Lessons from Turkey’s refugee crisis for dealing with COVID-19

Lessons from Turkey’s refugee crisis for dealing with COVID-19

Any economy, be it rice farming or high finance, relies on people working together. The COVID-19 pandemic has put an abrupt stop to this. Countries around the world are now rolling out economic measures to protect jobs and economic activity until we find a way to start back up again.

I was watching a video by President Emmanuel Macron of France lately. The video started with strong messages about how no French company was to be abandoned to bankruptcy and no citizen be left without an income stream. Yet when it came to the measures, Macron sounded generic and weak to me. There wasn’t a sufficient understanding of the devastating impact social distancing will have on the way we earn a living.

Why? I tend to think that the COVID-19 economic response of so many countries is much like the Turkish response to the refugee crisis. Let me share some experiences of our refugee response in the hope that it might be helpful in thinking about the outbreak. I’m afraid there are quite a few similarities.

In 2011, when the Syrian civil war first started, Turkey had never had significant experience with refugees coming to live here. Turks would go to richer and more fortunate countries, but people from less fortunate countries would seldom come to Turkey. This was to be our first experience with a different aspect of globalization, that of being a destination country. According to a survey, only 7.8 percent of Turks think themselves to be culturally similar to Syrians. For the first time, Turkey no longer just belonged to Turks, we were to share it with people from the outside who might want to be part of it as well.

As it happens with all such things, Turkey had to ease itself into this new reality. At the outset, Turks thought the refugee inflow was something like a natural disaster, akin to an earthquake response. The Turkish institution that deals with it was the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD). Gradually, we learned that man-made disasters are totally different from natural disasters. It wasn’t a one-off event, but a developing situation, so Turkey had to get better at understanding their needs and helping in different ways as the situation changed.

Different stages require different responses coming from different arms of government. Municipal governments across the country needed to accommodate new Syrian neighborhoods springing up, the Health Ministry needed to adjust to their unique post-trauma needs, the labor and agriculture ministries had to think about seasonal work, urban employment, and all sorts of other aspects. Yet all that was not enough.

As the numbers kept increasing, it became clear that Turkey could not cope with the influx. The refugee crisis had a local impact, but it was so big that it required global cooperation to create a truly sustainable solution. This is why the recent Russian attack on Turkish soldiers in Idlib was so crucial – there were a million more refugees on the Turkish border, and if Turkey budged, all would come and stay. As the international cooperation mechanisms were breaking down, Turkey allowed refugees to make the crossing to Europe. These people should be seen as a plea for rapid help, not as a threat. Note that EU aid per refugee rises 41 times when a refugee passes the Meriç (Evros) River separating Turkey and Greece. So, it must be a very simple choice for millions of people: If you have to be a refugee, it’s better to be one in Europe than in Turkey.

What does this experience tell us about the COVID-19 economic response in the West? First of all, what we have here is an evolving situation, rather than a one-off. Hence the currently announced measures to inject cash into the economy won’t work on their own. This situation will not end in a few weeks, so we all need to take a longer view and think more creatively, and to express those ideas to the public.

Second, the COVID-19 outbreak creates a lot of small local problems, yet it is a global phenomenon and requires close global cooperation. We need to pool our experiences and resources in order to cope with this virus. More than ever before, this is a fight that should bind humanity together, not split it into national factions. There is no need for separate Chinese and Western institutions, nor any need for breaking the trade ties that bind us together. We have the institutions we need, like the G20, the U.N., World Bank and others. This is the time to reinforce and reform them.

In wartime, nations fight on because they want to give meaning to the lives they lost in the trenches. We have many thousands of people who are dying from COVID-19. We should make their lives mean something by coming together.