Refugees and migrants in Turkey have been left with little access to healthcare in the face of the growing threat from coronavirus.
The crisis was exacerbated by Ankara’s February decision to open its western border with the EU, leading to another mass displacement as thousands of migrants tried to reach Greece.
Soon after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he would break the 2016 agreement to keep refugees from entering the EU unless he received greater support for Turkey’s military action in Syria, several thousand migrants arrived at the Greek border in the province of Edirne. Although few made it across, most got stuck on the Turkish side of the border and were left to camp out there for weeks, without adequate food, water, heating, shelter or healthcare.
The wait at Edirne continued even after Turkey announced restrictions on March 18 in response to the developing pandemic. According to the Migrants’ Solidarity Association, a Turkish NGO, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people were still stranded near the border on March 21.
Deniz Şenol Sert, an associate professor at Istanbul’s Özyeğin University who specialises in migration studies, visited the encampment in mid-March. She said that the migrants were in no position to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, even though many of them were at higher risk of developing serious complications from a Covid-19 infection because of their poor living conditions. Sert described seeing a woman give birth in a field hospital that looked “more like a hut” than a medical clinic.
Tarlabaşı Solidarity, an Istanbul-based migrants’ rights organisation, noted on Twitter that migrants were “the single most vulnerable group in our immediate vicinity”, because their immune systems were weakened by limited access to food and hygiene facilities.
“The pandemic that’s taken hold of the world is also creating new inequality,” the group stated.
In a report from Edirne recently published on halagazeteciyiz.net, a migrant named Muhammed Salih told the journalist, Seda Taşkın, that his family were getting by on half a loaf of bread, water and biscuits during the day.
“Everyone here is afraid of getting coronavirus,” he said. “We don’t want to get sick. They tell people to stay home. Well, where should the homeless stay?”
In late March, after a prolonged stand-off with Greek police, Turkey began removing migrants from the Edirne region.
Yasir Bodur, a member of Tarlabaşı Solidarity, said that none remained at the border crossing by March 27. The migrants his group were able to contact had been sent to cities across Turkey for a 14-day quarantine, he continued. After this, they were either returned to the provinces where they had registered as refugees or dropped off on Turkey’s Aegean coast to find smuggler routes to the Greek island of Lesvos. Some reports suggested that groups were also abandoned in central Istanbul.
“Migrants told us that they didn’t have issues with food or hygiene while they were in quarantine,” Bodur said. “But then they had to return to cities where they had sold everything in the hope of going to Europe.”
According to Sert, around 12,000 people were released back into the general population without any health checks.
“There were a few news stories that showed temperature checks on a few buses, but that was a photo opportunity,” Sert said, adding that the government should have provided shelter for these migrants instead of leaving it to NGOs.
Sert told Inside Turkey that most migrants had serious difficulty in accessing healthcare. Afghan refugees, who made up the majority of migrants stuck at the border near Edirne, had virtually no access to doctors. Syrians were treated slightly better, because they are covered by the Temporary Protection Regulation of 2014 that governs the treatment of refugees from the civil war.
Migrants who had not registered as refugees have the most difficulty of all. A recent story in Gazete Duvar newspaper revealed that they were being refused access to doctors even when they reported symptoms associated with a Covid-19 infection.
“I’m afraid of the racism that will be triggered against foreigners if a migrant who was at Edirne tests positive with coronavirus,” Sert said. To date, Turkey’s interior ministry and migration management departments have made no public statements about access to healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers during the pandemic.
According to Bodur, many migrants were simply left out of Turkey’s response to the disease. He said that his organisation had been in touch with around 3,500 migrants who have had no contact with the authorities and were relying on social media and news outlets to keep informed about the outbreak.
“The majority of these migrants are unregistered, which makes it impossible for any official institution to find them,” Bodur said. Neither, for the most part, have overseas embassies stepped in to help.
“Morocco was the only exception. They provided hotel accommodation for 104 [Moroccan] migrants who would otherwise have been homeless.”
Tarlabaşı Solidarity has so far distributed aid to around 6,000 migrants in Istanbul. Each care package they send out consists of a pair of gloves, two masks, antibacterial gel and 50 liras per person for grocery shopping. Working with doctors, lawyers and human rights defenders, they have produced and distributed information leaflets in French, English, Arabic and Persian. These explain how coronavirus spreads, what the common symptoms are and how people should protect themselves.
Bodur said that they knew of one migrant, originally from Sierra Leone, who died of suspected Covid-19 symptoms en route to Istanbul’s Haseki hospital. His friends said they had visited the same hospital on April 9 complaining of breathing problems, but were sent home since they didn’t have a cough or fever. Tarlabaşı Solidarity workers then isolated the deceased’s residence, where four others lived.
There may also be problems in state-provided accommodation for migrants. In Izmir province in western Turkey, 30 migrants and one staff member at the Harmandalı Repatriation Centre tested positive for Covid-19, according to a refugee support group run by the Izmir Bar Association.
The Izmir governor’s office confirmed in a statement that a case had been diagnosed at the centre on April 15, “after which other migrants were tested for COVID-19 and were isolated as necessary”.
A spokesperson for the Izmir Bar Association told Inside Turkey that the centre was crowded, with several people to a room, and that residents lacked antibacterial cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. People with Covid-19 symptoms were not being isolated and had limited access to doctors. When asked, staff at Izmir’s Bozyaka hospital said that no migrants had reported to them with symptoms since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.