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Humanitarian challenges mount in Türkiye ahead of hotly contested election

‘Mothers too malnourished to breastfeed are feeding their kids with water-and-sugar solution. They know it’s not healthy, but they have no other options.’

A group of people are standing behind a barrier. All are waving the Turkish national flag. At the center of the frame we see an old man wearing a beret with a flag on his right hand. His arm is upright as he holds the flag. His gaze is directed slightly above the view of the camera. Resul Kaboglu/NurPhoto
A 6 May rally in Istanbul for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition candidate trying to unseat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Türkiye's long-time leader, in Sunday's presidential election.

Recovery from earthquake devastation is just one of the pressing humanitarian challenges Türkiye faces as it heads into critical elections on 14 May amid an ongoing cost-of-living crisis in the world’s largest refugee-hosting nation.


Three months after the 6 February earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people in southeastern Türkiye, conditions remain dire for the nearly 1.5 million displaced people living in informal tent settlements. 


“In these areas, none of the basic needs – water, sanitation, hygiene, or shelter – are being fully met,” said Gözde Kazaz, a communications officer at Support to Life, an independent Turkish NGO working in the disaster zone. “From a humanitarian perspective, we are still in the acute emergency phase.”


With high inflation and what many see as a botched response to February’s disaster on many voters’ minds, the opposition believes this month’s vote represents its best opportunity yet of ending President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two decades in power. If neither Erdoğan, his main challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, nor any other presidential candidate receives a majority of the votes, a run-off will be held on 28 May.


First elected as prime minister in 2003 before becoming president, Erdoğan presided over a high-flying period of economic growth in the 2000s and early 2010s. But the past decade has been marked by a string of tumultuous events: an influx of nearly 4 million refugees from Syria and other conflict-torn countries; the COVID-19 pandemic; a currency collapse; and now the earthquake disaster. All have contributed to the interconnected array of humanitarian challenges the country now faces. 


A total of 9.1 million people were directly affected by the earthquakes, according to figures from the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. Outside the displacement camps, hundreds of thousands of people (possibly millions) who lost homes and livelihoods in the disaster scattered to other cities around Türkiye. There, they face skyrocketing housing costs amid a severe economic downturn.


“After the COVID-19 pandemic, and with this inflation crisis, even the middle class is suffering, but we are also seeing a kind of poverty that was not very apparent before,” said Seda Özdemir Şimşek, a project and resource development officer for the Istanbul-based Deep Poverty Network. The group’s research has noted malnutrition-linked rises in stunting, weakened immune systems, and learning difficulties among children.



“Mothers too malnourished to breastfeed are feeding their kids with water-and-sugar solution,” Şimşek told The New Humanitarian. “They know it’s not healthy, but they have no other options.”


Meeting the economic, health, and housing needs of almost 90 million people in Türkiye has been made more difficult by a lack of transparent data on everything from poverty figures to refugee demographics; shrinking space for nongovernmental humanitarian actors; and a general crackdown on civil society under what critics describe as Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic rule


Already-marginalised groups have been hit especially hard by both the earthquake and the economic downturn. But they have also often been scapegoated for the country’s woes, targeted by political rhetoric – and sometimes violence – in the run-up to the election.


‘No bright future’ for refugees

Pressures against refugees in Türkiye have been mounting as the tide of public opinion has turned against them: The proportion of Turkish citizens demanding that refugees be returned to their home countries jumped from 49% to 82% between 2017 and 2021.


“There’s no bright future for refugees either way after the election,” Eda Sevinin, the academic coordinator for the Association for Migration Research, told The New Humanitarian.


The over 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection in Türkiye, as well as hundreds of thousands of other refugees and asylum seekers, have always faced restrictions on residing or travelling outside the province where they are registered. But since 2020, entire neighbourhoods – typically the more affordable ones with pre-existing refugee populations – have been declared off-limits to new foreign residents.


Under this “dilution” policy, the government is “pushing people into exhaustion, sending them from one immigration department to another”, Sevinin said.


We see a group of people in line. At the center of the frame are two men. Two sacks filled with assorted items are next to them.
Celestino Arce/NurPhoto
Syrian refugees queue at the Turkish border checkpoint of Cilvegözü. Tens of thousands of Syrians have crossed since the 6 February earthquakes either to visit family or because their living conditions in Türkiye have worsened.


Crackdowns on violators have increased, as have the potential ramifications. 


“There’s more checks now – almost unofficial border controls between cities in Türkiye – and the risks are bigger, including detention or deportation,” Sevinin added. Human rights groups have decried the arrest and deportation of Syrians, as well as increased pushbacks of Afghans trying to enter Türkiye from Iran.


