Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

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TURKEY AND COVID-19: DON’T FORGET REFUGEES

refugees

Find below an Article written by Kemal Kirişçi and Murat Erdoğan and published at brookings.edu;

 

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.

CORONAVIRUS CHALLENGES

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.

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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.

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