National and Local Responses to Support Syrian Refugees in Turkey in the times of COVID-19

It is vital that responses to the COVID-19 pandemic support rather than undermine the rights and needs of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs. In this piece, the second in a two-part series examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Selma Akay Erturk traces the ways that different institutions and groups in Turkey have sought to minimise the effects of COVID-19 on Syrians in the country. This includes Turkish state, local and NGO led efforts, as well as refugee-led responses that include Syrian refugee health professionals, doctors and other Syrians working in preventative health services and in solidarity with Turkish society in light of COVID-19.

You can read the first in this series of blogs here and if you find this piece of interest you can also access the recommended reading at the end of this post.

National and Local Responses to Support Syrian Refugees in Turkey in the times of COVID-19

by Selma Akay Erturk, Associate Professor of Human Geography at Istanbul University and Visiting Fellow in UCL Migration Research Unit

In this piece – the second of a two-part blog series which started with a focus on the effects of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Turkey – I trace the ways that different institutions and groups in Turkey have sought to minimise the effects of the spread of the virus on Syrians in the country. I focus on a range of institutions and groups which have for many years offered support to Syrians in the country, including Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management, the Turkish Red Crescent, UNHCR-Turkey, municipalities, local and international NGOs, members of the host society, and Syrian refugees themselves.

Institutional and NGO responses in the time of COVID-19

A wide range of measures have emerged across Turkey in response to the COVID-19 outbreak: official decisions, circulars and prohibitions have been announced and shared, face-to-face appointments have been postponed, and aid groups have aimed to meet the needs of people over the age of 65 (who are identified as being at particular risk of the virus). Alongside these general measures, Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management has also prepared announcements, brochures and short videos specifically for refugees and migrants in Turkey, producing and disseminating these in different languages, including Arabic.

As outlined in a previous blog, municipalities in Turkey have developed multiple activities to support Syrian refugees for many years. In light of the pandemic, in Istanbul, where the most significant number – half a million Syrian refugees – live, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has prepared brochures and animations in five languages, including Arabic, regarding the measures to be taken against COVID-19. These have been made available to those living in Istanbul.

Elsewhere in Turkey, state authorities have disseminated information and provided guidance to refugees: for instance, in Konya Province, brochures in Arabic have been distributed by the Provincial Organisation of the Directorate General of Migration Management to Syrian refugees; and in the districts of Kahramanmaraş Province where many Syrian refugees live in overcrowded settings, the police have made announcements in Arabic about the rules to be followed and precautions to limit the spread of infections. These announcements/brochures have also been distributed in other languages, including in Farsi and Pashto for Afghan refugees.

Turkish Brochure about the protection from Covid19
Brochure about protection from COVID-19 (in Arabic). Source: General Directorate of Health for Borders and Coastal Areas of Turkey

In turn, the Turkish Red Crescent and UNHCR-Turkey have also produced brochures and videos in Arabic about protection from COVID-19, and these have been made available to Syrian refugees in all provinces of Turkey.

Since 16 March, when the Ministry of the Interior published Circular No. 5361, all NGO meetings and activities in the country which bring people together as a collective have been temporarily stopped. Following the circular, all NGOs that develop projects and deliver aid to needy people, including Syrian refugees in Turkey, have been forced to interrupt their activities. In the event of a major disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGOs that were precisely established to provide support in times of crisis, have had to withdraw from the field; this is directly affecting those people who most need support and who are amongst the most vulnerable members of Turkish society (on the effects of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees, see the first part of this series, here).

At the time of writing, Turkey has a curfew for people over 65 and for under 20s. The curfew was expanded on 11 April, but is only imposed during the weekends, and only in 30 metropolitan cities and Zonguldak city. There is also a travel restriction between 81 provinces of Turkey. Indeed, from 28 March onwards, passengers have not been able to travel between provinces without a “Travel Permit Document”. Against this backdrop, it is crucial to think carefully about how the curfew is affecting local responses in Turkey. Emergency action plans must be made by state institutions, by municipalities and by NGOs to ensure that appropriate forms of support are available for refugees.

Curfew Circular
Curfew circular for 65 years and older and those with chronic conditions and exceptions (in Arabic). Source: Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management

It is particularly complicated for NGOs who had been working in the field and providing assistance to refugees, to continue their activities by telephone or e-mail communication. However, it is essential for these organisations to continue contacting previously identified at-risk refugees over the phone and by using social media, and to continue delivering aid (food, hygiene and cleaning products and protective products) by carefully following social distancing advice.  It is also important, at a time when Syrians are unable to work in either the formal or informal market, that during the pandemic new arrangements are made to increase the financial support (cash support) received by 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey who benefit from the monthly Kızılay Kart (Red Crescent Debit Card).  

Supporting Syrian refugees’ health and education in Turkey’s towns and cities

People who have been displaced are often at the forefront of responding to protect the needs and rights of members of their communities (see here and here). Syrian refugee health professionals and other Syrians have shown their solidarity with Turkish society in light of COVID-19.  For example, Syrian doctors have started to work in preventive health services in Gaziantep and are performing fever checks at specific points in order to support the containment of COVID-19. Also, in Şanlıurfa, under the coordination of the Turkish NGO IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Syrian refugees have started to work voluntarily in the production of medical masks for themselves and other members of the local community. As in the earthquake disaster in Elazığ on 24 January 2020, during this pandemic, Turkish society and Syrian refugees are supporting each other and showing solidarity.

In terms of the effects of COVID-19 on education, close to 600,000 Syrian refugee students are studying in primary, secondary and high schools in Turkey, and around 27,000 Syrian students are studying in universities. To manage the COVID-19 outbreak in Turkey, all schools and universities were closed on 16 March, and on 23 March, the Turkish Ministry of Education decided that the provision of education would continue through the EBA (Education Information Network) platform over the internet and TV. In universities, education will continue online.

The Ministry of Education has announced that Syrian refugee students will also receive training through EBA from now on. Accordingly, Syrian refugee students are now expected to continue their education at home, being required to follow their lessons through the TV. To do so, families obviously need to have a TV and access to the internet. However, with many Syrian families living in cramped and inadequate housing, and with high levels of unemployment and poverty (as I discuss here and here) the children of Syrian refugee families with limited income and without TV or internet access are at risk of failing to continue their education and of falling behind.

Precautions taken against COVID-19 outbreak in refugee camps in Turkey

While only a small proportion of Syrian refugees in Turkey live in camps, what has been done to reduce the risks of the COVID-19 outbreak amongst Syrians living in camps? These measures will be discussed in the next section.

63,718 Syrian refugees in Turkey live in five provinces close to the Turkish-Syrian border in 7 refugee camps. There are 21,376 Syrian refugees in Adana Sarıçam refugee camp, 12,339 in Osmaniye Cevdetiye refugee camp, 10,864 in Kahramanmaraş Center refugee camp, 8,496 in Kilis Elbeyli refugee camp, 4,013 in Hatay Apaydın refugee camp, 3,960 in Yayladağı refugee camp and 2,670 in Hatay Altınözü refugee camp. It has often been remarked that living conditions in the refugee camps in Turkey are relatively better than those in many other countries, and yet refugee camps can raise particular risks for the spread of epidemics.

In these refugee camps, which are managed by the Directorate General of Migration Management, information about the COVID-19 virus and prevention measures has been made widely available. Brochures in Arabic have been distributed, and these brochures have been hung up in certain parts of the camps; people’s entrance to and exit from the camp has been limited, and people’s temperature is taken when it has been necessary to enter and leave the camp for emergencies. Kits consisting of hygiene and protective materials such as masks and gloves and cleaning materials have been distributed to refugee families; playgrounds and common areas have been closed and disinfection processes have been applied in these areas and throughout the refugee camps.

Views from Refugee Camp
Views of Kahramanmaraş refugee camp in time of COVID-19. Source: Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management

Careful attention has also been paid to social distancing requirements, especially when shopping in the camps’ markets, for which masks are required. There is at least one supermarket in every refugee camp in Turkey. Camp residents can buy their needs from these supermarkets, and therefore do not have to leave the camp to buy food and other essential items. Within the scope of responses to COVID-19, shopping in supermarkets is still allowed in these camps, and supplies are still reaching the camps. Such measures are helping mitigate against the risk of starvation in the camps in Turkey, a risk which exists in many other camps and settlements inhabited by refugees around the world [as explored here and here].

Views from Osmaniye refugee camp
Views of Osmaniye refugee camp in time of COVID-19. Source: Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management


The challenge continues around the world to find ways to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that support, rather than risk undermining the rights and needs of all people. This includes migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs, who are amongst the most at-risk groups in our societies. Cooperation and solidarity on all levels – internationally, nationally and locally – is particular important when policies and programmes are being produced and implemented for migrants, refugees and IDPs in cities, towns, villages and camps.


If you found this piece of interest you can access a recommended reading list below:

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) The effects of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Turkey

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) Syrian refugees and the transformation of Turkey’s rural areas

al-Mehdi, D. (2019) The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey

Carpi, E. (2019) Syrian Faith Leaders in Displacement: Neglected Aid Providers?

Delioglu, F. (2019) The ‘Al Shami Kitchen Project’ – Solidarity amongst Syrian Refugee Women in Izmit, Turkey

Diab, J. L. (2020) Syrian Refugees in Lebanon amid Confinement, Health Scares and Escalating Needs

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Refugee-led local responses in the time of COVID-19: Preliminary reflections from North Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Greatrick, A. (2018) Hearing Marginalisation and Agency in Istanbul: Sounds from Istiklal Street

Greatrick, A. (2017) Photo Gallery: Istanbul

Hamadmad, D. (2020) Objective Enough to Tell the Truth

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey

Mencütek, Z. S. (2020) Models for refugee governance – Legal, political and institutional responses in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Ozturk, M. (2018) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Refugee Hosts (2018) Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches

Rowlands, A. (2018) Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Featured image: Aksemsettin Street in Fatih District. © S. Akay Erturk, July 5, 2019

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