Protecting seasonal workers in Turkey’s tent settlements from COVID-19

UNFPA-supported mobile service units are helping residents of Turkey’s tent settlements implement infection control measures. © UNFPA Turkey/Esma Yılmaz

MERSIN, Turkey – Meryem, a Syrian refugee living in a tent settlement in southern Turkey, says her family struggles to maintain their health under even normal circumstances. Now, with more than 127,000 cases of COVID-19 in Turkey, she is even more concerned about creating a healthy environment for her children.

Meryem’s family fled the grinding conflict in their home country, Syria, four years ago. Hoping for a better life, they settled in Adana, Turkey. But one day, her husband left home and never returned.

Alone with two small children, Meryem moved to the village of Yeşiltepe, in Mersin, where she had some relatives. She began to work as a seasonal agricultural worker, leaving her children, Ömer and Delal, with a neighbour to commute to her low-paying job every other day.

The family shares a small tent. “We live and work under difficult conditions,” she told UNFPA. “Hygiene opportunities are limited.”

Ömer and Delal were often sick, and neither had received their childhood vaccinations. On top of all these challenges, the family had little information about the COVID-19 pandemic that was already raging within Turkey’s borders.

Tent-to-tent service

The mobile health team went tent-to-tent to check on the needs of each family and to provide critical information about the deadly coronavirus disease.

Things changed when a mobile service unit came to Yeşiltepe. The service, run by UNFPA in coordination with the Mersin provincial health directorate, visits tent settlements occupied by migrant agricultural labourers, many of them refugees.

Mobile health workers teach proper handwashing techniques and check residents’ temperatures. © UNFPA Turkey/Esma Yılmaz

Residents in the tent settlements are particularly at risk, with living conditions that make both social distancing and frequent handwashing a challenge.

Most live in plastic or canvas tents. Some have container housing. Water supply varies by settlement, but in some cases people rely on tanks and water pumps in the absence of running water. Most bathrooms are communal.

The mobile health teams distribute informational leaflets to make sure residents know how to keep safe and are able to identify the symptoms of COVID-19. Residents are informed about proper hygiene and handwashing techniques that can help prevent the transmission of the virus. Soaps are handed out, and people with symptoms of illness are referred to nearby health institutions.

Meryem was thrilled when she received her first visit by the mobile team in March.

Her children were immediately referred to the Tarsus Migrant Health Centre for examination and to receive their vaccinations.

Meryem also learned about support programmes for refugees, including programmes offering financial assistance, and received help filling out the needed application forms.

Information and peace of mind

Today, Meryem says the mobile health team is like her extended family. Whenever they come by, she insists on hosting them.

She says she is especially relieved to have reliable information about the COVID-19 pandemic and how to protect her family.

Mobile health workers check on the welfare of families and provide information about infection control. © UNFPA Turkey/Esma Yılmaz

“Now, we are aware of the seriousness of the issue,” she said. “Now, we are watchful more than ever to protect ourselves, those around us and our children. We are washing our hands all the time and trying to keep our social distance as much as possible.”

Because seasonal agricultural work is considered essential, the tent settlements have been exempted from movement restrictions. So far, the screenings conducted by UNFPA’s mobile team have not found any outbreaks of COVID-19 among the tent settlement residents.

UNFPA is working in collaboration with the Turkish Ministry of Health to deploy mobile service units not only in Mersin but also in Adana, Bursa, Şanlıurfa and İzmir, reaching thousands of refugees, migrants and seasonal agricultural workers. Financial support for these services are financed through EU Humanitarian Aid.

A version of this article was posted on on May 5, 2020.

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