For undocumented Nepali migrants in Turkey, no jobs, no food and no health insuranceThousands of Nepalis in Turkey are undocumented, which means they have no access to relief or health insurance to get tested for Covid-19.
When Aashish first arrived in Istanbul, he hadn’t expected to stay longer than a week. Turkey was supposed to be a transit destination on his way to Greece and eventually Europe, or at least that was what his agent had told him. That was five months ago.
“The agent here in Nepal had promised to get me to Europe saying that I could easily get a visa to Greece from Turkey,” Aashish told the Post over the phone from Istanbul. “However, when I reached Turkey, I was shocked to learn that the only way to enter Europe was by illegally crossing the border. So I gave up the whole idea.”
Although Aashish decided not to illegally enter Europe, he was reluctant to return to Nepal empty-handed. Aashish demanded that he only be identified by his first name as he is living illegally in Istanbul.
“I come from a poor family in Baglung. I paid around Rs600,000 to the agent by taking a loan. So I decided to stay illegally in Turkey so that I could get a job and earn some money,” he said.
But Aashish now feels that he made a mistake by not returning to Nepal. The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down most businesses and he is out of a job. As an illegal immigrant, he has no access to any relief from the government and is afraid that he will not be able to seek treatment even if he gets infected.
There are 5,000 to 6,000 Nepalis in Turkey, of whom 60 to 70 percent are estimated to be undocumented, according to Ujjal Kumar Ghising, president of the Turkey Nepali Samaj, an informal association of Nepali expatriates. Some of those living illegally are victims of human trafficking while others either entered the country on a tourist visa and decided to stay back or have overstayed without renewing their work permits, said Ghising.
A large number of these undocumented migrants work in the hospitality sector, as many restaurants and hotels are willing to hire them in exchange for lower wages. But since the outbreak of Covid-19, the restaurant industry in Turkey has all but shut down, leaving many Nepalis unemployed.
The hospitality industry in Turkey is seasonal, so many Nepalis work during the summer as more than 50 percent are laid off during the winter, making them dependent on their savings. If they are unable to work this summer, the winter months will be exceedingly difficult to survive.
“There are people who have been unemployed for more than a year. They were just getting ready to go back to work but Covid-19 halted everything. Now, they are left with no money,” said Rajan Yonjan, patron of the Turkey Nepali Samaj.
Aashish too was waiting for the summer to get a job while he was surviving on the money that he brought from Nepal.
“There are other Nepalis who are in the same situation that I am in. We don’t know where to seek help as we are afraid due to our illegal status,” said Aashish.
These Nepalis are unable to even get help from Nepali authorities, as there is neither an embassy nor any legally registered Nepali organisation that can inform the Nepali government of their plight. The Turkey Nepali Samaj, the only Nepali organisation in the country, is unregistered.
“I have been getting around 30 to 40 calls every day from Nepalis seeking financial help. Some say that they haven’t eaten in three days while others are not able to pay their rent. Some just want to return to Nepal,” said Ghising.
The Turkey Nepali Samaj has sent an appeal to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Employment Board and the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), seeking support for the Nepali community in Turkey.
According to Badri KC, NRNA vice-chairperson, the Nepalis in Turkey have already formed an ad hoc NRN committee, which will be approved in a few days by the NRNA committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Once the ad hoc committee is approved, the NRNA will try to provide all necessary help to the Nepali people stranded in Turkey,” said KC.
In the meantime, undocumented Nepalis are living amidst fears of contracting Covid-19 as many of them live in close quarters, sharing rooms with many others. If one person gets infected, they can quickly transfer the virus to others living in the same apartment.
Aashish said that he shares his flat with 10 other Nepalis while Sushma, another undocumented Nepali migrant worker, said that she is sharing an apartment with 30 others.
According to the Turkey Nepali Samaj, seven Nepalis living in Turkey have already been tested positive for Covid-19. One Nepali even committed suicide after being diagnosed with the coronavirus.
“I am sure that there must be more than seven Nepalis who have Covid-19 since we live in big groups,” said Yonjan, the patron of the Turkey Nepali Samaj. “However, we cannot verify that, since undocumented Nepalis don’t have medical insurance to visit the hospital and get tested. If Nepalis contract Covid-19, they will die of both hunger and disease.”
For now, Aashish hopes to get enough food to survive. He, along with his 10 flatmates, have been surviving on one meal a day.
“A Nepali brother helped us out a few weeks ago with food, but I know that we cannot keep asking for more since everyone is struggling,” he said. “I would be more than happy to return to Nepal if the government comes to our rescue.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.