. Possibly the toughest challenges will be the economic ones.
Sharing the burden
It would be unrealistic to expect Turkey to address these challenges alone. Turkey will need additional resources. After all, protecting refugees is an international responsibility, and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), adopted in December 2018, once more reiterated the importance of burden-sharing to help countries hosting large numbers of refugees.
Furthermore, such visible international solidarity would also help diffuse local resentment towards refugees. In that spirit, it will be important to explore ways to renew FRIT, especially with respect to continuing ESSN and CCTE. The nature of the threat from COVID-19 and the accompanying challenges require the EU and Turkey to develop a constructive dialogue, recognizing that most of the funding for national and international stakeholders to assist refugees comes from the EU. Amid very poor EU-Turkey relations broadly, such a dialogue around the collective fight against COVID-19 would be welcome.
Funding is not the only avenue of burden-sharing. These are exceptional times. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned countries inward, exacerbating prospects for international cooperation. Yet the urgency of addressing protracted refugee situations will persist. We suggest two possible areas of cooperation. One is revisiting resettlement, especially of vulnerable refugees. That would be a powerful show of solidarity with countries hosting large refugee populations. A second is that the GCR makes many innovative policy recommendations. One recommendation that is especially well-suited for Turkey is the idea of extending trade concessions to countries that host large numbers of refugees. Turkey opened its labor market to Syrian refugees, extending such concessions to Turkish products and services involving refugee labor to incentivize companies to hire refugees formally. Trade is a major engine of economic growth, and would also benefit Turkey beyond refugees, especially in terms of reviving the national economy post-COVID.