Syrian refugees in Turkey left particularly vulnerable by coronavirus

Turkey’s struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on the nearly four million Syrian refugees living within its borders. 

Coronavirus cases in the country are over two million and 23,832 people have died from the disease. Refugees and other displaced people are at a particular risk of contracting COVID-19 on top of being more likely to suffer from its economic consequences. 

Despite reminders from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the pandemic is testing governments’ commitment to refugees, Cevdet Acu, a researcher at the University of Exeter, worries that Turkey is not doing enough to rise to this challenge. 

“If someone is saying this [we are all in this together, they are ignoring the inequality among the societies, among people,” Acu told Ahval News in a recent podcast. “So based on this reality, we can see that particularly poor people, vulnerable people, in this society are more affected than others. Refugees are one of the more vulnerable groups.”

Supporting this point, Acu referred to the status of displaced Syrians in Turkey, who are not referred to as refugees but as “guests” under temporary protection. This is an important distinction to make because it deprives them from the full protections afforded to refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention which Turkey is a party to. This has also made them more likely to lose what limited work they can do in Turkey with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TURGEV) finding that 36.5% of Syrians versus 11% of Turks surveyed were laid off due to the pandemic.

Access to healthcare during the pandemic is something that is also hobbled by the current set of regulations related to refugees.

Turkey is now moving ahead with efforts to confront the pandemic, especially now that vaccinations for the population is becoming available. On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan televised his own vaccination to encourage citizens to trust the vaccine and he previously declared that any vaccination should be available to everyone at the United Nations General Assembly last September.  

How much access or priority Syrians will receive in a national vaccination plan remains to be seen. Already, Acu asserts that there has been no stated exclusion of Syrians from receiving a vaccine but the geographical limitations under Turkey’s temporary protection regime has impaired at times their access to healthcare during the pandemic. 

“It is a problem because they should have their freedom already, but this system does not work,” Acu said. “This is like a gamut of issues that they [Turkish authorities] have to think about again.” 

Economic problems are not the only issues exasperated by the pandemic as the number of hate-crimes against Syrians has risen. Official data shows that in little over a month, six Syrians, half of whom were under the age of 18, were murdered in Turkey. In his interview with Ahval, Acu also mentions that the perpetrators in these cases were also teenagers, a fact he finds particularly troubling. 

“The problem here is that the hate among the young generation against Syrian children is a very important issue,” he said.  

In a piece for Ahval last September, Acu wrote of a young Syrian named Hamza Ajan, who attempted to ward off a group of youths harassing a woman in Bursa when they beat him to death. Acu lamented that his murder was largely ignored by the Turkish media, but he insists this silence was part of the problem alongside anti-refugee rhetoric from Turkish politicians. 

“The media and the politicians have quite a big impact on the people’s perceptions,” Acu said, going on to detail how this has contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility that falsely attributed Turkey’s wider problems to the presence of Syrian refugees in their country. 

In the Turkish media-sphere, Syrians are among the most targeted groups by hate-speech and they are frequently associated with negative stereotypes with a minimum basis in facts. For example, they are often accused of contributing to rising crime in Turkish cities when government data suggested the opposite. Another stereotype used by right-wing politicians in Turkey is that Syrians are either collecting benefits denied to Turks themselves or are stealing jobs from them. 

To Acu, Syrians are simply used as a scapegoat for policy failures that do not address any of these issues substantively. 

“Many people do not have enough courage to blame the Turkish government, but instead what they do is blame the vulnerable groups and whatever happens, if it is bad, it is because of Syrians refugees.”

He notes that none of these challenges from economic dislocation or xenophobia are unique to the pandemic even as it has exasperated the pre-existing situation. However, Acu places the onus on the Turkish state to reduce the hostility faced by Syrians in the country.

“Instead of increasing the hate among these groups, I think the role of government should be how should we reduce the hate and live together,” he stressed.