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Concerns and Confusion: Afghan Refugees and Migrants in Turkey Face COVID-related Challenges Every Day

Afghan voices from Turkey

Turkey has one of the highest number of reported COVID-19 cases in the Middle East. As of 15 July 2020, the number of confirmed cases stands at 215,000 and 5,400 deaths have been reported. The country witnessed a very rapid increase in the first two weeks of April, peaking on 11 April with more than 5,100 confirmed cases on a single day. To stop the fast-growing outbreak, the government of Turkey imposed various measures. Among other things, international borders were closed, flights suspended, and freedom of movement restricted. This has not only impacted Turkish citizens but also the largest refugee population in a single country in the world (mainly 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection), as well over 56,000 Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians who have applied for international protection, and 454,000 migrants and refugees who arrived irregularly.[1]

Apart from restricted freedom of movement and increased barriers to accessing basic services and needs, following the partial suspension of Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) activities, it is not clear how migrants and refugees are affected by COVID-19 and government measures to control the disease. Hence, to get an initial sense, MMC conducted eleven semi-structured interviews with migrants and refugees as well as community leaders and NGO representatives between 14 April and 19 May 2020. Being the largest group of irregular arrivals in Turkey since 2017, the focus was on Afghan refugees and migrants in Turkey.

Respondents told MMC that Afghan refugees and migrants are severely affected by COVID-19 and the related government-imposed measures to slow down the outbreak. They are very much concerned about the virus and access to health care if needed. For the majority, health insurance was cancelled due to recent changes to the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) and as such there is great confusion about what Afghans can do if they become sick. Without health insurance, they fear that going to the hospital might incur costs if they are not diagnosed with the virus, even though COVID-19 treatment is free of charge. Fuelled by rumours, people also fear that going to the hospital could not only result in quarantine, but also detention and deportation.

Information is available about their right to free medical healthcare – if concerned about being infected – however, often not in an accessible form or language for Afghans. As such, lack of accurate information reportedly causes a lot of confusion which, inadvertently, could lead to more complicated health problems among refugees and migrants because they do not seek medical assistance when needed, also for non-COVID related health issues. This not only brings the risk of spreading the virus if infected, but also of worsening other medical conditions and more expensive treatment in the future.

Meanwhile, the refugees and migrants try to apply self-protection against the disease, but face difficulties. Most have lost access to work, income and cannot feed themselves and their families. Interviewees experience the dangerous trade-off between protecting themselves against COVID-19 and going out in search for work, income, and food. For some, the fear of dying from hunger is greater than that of dying from the virus. While Afghans’ purchasing power has gone down during the crisis, prices for food, essential commodities and rent have gone up. Apart from well-meaning but insufficient local support initiatives, also from Turkish neighbours, a majority has no structural access to services and support. This is reportedly especially difficult for recent arrivals who have not been able to apply for international protection, due to partially suspended DGMM activities, and cannot access most services.

In general, Afghans feel neglected by the authorities and the humanitarian community. In their host communities, some have faced violent incidents of xenophobia because of accusations about bringing the virus into Turkey. Respondents told MMC that many Afghan refugees and migrants are desperate, emotionally exhausted, and uncertain about the future. With mixed feelings, they say that they put their trust and fate in the hands of God.

Illustrated with direct interview quotes, our new briefing paper provides detail on the findings.

Read the full briefing paper here.


[1] There are also an additional 1 million foreign nationals who have residence permits, including humanitarian residency.