“Invest in the life’s of your people to see your state flourish”
With the coronavirus outbreak in China, national governments, intergovernmental organisation, and health care systems, in particular, are facing a major challenge. In many countries, sudden restrictions on movement imposed on populations led to considerable confusion and panic. The shutdown of national borders and the halting of international flights left many people stranded at airports and families torn apart. Social distancing measures have led to unprecedented changes in everyday life — both public and private — and the emergence of new modes of communication.
In the context of the pandemic, we see on the news how xenophobia and racism increased significantly. The pandemic influences relationships between nation-states and diaspora communities, but also between nationals and home countries. Countries like Romania asked their citizens living in diaspora not to return home, while countries like Turkey stand out particularly with their highly engaging approach to diaspora policy trying to embrace its citizens. In the centre of Turkey’s reaction to the pandemic and related transnational activities stands the state-funded diaspora institution Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities. The institutions have introduced several programmes that aim to support Turkish nationals abroad (YTB, 2020). Turkey’s active diaspora engagement policy which aims to embrace all Turks abroad is closely linked with the new orientation in Turkish foreign policy. Since the election success of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in 2002, there is no longer a clear distinction between the Turkish diaspora policy and foreign policy and emphasises a process of overlapping (Aydin, 2014).
Turkey’s guide for diaspora engagement
President Erdogan announced in the official gazette that treatment of all people in Turkey and Turkish people abroad that need to be flown into Turkey infected with COVID-19 will be free of charge, regardless of existing or non-existing health insurance. With this decision, he underlined the guideline of the government’s policy outlook, especially during COVID-19:
“Invest in the life’s of your people to see your state flourish” (“İnsanı yaşat ki devlet yaşasın”)
The quote belongs to Şeyh Edebali, who, amongst others, shaped and developed the policies of the emerging Ottoman State. Intensive investments in the infrastructure of the health care system and the associated project of city hospitals, which was launched by the Turkish President Erdogan in 2014, have been criticised by the opposition and classified as waste and unnecessary investment. However, building city hospitals ahead of the virus especially paid off. The Başakşehir City Hospital on the Asian side of Istanbul only recently opened and is Europe’s hospital with the most intensive care beds. In total, 12 big city hospitals are operating and 10 are still under construction. The president considers the project as an investment in the life’s of the people, similarly the distribution of masks to every citizen in Turkey and abroad free of charge.
Turkish diaspora engagement policy is also noticeable in the field of healthcare. Many Turkish citizens with permanent residence abroad who are infected with COVID-19 were flown to Turkey on the emergency planes of the Ministry of Health after complaining of not being treated by the local hospitals (see the case in Sweden). As part of this step, attention was drawn to the brotherhood and the attachment to citizens abroad has been emphasised. Especially the actions taken by the government in the field of healthcare contributed to the increasing trust Turkish people have in the current government, domestically and abroad. While the Turkish consulates can be reached 24/7 by phone, the number of infected Turks abroad is kept up to date through constant communication between the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities and the local Turkish umbrella organisations.
The Turkish government introduced a new support frame “Diaspora COVID-19 Support and Cooperation Programme” through the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities. The programme intends to support projects by Turks and Turkish NGOs abroad that may be relevant to the pandemic. Turkey’s aim to show solidarity with its diaspora, but at the same time to emphasise the will of Turks abroad to contribute to the pandemic to represent it as a will to integrate into the guest society, crystallises. The pandemic emphasised the role of citizenship and its inclusive as well as emotional character. It allowed individuals like me to escape a situation, feel safe and support during uncertain times. From a geopolitical perspective, both the integration aim and the worldwide supply of essential medical aid pursue the goal of promoting international and transnational relationships by conveying solidarity, unity, identity and belonging.
Investing in people will contribute to building a strong nation according to Şeyh Edebali. Turkey’s national and international steps during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown, how Şeyh Edebali’s statement has functioned as a wheel for Turkey’s diaspora engagement policy. Investing in the life’s of people indeed is improving not only national but also international outlooks, socially as well as politically.