Turkey turns to NGOs to fill gaps in COVID-19 response for refugees


With some 70,000 active coronavirus cases, local authorities struggle to provide aid for those waiting at border to leave

Sasan was a lawyer in Iran. He fled because he was persecuted as an adherent of the Baha’i faith, and has been living in Turkey for the past four years.

Uncertain of his future, he was among those trying to leave for Europe through the Pazarkule crossing along the border with Greece, but changed his mind due to increased warnings of the possible spread of coronavirus.

“I left the Pazarkule border on March 18 because of the terrible conditions,” Sasan said in a phone interview with The Media Line.

“Food and medical supplies were being provided by The Association of Solidarity with Migrants and Asylum seekers (ASAM) and the Turkish Red Crescent,” he said. “It was good for the first three days, but then everything started running out. I told my friends to leave, too, because I knew camps would be in worse condition.”

The Turkey Human Rights Investigation commission in the country’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly, filed a report after Ankara encouraged refugees and migrants to congregate along the border with Greece, a European Union member. It was a move calculated to push the EU to follow through on funding pledges to Turkey to help pay for their upkeep.

The report shed light on the intense COVID-19 risk these people were under due to the teargas and smoke bombs being used in the region. Such crowd-control tools create breathing hazards, which can be especially risky in light of the respiratory threat posed by coronavirus.

“The NGOs I spoke to had hygiene kits, but they were not enough,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s senior Turkey researcher, told the Media Line. “The remainder of refugees at the border were taken onto buses and divided by nationality.”

Turkish authorities have moved the remaining people to nine camps for the duration of the country’s pandemic lockdown.

Turkey recently informed European and other countries that it will not be able to handle a new wave of non-citizens seeking shelter. It continues to provide refugees with healthcare amid the pandemic.

“I don’t know [what actually takes place], but according to the announcement, anyone who has corona symptoms should be able to get treatment,” Gardner said. “On the negative side, [refugees and rights groups] have raised the issue that the authorities have stopped receiving asylum applications.”

Turkey currently hosts more than 4 million refugees and asylum seekers, giving it the world’s largest registered refugee population. Less than 2% of the Syrians who have fled their country’s civil war currently reside in official Temporary Accommodation Centers, while the rest live among the residents of urban, peri-urban and rural areas, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The main problem for the majority of refugees is that they live below the poverty line and are dependent upon day labor. The most vulnerable – those already struggling to meet their most basic needs prior to the pandemic – no longer have access to adequate income due to the shutdown of businesses throughout the country.

“Turkey continues to do its best to improve the quality of life for refugees both in Turkey and northern Syria,” Mehmet Güllüoğlu, head of the country’s disaster response agency, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), said during a recent panel on the “condition of Syrian refugees and Turkey’s ongoing efforts,” organized by the Turkish Heritage Organization.

On March 30, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a campaign to assist those in the country affected by COVID-19, donating seven months of his salary. Donations from banks and business groups close to the government followed. However, refugees might not be eligible for this aid.

“While Turkey has launched assistance packages for vulnerable members of the community and businesses, a lot remains to be done to ensure that this support includes refugees,” Sherine Ibrahim, CARE’s country director in Turkey, told the Media Line. “CARE is providing much-needed cash assistance to vulnerable refugee community members.”

As a result, local authorities have begun to turn to NGOs such as CARE in order to fill the gaps in the overall COVID-19 response. The Turkish healthcare system is strained as the number of COVID-19 cases increases.

“CARE is concerned about the ability of the country’s healthcare system to accommodate vulnerable populations, including Syrian refugees, and address their needs, as the health systems become more and more stretched,” Ibrahim said.

Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) says that medical personnel have received the necessary training in cooperation with provincial directorates of health.

“Reportedly, whilst the necessary disinfection efforts are underway in the buildings, masks, gloves and disinfectants needed by the personnel have been procured and are being used,” UNHCR spokesperson Selin Unal told the Media Line. “The precautions taken are being revised in light of developments.”

Turkey has increased its medical capacity in response to the pandemic. There are currently plans to build two more hospitals. There is also a surge of volunteers.

“Syrian doctors, nurses and other medical professions who have not been able to practice medicine in Turkey have come forward to support the response,” CARE’s Ibrahim said.

Refugees living in camps and in communities around Turkey struggle to feel economically and physically safe. Sasan has not been able to contact his friends in camps.

“A friend of mine was sent to a camp in Edirne,” he said. “He told me that health care wasn’t [sufficient], and there was a lack of doctors. Now I can’t reach any of my friends in camps. Their phones are turned off, and I don’t know why.”

There have been reports from refugees and asylum seekers that the use of cellphones is banned in camps. Gardner said that he had heard similar complaints.

Turkey now has about 70,000 active cases of coronavirus, and many politicians and scientists are calling on the government to impose a full lockdown in urban areas. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu says the country will not stop people from returning to the border with Greece after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

Sasan thinks back on his time at Pazarkule.

“I realize that these people are no longer important to someone. Many nights I heard the children cry from hunger and cold, and no one heard their voices. Is life so painful? They just want a life without fear,” he said.

“Every country is looking out for its own citizens,” he said. “We understood, especially with the coronavirus outbreak, that we don’t belong anywhere.”