North Africa, West Asia

What does it mean to be an urban refugee in Turkey during a pandemic?

In Turkey most refugees are spread across urban centers and they are among the most impacted by the economic recession during and following the outbreak.

Zeynep Balcioglu Murat Erdogan
1 May 2020, 12.01am
Refugee children in Istanbul, Turkey
Picture by Zeynep Balcioglu

Much has been published about the severity of the situation regarding Covid-19 transmission in different refugee camps such as Cox Bazaar and Lambasia in Bangladesh, Zaa’tari and Azraq in Jordan, Baddawi in Lebanon, Moria in Greece, and Matamoros in Mexico. All these reports draw attention to the common conditions of deprivation in the camps in terms of lack of protective equipment, limited access to health services, and poor infrastructure.

Yet, more than half of the world’s refugee population live in non-camp settings, mostly in sprawling cities of developing countries without any or with very limited access to health services and hygiene materials. That is why when discussing the conditions that might render refugees communities more vulnerable it is pivotal to examine the urban environments in which many of them live.

Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, around 4 million refugees according to official numbers by the Department General for Migration Management, but various resources state that the number is a lot higher. Based on our years-long research across the country, we have identified some of the conditions that may cause the Covid-10 outbreak to affect urban refugees in Turkey with severe intensity. Turkey hosts the largest urban refugee population in the world, 98 percent of the refugee population in Turkey lives outside the camps, overwhelmingly in urban and peri-urban areas. So far, there has been no reporting of Covid-19 transmission among refugees in Turkey, yet experts call for emergency measures to be taken as the wide prevalence of urban poverty renders urban refugees in Turkey more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Financial difficulties

Informal labour is very prevalent in Turkey in general, and it is estimated that more than around 1.5 million refugees (including child workers) are employed in the informal sector, mostly in low-skilled jobs. Although 71,4 per cent of around 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country are at a working age (between 19 and 65 years old), according to the Ministry of Family and Social Services, only 34,573 have legal work permits.

Urban refugees are likely to be among the most impacted by the economic recession during and following the outbreak

Needless to say, informal employment comes with lack of social protection, poor working conditions, lower pay, longer hours of work, and discrimination. Refugees are largely employed in the textile and construction sectors that are known to have lower standards of occupational safety, which will further increase the health risks especially during the pandemic. Many news outlets also report that refugees continue to work despite being sick, because they are informally employed, and not allowed sick leave.

Urban refugees are likely to be among the most impacted by the economic recession during and following the outbreak. Given their precarious situation, they will most likely be the first to lose jobs and income, they also will be ineligible to benefit from available state sponsored support programs such as unemployment benefits.

In order to make ends meet, many refugee families in Turkey rely on small cash transfers, and in-kind aid packages distributed by international and civil society organizations, and local governments. However, logistics of aid distribution can be more arduous in non-camp settings than in camps, as refugees are scattered across the country. During the outbreak, while refugees’ need for aid is likely to increase, ensuring access to aid will presumably be more of a challenge every day as movement of public and humanitarian workers is restricted due to the outbreak.

Long commutes to work

Long commutes coupled with poor working conditions are likely to fuel Covid-19 infections among refugee communities. Urban refugees generally live on the outskirts of urban centers, and those who find employment have long commutes to work. For instance, according to recent data jointly collected by the International Organization for Migration and Department General for Migration Management (DGMM), the majority of refugees in Istanbul live on the periphery of the city, in districts such as Esenyurt, Avcilar, and Sultanbeyli.

Although central districts such as Kadikoy and Besiktas have very low numbers of registered refugees, local authorities draw attention to high numbers of day-time refugee populations who work in these districts but commute home at night. As of today, government enforced lockdown on businesses in Turkey is restricted to weekends and the majority of the workforce, including many refugees, are still going to work on a daily basis during the weekdays.

Housing conditions

Although refugees’ housing conditions vary between provinces in Turkey, their accommodations are generally sub-standard—often basement apartments and shanty houses with poor ventilation and little to no sunlight. Accommodation sharing among refugee families is a common practice due to high rents, especially in larger provinces. Refugee women in particular are unable to access hygiene materials.

Such conditions make it almost impossible to follow the guidelines on physical distancing, and hygiene, compounding the risks of Covid-19 infection in refugee households.

Access to healthcare

Underreporting of symptoms might especially be prevalent in Istanbul, the epicentre of the outbreak in Turkey, as refugees’ fears of being reported has been fueled following the crackdown on irregular migrants and refugees who are registered in other provinces.

Underreporting of symptoms is likely to fuel spread of and deaths related to coronavirus; and the practice may be more common among refugees than one would assume.

According to the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP), refugees who are registered have spontaneous and free of charge access to primary health care services provided by public institutions in Turkey, which includes Covid-19 related testing and treatment, but only in their province of registration. On the other hand, many refugees, who are registered across Turkey move to larger provinces such as Istanbul in search of work, and at the expense of public safety nets guaranteed in their province of registration.

In addition, the extent of access to health care remains unclear for irregular migrants, who are not registered with the Turkish state, and whose numbers are estimated to be at least half a million. Irregular migrants are not given access to public healthcare institutions per the domestic law; whereas, according to a guide prepared by the Progressive Lawyer’s Association, all refugees and migrants, regardless of their registration status, are entitled to public health services per the European Convention on Human Rights.

On April 14, an executive decision has been issued by the Office of the President stating that all refugees and migrants in Turkey, regardless of legal status, are entitled to benefit from public health services during the pandemic. However, despite the legal adjustments, irregular migrants might still refrain from going to hospitals, because of the fear of being reported to the police, and more importantly, repatriation.

Anti-refugee sentiments in Turkey have been growing lately, as refugees are blamed for the country’s economic and social troubles


Keeping refugees updated is an arduous process, given that different refugee communities speak many different languages, and also because information, instructions and policies about coronavirus are very fast changing. Although many civil society organizations are making efforts to disseminate trustworthy information among urban refugees about Covid-19, language barriers experienced by the majority of refugees in Turkey constitute a real challenge to refugees’ ability to access reliable information.

Growing sentiments against refugees

Anti-refugee sentiments in Turkey have been growing lately, as refugees are blamed for the country’s economic and social troubles. The situation is likely to worsen and trigger social tensions between the host and the refugee communities during and after the pandemic due to the expected economic downturn.

In March, President Erdogan announced a $15.4 billion stimulus package to limit the economic fallout during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. Yet, the package has been received with criticism by the opposition for being too little compared to what Turkey has spent on Syrian refugees for years. CHP blames the government for channeling taxpayers’ money to refugees. The government previously stated that its spending on Syrian refugees exceeds $40 billion.

According to a brief published by the UNHCR on 11 March, 34 countries hosting refugee populations have widespread community transmissions. The conditions of the refugees in other refugee hosting developing countries such as Pakistan, Uganda, and Sudan (UNHCR) are likely to resemble the situation in Turkey in many ways. Refugees’ access to resources and services, which are pivotal both for preventing and fighting the virus, are likely to be even more restricted during the pandemic as resources and welfare services in these countries are already—or are expected to be—strained due to surging levels of novel coronavirus transmission.

It is a fact that the impact of Covid-19 is more severe in communities that are dealing with poverty. Refugees and migrants around the world are therefore among the most vulnerable and the impact of the pandemic is likely to last for a long time. .


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData