Turkey’s unregistered refugees: ‘coronavirus doesn't worry me, buying food does'

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Before the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s unregistered refugees found it hard to make ends meet, unable to apply for work permits or access much support from aid agencies.

Now, with communities around the world hit by heavy job and wage loses, they face a more uncertain future than ever.

Many say the threat of contracting Covid-19 is the least of their worries when their families are going hungry and they live with the threat of being kicked out of their homes.

Latifullah Nangarhari, 35, is a refugee from Afghanistan who has been living in Istanbul, the economic capital of Turkey, for the last four years.

In his home country, Mr Nangarhari worked as an English translator. When he fled the ongoing war, his intention was for his family to follow, but he’s not been able to earn enough money to afford the costs involved.

Latifullah Nangarhari, 35, is a refugee from Afghanistan who has been living in Turkey for the last four years. Courtesy Latifullah Nangarhari
Latifullah Nangarhari, 35, is a refugee from Afghanistan who has been living in Turkey for the last four years. Courtesy Latifullah Nangarhari

“I tried to find a job in other places, but couldn’t find anything because everywhere was closed [due to the lockdown],” Mr Nangarhari said in fluent English with an American accent.

He lives in a three-bedroom apartment with 14 other Afghan refugees, and the owner is not sympathetic to the pandemic being a reason for why they can’t pay their rent.

“The owner of the building said: ‘I’m not responsible for coronavirus or … your money. You still have to pay,’” Mr Nangarhari said.

How will I look after my child and wife

Mustafa, unregistered migrant

Humanitarian NGO the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers said in a recent report based on a survey of refugees that unemployment had jumped from 18 per cent to 89 per cent due to the fallout from measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Although many Turkish citizens have also lost their jobs or suffered a pay cut, they are able to apply for income support – something that is not available to unregistered migrants, nor can they turn to aid agencies.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, including at least 3.6 million registered Syrians and 330,000 from other countries. But there are many more who are unregistered – only half of the one million Syrian refugees in Istanbul, for example, are registered.

Latifullah Nangarhari's bedroom in Istanbul, Turkey. Courtesy Latifullah Nangarhari
Latifullah Nangarhari's bedroom in Istanbul, Turkey. Courtesy Latifullah Nangarhari

The country holds an exception to the Geneva Conventions that mean the government does not have to grant refugee status, instead they offer “temporary protection”. As this does not offer a pathway to refugee status – and the benefits that come with it –or offer healthcare, many who arrive in Turkey don’t register.

Pakistani refugee Nigar – who did not want to give his full name – has been living unregistered in Turkey for seven years and is unable to obtain a work permit.

“No one provides support to refugees who don’t have a work permit,” he said.

While coronavirus has amplified Nigar’s inability to find work, he says it’s a “normal situation” for him in Turkey.

Before Ramadan, he worked for 20 days in a construction role but was not paid for it – a common occurrence for those with no legal recourse – meaning he was unable to pay his rent in May.

“I’m not worried about getting coronavirus but I am worried about buying food, paying my rent and bills. Coronavirus is nothing compared to this worry,” Nigar said.

Mustafa, who is from Iran, lives in Istanbul with his pregnant wife and nine-year-old child. In February, he and his family gave up their house and spent all their money getting to the Greek border after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would “open the gates” to Europe.

Although tens of thousands headed to the border, Greece never opened their side and the move was widely seen as Turkey using migrants as a political pawn in an attempt to put pressure on Europe.

Mustafa and his family ended up being moved from the border through several refugee camps before ending up back in Istanbul with nothing.

After pleading for help on a group, someone offered to rent an apartment for Mustafa and his family for two months. However, he has not been able to get his old job back at the shoe factory – they say they can’t pay people because of coronavirus.

“How will I look after my child and wife?” he said.

