Coronavirus restrictions on mobility will hit migrants and refugees in Turkey the hardest

Restrictions on mobility necessary to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus are halting economies around the world, and Turkey is no different. With jobs disappearing and stay at home orders in effect, low-income Turks, migrants, and refugees will struggle the most.

“Given Turkey’s well-documented current economic challenges, limitations on mobility within and to and from Turkey will only hurt the economy at precisely the wrong time,” Erol Yayboke, a migration expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Ahval.

“Turkey’s economy relies on migrant labour itself, while benefitting greatly from remittances and strong ties between expatriate Turks in Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere, and families back home,” he said. Coronavirus measures at home and abroad will disrupt both communities.

“Many migrants have visas that are tied to a specific job or employer, meaning that they would lose the visa upon termination,” said Kelsey Norman, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “This is a going to be a major problem, not just for Turkey.”

With international borders closed, Norman said governments around the world should allow unemployed migrants to remain in their countries and give them “the option to search for a new job and transfer their visa if and when the spread of the virus has slowed and quarantine measures are lifted.”

The living and working conditions for refugees, migrants, and other low-income populations also make them more at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The most effective mitigation measures to combat the spread of the highly contagious virus are not viable for many of these communities.

“Only a tiny portion of the refugee population are in camps,” said Kemal Kirişci, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution. They do, however, “live in urban settings, often in very crowded and difficult conditions.”

“Many also work in the informal economy, often in textile ateliers, constructions sites and agricultural sectors, as seasonal workers and inevitably they are transported to the fields in crowded conditions.” Under these conditions, Kirişci said, “implementing physical distancing and hygiene would be a major challenge.”

To date, Turkey has been able to provide basic healthcare to Syrian refugees for free. However, Kirişci is concerned “that if the epidemic spreads and Turkey’s health capacity fails to handle a “surge”, the already high level of resentment towards refugees among the public, partly driven by having to share the health system with them, will be further fuelled.”

“The Turkish Health Ministry announced that all hospitals, including private ones, are required to admit and treat suspected patients of COVID-19,” Norman said. “This would be important for those without medical insurance, including many migrants and those with refugee status living outside of their cities of registration.”

Private hospitals have, however, pushed back against this measure, demanding further financial compensation in order to comply, she said. This raises questions about how the order will play out in practice.

Yayboke also noted that “there are big differences in quality of care in private vs public hospitals and many low-income Turks are unable to afford the former.”

“This could become a bigger problem since the most at risk communities – refugees, migrants, poor people, and the elderly – will largely rely on public care that is already deficient to private care,” he said.

Looking ahead, there is no certainty about when it will be safe to lift restrictions on mobility and restart economic activities, but when it is countries should look for ways to become more resilient to future pandemics. In Turkey’s case, this must include addressing its large vulnerable populations, including refugees.

Ankara should “find better durable solutions for the 4 million plus refugees currently in Turkey; better and more access to employment, labour mobility, educational and health systems,” Yayboke said. “These are longer-term and more fraught challenges, but ones that will mean future vulnerability to Turkey if left unresolved.”

As resettlement in Syria is not viable, Kirişci said that in the long-term the “focus of managing the presence of refugees has to switch from humanitarian assistance to development assistance with a focus on improving their self-reliance by helping them integrate into the formal economy.”

In a recent report, he proposed the European Union could extend trade concessions, specifically to the agricultural sector, that incentivise Turkey to integrate Syrian refugees into its labour market. “However, now the situation has changed dramatically with the epidemic and once more the focus will need to return to humanitarian assistance.”

As a global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic requires an international response and Turkey will need to collaborate with its regional neighbours. Given the seriousness of COVID-19, Norman said, “Turkey’s recent actions toward Europe were very cavalier.”

Only a month ago, Turkey was using refugees to put pressure on Europe, “even forcibly busing some individuals from migrant detention centres in Istanbul to the border with Greece,” she said.

“Several days ago, Turkey then evacuated the thousands of migrants who had been waiting at the border with Greece hoping to cross to Europe,” Norman said. However, it is unclear where these individuals were sent or whether they were offered any health or economic assistance.

“The Turkish government must refrain from this kind of irresponsible behaviour, which puts individual lives at risk and increases potential further transmission of the virus,” she said.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.