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The stress of debt: Effects on the lives of people living in Turkey under temporary and international protection

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Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population1 , with over 4 million asylum seekers of which 3.5 million of these are Syrians living under temporary protection.

Turkish Red Crescent has a well-established "Kizilaykart" that initially provided cash assistance to Turkish citizens and has now transformed into a cash-based assistance platform that has also integrated refugees into the existing national social assistance network, providing different programmes such as education, basic needs, vocational training, and language courses in order to meet the needs of the vulnerable people.

The Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) provides regular monthly cash assistance through Kizilaykart to 1.5 million people living under temporary protection and international protection. The cash programme is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in close cooperation with the Ministry of Family and Social Services (MoFSS).

Within the scope of the programme, various qualitative and quantitative research studies are carried out to identify the impacts of the assistance on the target group.
Focus group discussions (FGD) are one of the most important qualitative data collection methods. Since the partnership of the Turkish Red Crescent and IFRC, previous FGD themes explored the impact of the pandemic on refugees and women’s participation in the economy with 247 refugees participants from six provinces across Turkey, where the target group is densely populated. The third stage FGDs, of which a detailed analysis is presented in this report were carried out in December 2020 - January 2021 and, focused on the theme ‘financial stress and debt among refugees.

The post distribution monitoring report, based on data from June to September 2020, stated that 80 per cent of the households who applied to the ESSN programme were in debt, and the amount of debt doubled between the years 2019 and 2020. (TRY 1,000 in 2019, increasing to TRY 2,000 in 2020).2 This high rate shows that only one in five households surveyed are living without debt. While 43 per cent of asylum seekers preferred borrowing as a coping strategy in 2019, this rate increased to 74 per cent in 2020. Therefore, borrowing stands out as the most widely used and most common method after ESSN assistance.

Among Syrian migrants, the average number of working members in each household does not exceed 1.2 regardless of whether they are male, or female headed households or whether they receive ESSN assistance or not. This highlights the absence of working women in majority of the households and the general unemployment situation overall. Syrian migrants, who are constituted mostly of single-income families, consider borrowing as their most important coping strategy and define it as a part of their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic also deeply affected Syrian migrants economically, as it has most of the world. According to previous COVID-19-related research findings jointly conducted by the IFRC and the Turkish Red Crescent, debt amounts of Syrian households have increased, difficulties in meeting basic needs have increased, and at least one person in approximately 80% of households has lost their job permanently or temporarily.

To better understand and complement the above findings, this FGD aimed to explore:

1 • The borrowing status of the households that applied to the ESSN programme and the reasons for borrowing,

2 • The dynamics of debt access, repayment of the debt and debt management,

3 • The impact of being in debt on individuals, family and other social relations,

4 • The coping methods used or thought to be applied in case of not being able to access debt

5 • What households would prioritize and how they would feel in case of having no debt.

6 • The report also aimed at offering suggestions in line with its findings.

‘Debt and financial stress’ themed FGDs were held in December and January 2021 with 96 participants who applied to the ESSN from the cities of Ankara, İzmir, İstanbul, Hatay, Samsun, and Gaziantep where the target group is densely populated in different geographies. Due to the pandemic, the sessions were conducted online through the digital platform and were completed in 16 sessions. The participants consisted of 48 female and 48 male individuals between the ages of 20 and 68. Sixty of them were ESSN beneficiaries, and 36 of them were individuals from ineligible households who applied to the ESSN but were not entitled to have assistance or whose assistance was stopped because they no longer met the programme criteria.