Mahya depicts Turkey's national flag which is installed between the minarets of Camlica mosque, as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Istanbul, Turkey, April 28, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Mehmet Emin Caliskan

epa08389478 A handout photo made available by the Turkish Defence Ministry of Turkish soldiers loading medical protection equipment into a Turkish military cargo plane to be donated to the United States at the Etimesgut airport in Ankara, Turkey, 28 April 2020. Turkey sent protective face masks, protective suits, and other medical equipment to the USA for their fight against the spread of the pandemic COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, with the instruction of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. EPA/TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY HANDOUT HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

A flight crew member stands on a tarmac in front of a donation of medical supplies from Turkey, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. The donation to help fight the new coronavirus in the United States included surgical masks, sanitizers and protective suits. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Medical personnel participate in a briefing at Istanbul University Cerrahpasa - Cerrahpasa Medical Faculty Hospital's ward dedicated to patients with coronavirus (COVID-19) in Istanbul, Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Turkey has seen a decline this week in the number of daily deaths and rates of infection since it started to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic last month. The government has refrained from imposing a total lockdown, fearing its negative impact on the already fragile economy. (AP Photo/Mehmet Guzel)

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of Eminonu district during a two-day curfew imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease in Istanbul, Turkey, April 11, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS//Umit Bektas/File Photo

epa08392157 Women walk with face masks in Istanbul, Turkey, 29 April 2020. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan announced that there will be another curfew in 31 big cities, including Istanbul (the country's most populous urban agglomeration), between 01-03 May due to the ongoing pandemic of the COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The government has also decreed the cancellation of public events and has temporarily shut down schools and suspended sporting events amid the pandemic. EPA/SEDAT SUNA

Esat Sahin, Imam of the iconic Fatih Mosque, holds a prayer held without public due to the coronavirus restrictions in Istanbul, April 24, 2020, during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

epa08392155 A man sleeps with face protective equipment on street in Istanbul, Turkey, 29 April 2020. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan announced that there will be another curfew in 31 big cities, including Istanbul (the country's most populous urban agglomeration), between 01-03 May due to the ongoing pandemic of the COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The government has also decreed the cancellation of public events and has temporarily shut down schools and suspended sporting events amid the pandemic. EPA/SEDAT SUNA

TOPSHOT - Health workers help a woman who tested positive for the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at Bagcilar in Istanbul, on April 28, 2019, in Istanbul. / AFP / Bulent Kilic

A Turkish military flight crew member, right, bumps elbows with a FEMA worker as crews unload a donation of medical supplies from Turkey, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. The donation to help fight the new coronavirus in the United States included surgical masks, sanitizers and protective suits. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Health workers help a woman who tested positive for the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at Bagcilar in Istanbul, on April 28, 2019, in Istanbul. / AFP / Bulent Kilic

TOPSHOT - Employees of Ankara Metropolitan Municipality youth center sews face masks, in Ankara, Turkey, on April 28, 2020, amid the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. / AFP / Adem ALTAN

Employees of Ankara Metropolitan Municipality youth center sews face masks, in Ankara, Turkey, on April 28, 2020, amid the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. / AFP / Adem ALTAN

TOPSHOT - A man sanitises the room as Syrians who returned from Turkey rest at a quarantine facility in the countryside of the town of Jisr al-Shughur, west of the mostly rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, on April 27, 2020 during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. / AFP / Abdulaziz KETAZ

Customers wearing protective face masks maintain social distancing while queuing before the opening of a bank branch in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Coming off a brief recession just over a year ago, the urgency is mounting for Turkey to loosen the screws on the economy as its currency and reserves come under pressure more than a month after it introduced social-distancing measures. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

A health worker measures the temperature of a man at a quarantine facility for Syrians who returned from Turkey in the countryside of the town of Jisr al-Shughur, west of the mostly rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, on April 27, 2020 amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. / AFP / Abdulaziz KETAZ

Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality workers spray a street with disinfectant to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Coming off a brief recession just over a year ago, the urgency is mounting for Turkey to loosen the screws on the economy as its currency and reserves come under pressure more than a month after it introduced social-distancing measures. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

A lone pedestrian walks across an empty Taksim square during curfew in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday, April 26, 2020. Coming off a brief recession just over a year ago, the urgency is mounting for Turkey to loosen the screws on the economy as its currency and reserves come under pressure more than a month after it introduced social-distancing measures. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

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Updated: June 11, 2020 10:53 AM

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