“The lack of mobility also means Syrians, and refugees and asylum seekers in general, are even more negatively affected by the worsening economic conditions in Türkiye because they don’t have any flexibility to seek work outside of the province where they are registered,” said Omar Kadkoy, a project manager specialising on migration at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Türkiye (TEPAV). 


Under the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net programme, each refugee is eligible to receive a meagre monthly cash assistance of 300 lira ($15). “But if any member of the household has a work permit, all of the household will be cut off from even this monthly financial aid,” Kadkoy said.


This stipulation often helps to push refugees to work in the country’s large informal economy, where they are typically paid less than their Turkish counterparts and subject to exploitative, erratic employment in the often dangerous textile, agriculture, and construction sectors. 


‘We shouldn’t still be talking about basic needs’

Almost half of Türkiye’s Syrian population lived in the region hit by the February earthquakes, and they have faced violence, harassment, and difficulties in receiving aid after the disaster. 


“Due to the high intercommunal tensions, NGOs and public institutions don’t want to be seen helping refugees, and they physically separate the communities when they do,” said Sevinin. “It’s the end of any attempt at social cohesion.”


The suffering in the region is widespread, with growing concern among responders about food security and the availability of water, according to Kazaz of Support to Life. Food distributions are dwindling, while many families still lack the supplies they need to cook for themselves. As temperatures start to soar heading into the summer, these camps are also seeing an increase in snakes, scorpions, and insects – and facing a higher risk of disease outbreaks.


“People are still dependent on the distribution of food kits and some hot-meal stations, but after Ramadan ended [in April] some of these stations are starting to close,” Kazaz said. “It’s also getting harder to live in the tents as the weather gets hotter, and people don’t have clothes for the summer months,” she added. “So many volunteers were sending winter clothes at the beginning, but the seasons are changing and new needs are emerging.”


Education has formally restarted in all of the disaster-affected areas, but transportation to schools, educational materials, and accommodation for teachers continue to be lacking, according to Kazaz. She added that children are also struggling to cope with psychological trauma and unmet mental health needs that are obstacles to their education. 


“We’re installing sinks, showers, and toilets; purifying water for drinking; and distributing hygiene and cleaning kits, dignity kits for women and girls, food kits, and kitchen utensil kits,” Kazaz said. “But after three months, we shouldn’t still be talking about these kinds of needs; we should be able to talk about economic solutions, about how they are going to rebuild their lives.”


‘The circle of poverty has widened’

Some groups in Türkiye faced marginalisation and deprivation long before the earthquakes and the ongoing economic crisis.


The country has a seasonal agricultural workforce of more than 1 million people. Historically, this group was largely Kurds from the southeast region but it now also includes a lot of refugees. The vast majority work informally and without social security in poor housing conditions, earning an average daily wage of 238 lira ($14.36) in 2022.



“The standards in these agricultural areas are like in a disaster area,” said Kazaz. “There’s no water and sanitation, and they’re far away from cities, so children can’t reach school.”


The estimated 5 million Roma who live in Türkiye also experience widespread exclusion in the fields of education, health, housing, and employment, according to Tuba Akın, a project coordinator at the Zero Discrimination Association.


“All Roma communities in Türkiye have similar socio-economic conditions: they live in marginalised neighbourhoods with the worst housing conditions, have low literacy rates, and work informal jobs,” Akın told The New Humanitarian. “While the circle of poverty has widened, the Roma have always been at the centre of it.”


Evidence of that widening circle can be found in the number of food banks in Türkiye. When the Basic Needs Association (TİDER) was established in 2010, it supported about half a dozen such organisations. By the time the pandemic hit, that number was 44; now it has reached 67, with 22 in Istanbul alone.


“When we see the numbers of beneficiaries from all over Türkiye, it’s clear that poverty is growing, it’s not getting better,” Nil Tibukoğlu, the general manager of TİDER, told The New Humanitarian.


In the poorest urban communities, rents of even the humblest concrete-block homes, known as gecekondu, have tripled in price, and people are resorting to sheltering in shanty homes built from wood and tin, a kind of housing rarely seen in Türkiye before, according to Şimşek of the Deep Poverty Network.


“Five or six years ago, we would generally say that there is no underclass in Türkiye, there are lower-class people who still hope to move up,” said Şimşek, who is also an academic. “But now there are more in an underclass position, they are totally hopeless. This is really frightening; if hope is gone, we can’t be a stable society.”


Edited by Abby Seiff.

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