All over the world, we are struggling to adapt to the ‘new normal’ brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a consortium with 25 project partners and 19 supporting partners in 10 European countries, we wanted to ask our stakeholders about the impact of this ‘new normal’ on the lives of immigrants and what it means in terms of local development.

‘New Normal in MATILDE Migration’ interview series continues with Support to Life (STL) from Turkey. 

Support to Life (STL) is an aid agency founded with the principal objective of working with communities to help them meet their basic needs and rights. STL’s main programs are emergency response, refugee support, child protection in seasonal agriculture and capacity building. In addition to protection related activities, STL aims to boost resilience of vulnerable communities through livelihood support interventions.

Fatih Kıyman, Grants Manager of STL, answered our questions. Kıyman mentioned that the by COVID-19 pandemic, the common sense consequences will have to be an increased focus on economic inclusion, schoolization and harmonization of migrants living in Turkey.

1. Could you please update us about the latest situation in your country regarding the COVID-19 pandemic? For example, are the restrictions in public space still continue or has the vaccination process begun?

Fatih Kıyman: As of 15 February, there are around 2,58 milion cases recorded in Turkey and official figures show that 27,491 people have lost their lives due to the pandemic. The government is enforcing partial curfews nationwide, which come to force after 9 pm every evening, and lasts through the whole weekend.

The pandemic continues to disrupt social and economic life, especially in the cities. The retail sector and the culture industry took the heaviest hit as restaurants and cafes were forced to close. The economic outlook in the country wasn’t very bright to start with, so the governments’ ability to compensate losses of small business remain limited.

So far Turkey has signed a procurement agreement for 50 million doses of Sinovac vaccine. The vaccination started with a specific focus on high-risk groups – these are classified as health workers and the elderly.

2. As Support To Life, how has your work with migrants changed after the spread of COVID-19 and the following emergency measures?

F.K.: Support to Life is a humanitarian aid organization, and its foundations go back to disaster response. By now it is clear that the pandemic has been nothing short of a global disaster, so our mandate called for immediate action. On top of this, Turkey has suffered 2 earthquakes in 2020, both of which exasperated vulnerabilities further.

For our refugee protection work, which of focused on strengthening access to basic services and rights, we quickly operationalized measures to adapt to remote support. We established a hotline, as well as an online information portal where people could receive the service information they need. At first these were focused on provision of general information on financial, legal and psychological support mechanisms. Over time, we have been able to expand the scope. Now we even have a story line for children, to improve their wellbeing at home during times of quarantine.

To mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic, we also provided cash-assistance to those who are most vulnerable.

3. What are the common challenges faced by migrants and refugees living in Turkey in times of pandemic? How do they differ from the ones of the local population?

F.K.: The Turkish migration context is rather particular, as Turkey is the country hosting the largest refugee population in the world. There are 3,6 million Syrians living under the status of temporary protection, and an additional 400,000 refugees with international protection status.

All along, the biggest challenge has been the high rates of informality in the labor market. Nearly one third of the active labor force in Turkey is made up of individuals working at informal jobs, with no health insurance or job security. Among the 3,6 million Syrians I mentioned, only around 35,000 have work permits, yet we know that at least 1 million Syrians are actively working. So it is fair to say that Syrians are asymmetrically affected by the already widespread informality in the labor market. This of course means that they are unable to benefit from additional economic benefits provided by the government for those who were forced to stop working during the pandemic.

4- What about the migrants who are living in urban areas? Do you recognize any positive or negative aspect of living in a rural and mountainous region?

F.K.: If you consider a city like Istanbul, which has a population of nearly 16 million, infection risks are obviously bigger compared to rural and mountain areas. But cities are also places where there are more opportunities to earn a living. I think this irony is quite telling. The unprecedented level of migration we saw from rural areas to cities make the whole country less resilient towards disasters, be it pandemic, draught, earthquakes, etc. I don’t mean it only with regard to the refugee influx of the past 10 years, please consider that only 50 years ago, Istanbul’s population was less than 3 million.

5. Looking to the future, what long-term impact do you think the situation triggered by COVID-19 will have on the migrant population of Turkey?

F.K.: The policy makers began comprehending the crucial importance of rural development. Furthermore, the productive potential of the migrant population living in rural areas was also pronounced. This is paralleled in our priorities as an organization as well. To promote economic resilience, social cohesion through co-working, we are now seeking to support agro-entrepreneurship among vulnerable communities, migrant and otherwise. What I am describing here could be considered a silver-lining, but only if we draw the right lessons from the dire impact the pandemic had on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. Long story short, the common sense consequences will have to be an increased focus on economic inclusion, schoolization and harmonization of migrants living in Turkey.