My escape from COVID-19: Turkey’s emergency return programme for Turkish citizens abroad

By Bircan Ciytak (PhD student, University of Birmingham)

On April 15, 2020, the  Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that, as part of the Covid-19 return program, around 25 thousand Turkish citizens from 70 countries, the majority of whom are students, were flown back to Turkey and kept in quarantine upon arrival for 14 days in University halls of residence. Turkish citizens with permanent residence abroad who were stuck in Turkey due to flight cancellations were flown out on Turkish government-arranged flights. At the same time, the bodies of Turkish citizen who had passed away abroad were returned to Turkey for funeral arrangements to take place in their country of origin. The return of corpses is a common procedure for Turks abroad, underpinned by the notion of returning home to their motherland. The reach of Covid-19 return programme is exemplar of Turkey’s proactive diaspora engagement policy.

My journey

My return journey to Turkey during the coronavirus pandemic was unexpected. In mid-March 2020, my attempt to leave Birmingham where I study as a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, in order to return home to my family in Berlin failed due to travel restrictions. However, through the news and relatives I found out about the Turkish return programme. I kept track of the Turkish embassy’s latest information shared on Twitter and their webpages, and contacted them by phone. One day prior to departure I have received a confirmation of an assigned flight: Monday, March 23, 2020 from Gatwick Airport to Istanbul. Regardless of the time pressure, I took the last night bus from Birmingham to London Gatwick Airport. Worried for the risk of infection and the bus journey alone at night, I made it to the Birmingham coach station. Fortunately, there I have met other Turkish-speaking travellers going on the same flight as me. We arrived at Gatwick airport and found it busy with hundreds of students from different cities in England and Wales, between them the staff from the Turkish embassy in London. At the check-in counters £143 flight costs and proof of Turkish citizenship for the flight were required. The airport itself was exceptionally empty and the atmosphere was tense.

As soon as we entered the airplane, we are provided with mandatory face masks, to wear throughout the flight. With a little delay we arrive at the new airport in Istanbul. The landing is different than usual. The aircraft parks away from the airport building, health officials including doctors and  police officers enter the aircraft. Everyone’s body temperature is checked and passports collected. The suitcases are checked on the parking level by X-Ray and coaches are already waiting for us. We don’t know at this point where we are going to be taken for the quarantine.

After almost 3 hours, shortly after midnight, we arrive at the university accommodation in Sakarya. The coaches are accompanied by the police throughout the journey. Health officials and police are already waiting for us there. Several coaches reached the accommodation at the same time. There is a long queue to check in. Body temperatures are checked again and officials tell us to let our family know we arrived safely, they even offer their own phones to those who don’t have one. The atmosphere is somehow unexpectedly relaxed despite the full body white safety clothing worn by the officials.

For the next 14 days I occupy a 4-bed room. It is clean and well equipped with fresh bed sheets, and hygiene equipment. Health checks are carried out every second or third day. Every room has a phone and can contact the 24/7 security and health service downstairs. Special attention is paid to healthy eating. Every meal had a soup as a starter. The main course is accompanied with salad. Either fruits or a dessert is distributed for dinner. In between meals, biscuits and fruit juice are provided. The room have been equipped with a new and sealed kettle, tea bags, coffee, and water bottles. The entirety of quarantine stay and equipment/meals in Sakarya, is paid by the Turkish state.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports of Turkish Republic gives everyone with various gifts such as 3 books, a chess board, and a Pilates mat and ball as well as a resistance band for exercising indoors in hope of contributing to physical activity. We are also offered the opportunity to look after a plant during our quarantine period. Musicians are invited for a small concert in the garden, which we attend from the windows. The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, National Medical Rescue Team, Turkish Red Crescent, the Ministry of Health and The Ministry of Youth and Sports are directly involved and responsible for the supply and organisation of the quarantine.

Shortly before the completion of the quarantine period, we had to hand in our destination address. Due to the travel restrictions for big cities in Turkey, it is not possible to leave the city without a travel permit. The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency arranges coaches that take the students to their destination, free of charge. On March 23, 2020, in total 1885 students arrived in Sakarya, including myself and everyone has been driven to their destinations (in total to 77 different cities). Food and drinks are also provided for the journey. All travellers sit alone and are required to wear masks throughout the coach journey. During the journey the Gendarmerie General Command accompanied by a health officer stopped the bus at various times and carried out ID, travel permit and health checks.

Once I arrived at my destination, health officers were already waiting for us at the city coach station and documented our home address. At home, further 14 days of quarantine were required and I did receive phone calls from the Ministry of Health as well as visits from the local GP. Through e-Devlet which is an online resource that provides access to government services, I have ordered 5 face masks for free, for which I am entitled every 10th day, and may be delivered to my home address or be collected at any pharmacy.

The journey from Birmingham to the quarantine room in Sakarya proved itself as an extremely exhausting and stressful time. The uncertainty and fear of a possible infection during the trip has contributed to my mental and physical exhaustion. It was very difficult to be productive during this time and to continue writing my doctoral thesis. It took me almost over a month to get back to my ‘normality’. But staying in Birmingham alone during lockdown would have been even more stressful. Alone, it would have been very difficult for me to get through this time.

After having faced panic buying in Birmingham, it was surprising to me that supermarkets in Turkey were operating normally, although wearing a mask is mandatory, and prices had not changed. Apart from one weekend when a lockdown was announced only a couple of hours earlier which resulted in panic buying and mass gathering in front of bakeries and supermarkets, the atmosphere appears to me as calm as usual. Updates on the statistics of latest infected, death and recovered individuals every 24 hours by the head of Ministry of Health contributes to an ongoing communication between the government and the citizens as well as to the awareness of the people, and is very informative and alerting at the same time.

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