Author: Samed VELIYEV
Amid the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most vulnerable people are not only the elderly and seriously ill people, but also the homeless and poorest inhabitants of the planet, including the migrants.
According to the latest data published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are over 71 million refugees in the world. Moreover, over the past ten years, their number has almost doubled. In recent years, the increase in the number of refugees has been particularly noticeable. Most often the asylum seekers include the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, and a number of African states. The main recipient countries are the European countries. The leading position in the list of recipient countries undoubtedly belongs to Turkey.
Refugees: the main problem of Turkish society
Over 4 million people continue to seek shelter in Turkey. Most of them are Syrian citizens (3.7 million, or over 90% of all refugees). This is quite an impressive number, considering that the 85 millionth country actually bears the main burden of the costs of their maintenance alone. In the fall of 2019, Turkish President R. T. Erdogan was forced to admit that his country had already spent $37 billion on the maintenance of refugees, and these expenses are growing steadily.
Meanwhile, the Turkish economy, as well as the economies of many other countries of the planet, is going through hard times today. Even before the existing COVID-19 crisis, the unemployment rate in Turkey was 13%. Many Turks living in regions of the increased socio-economic tension complained that the government provided the refugees more privileges than the Turkish citizens. In a recent survey conducted by Kadir Has University in Istanbul, 67.7% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the social burden caused by the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Remarkably, refugees agree to take on the lowest paid and least prestigious jobs in Turkey. This contributes to increased competition in the unskilled labour market and leads to an increase in the number of unemployed among the local population. In some cases there were calls on social networks to limit the spread of migrants throughout the country. However, some users called for compassion and solidarity. At the end of 2019, the Turkish government was forced to close the further registration of Syrian refugees in Istanbul in order to combat illegal migration.
By the way, the refugee issue was also the main topic of political debates in the June municipal elections in Istanbul last year, in which Ekrem Imamoglu, a candidate from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), defeated the representative of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Binali Yıldırım. In a televised interview after his victory, Imamoglu said that “the refugee problem is a serious trauma” for some areas of Istanbul, where problems related to social tension are obvious. Many Turks believe that Imamoglu’s attitude to the refugee problem played an important role in getting the support of the residents of Istanbul.
A blessing in disguise
The rapid spread of the coronavirus in recent months has again drawn the attention of the international community to the problem of refugees, in particular those located in Turkey. The vast majority (98%) of Syrian refugees live in urban and rural areas, outside temporary accommodation centres or camps. In other words, they live throughout the country, mainly in large cities and urban agglomerations. This creates an additional social burden on the infrastructure of the cities.
Back in March, Turkish authorities demonstrated to the EU what could threaten the EU, had Ankara let the refugees, living in Turkey since 2016, head for the EU borders. Back in 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed the corresponding migration agreement. But at that time there were 2.73 million refugees in Turkey, many of whom also tried to get to Europe. Now their number has increased by more than one and a half times. At that time, Turkey tried to make Brussels be more flexible and express its clear support for the actions of Ankara, given the aggravation of the situation in Syria. But the situation has changed. Coronavirus made necessary adjustments. Due to the pandemic, the EU has suspended the deployment of new refugees from crisis regions. It is still unknown when the reception program resume. Turkey itself has closed its external borders.
Presently, Turkey is one of those countries with a significant rate of the virus cases, with more than 130,000 infected people and 3,500 deaths from the disease. Under these conditions, Turkish authorities began to take emergency measures to protect refugees from the threat of the spread of coronavirus. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees were urgently allocated by bus to temporary places for the lockdown. At the end of the quarantine, they will be sent back to the regions of Turkey.
Not so long ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) accused the countries of the Middle East in hiding information about the spread of coronavirus. WHO Regional Director Ahmed Al Manzari has warned that the outbreak of COVID-19 is yet to come. The countries most affected by military conflicts are the most vulnerable.
WHO's attention to the problems of unresolved conflicts and, in particular, to ensuring the safety of refugees gives us a weak, but still hope that Ankara can count on someone else but itself to help solve the refugee problems. Thus, WHO has already begun to support Turkey in creating a system of primary health care services for refugees and migrants. Although the scale of this assistance is rather modest, the fact of attention to this problem may indicate an increase in its importance on the political agenda not only in the region, but also on a global scale.
Vague future ahead
The situation on the borders of Turkey with Greece and Syria continues to remain difficult, despite the absence of any active military confrontation. The risks of the further spread of coronavirus among refugees are still quite high. They are the most vulnerable and poorly protected category of population, which require taking urgent measures to solve their problems. It is very clear that they should be undertaken not only by Turkey, but also by the Greek government, the European Commission, and the UN. However, the main burden is taken by the Turkish side, which does not help to stabilize the situation. Moreover, in Turkey itself, as in many other countries, the epidemiological situation is rather complicated. The spread of the virus takes the form of a geometric progression, so Turkey needs serious help. It is necessary to coordinate actions, review past practices, and take more effective measures. Just closing the borders or expelling the refugees back will not solve the problem. At present, almost all states have closed their borders, and this blocks the possibility for potential migrants to cross borders and follow their ultimate goals.
On the other hand, everyone understands that these measures are temporary, and the borders will be opened ultimately. An increase in the number of refugees will be inevitable, especially amidst the economic problems likely in many countries. And there will be even more of them, especially among the states with poor health care and a weak social system. The whole world community must now model a possible scenario of what can happen in the near future and in the post-crisis period. Many forecasts show that there is a threat of a general deterioration in the economic situation and social indicators in the global scale.
We need to revise the previous approaches everywhere. This particularly concerns the EU and the countries bordering Turkey. Turkey should become an EU partner in solving the problem of illegal migrants, and such partnerships between Brussels and Ankara can become a good basis for the future development of relations. Perhaps both the EU and Turkey can sign a new agreement, which Ankara has insisted for so long. However, Brussels prefers not to go forward yet, trying to focus on solving more important internal problems.