CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The Middle East, marked by decades of political and social conflict, is one of the world’s major migration hubs. A report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) published in February 2021 (IDMC, 2021), estimated that there were 12.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. While the economic crisis of 2007 and the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015 significantly transformed the power relations between the various political actors in the Middle East, the COVID-19 health crisis revealed the structural weaknesses of certain states in dealing with migratory flows and the management of exiles. Two states provide insights into these processes of redefinition: Turkey, which hosted more than 4 million migrants in 2021, [1] and Iraq, which in the same year hosted 283,925 exiles and more than 1,200,000 IDPs. [2] The health and policy responses adopted by these states to the outbreak of COVID-19 had strong impacts in a region where the frequency and density of mobility are high, and where conflicts have made populations ever more precarious and have weakened actors with the capacity to address political, economic and social crises. Revealing the fragility of state structures, this “pandemic moment” amplified the repressive policies pursued by governments in the region against minorities. We will show how the various political actors transformed this “pandemic moment” into a “political moment” by studying the consequences for exiles [3] of the various policy responses to the health crisis in Turkey and Iraq. We will seek to show how, by initially imposing significant restrictions on the freedoms of society as a whole, the COVID-19 health crisis accelerated the process of reshaping Turkish and Iraqi migration policies, with an immediate impact on migratory journeys and experiences (Vahabi, 2013). By addressing the notion of territoriality in its political and socio-cultural dimension, we will also consider the conditions of the production of scientific knowledge during a health crisis, in which researchers themselves were directly affected by the closure of borders.

“Off-site” Research: [4] Constraints and Limits of a Field Constructed From a Distance

2 This analysis is based on media monitoring work carried out in partnership with UMR 196 CEPED (Centre Populations et Développement) and UMR 7301 MIGRINTER (Migrations internationales, espaces et sociétés) during the first months of the health crisis. It draws on a corpus of data from a Seenthis news feed [5] set up in 2020 [6] to gather different types of documents to illustrate the impact of the pandemic on migration policies and migrants in the Middle East. The aim was to identify articles, reports and statements, and to add a series of keywords providing information on the source, location, theme(s) and actors. The resulting corpus contains nearly 1,000 documents for the period from 30 March to 31 December 2020. Based on the description using thematic indicators, as well as textual analysis conducted with Iramuteq software, we were able to examine representations by the media and states, as well as the impact on migrants of policies implemented by governments to limit the spread of the virus. The representations conveyed by the media and political actors were the initial subject of our study. The database on which the analysis was based was derived solely from secondary sources available on the internet. [7] Our intention here is not to compare remote research methods with fieldwork, but on the contrary, to present the method used as being constructed around fieldwork. The notion of fieldwork is polysemous: is it characterised by access to an identified space that pre-exists the needs of the researcher? Or is it the result of a construction, produced by the approach and methodological choices adopted by the researcher (Messu, 2016)? Researchers, in their scientific approach, conduct subjective sampling, giving meaning by selecting the materials to which they apply their method in order to confirm or refute their initial hypotheses (Quinton, 2002). The analysis of secondary data is just as important as the production of primary data. In other words, the conception of the field is not simply a matter of gaining physical access to the space of study, it is about constructing observation material to which a scientific method is applied in order to give meaning, interpret and analyse reality.

3 Of course, the issues of access to and the nature of the field are not new, but the COVID-19 health crisis and the mobility restrictions imposed created a context that was conducive to experimenting with an alternative method of field construction. The distancing effect caused by the restrictions on movement imposed on our societies, and hence on researchers, raised the question of the method and importance of the production of scientific knowledge in a context where public and private spaces had become inaccessible, thus reducing access to primary sources. In these circumstances, press articles, non-governmental organisation (NGO) reports and official government statements become the main materials through which it was possible to access, at a distance, the geographical spaces at the core of our work. We constructed our “field” around: various media publishing news articles on the Middle East, principally Middle-East Eye, Al Monitor, Arab-News, L’orient-le Jour, Middle East Monitor, Kurdistan 24, Bianet, Hurriyet and Rudaw; [8] various NGOs present in the field which disseminate their reports on reliefweb: Carnegie, RefugeeHosts, IRC; [9] and the UNHCR operational data portal on refugee situations. [10] The Seenthis feed thus made it possible to put these different materials into perspective and to produce a database, constructing a field of study which enabled us, through daily work, to document the day-to-day evolution of the situation, via the prism of the media and NGOs working on the Middle East. Although, due to the volume of articles, it was not possible to examine the political positioning of each author and each source, we were nevertheless conscious of the connections between certain media and regional political actors. For example, we were aware of the links between Rudaw, Kurdistan 24 and Kurdish political parties running Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as those between Hurriyet and the current Turkish government. We decided, however, to retain these articles as informative data, verifying the accuracy of the information by cross-checking multiple sources. Reports from associations, NGOs and intergovernmental organisations provided quantitative data to put into perspective policy responses and their consequences on societies and more specifically on exiles.

4 Through daily information gathering and document monitoring, we were able to consider the temporality of the crisis. Although the distance imposed by lockdown restrictions separated us from the empirical work made possible by a presence in the field, it also created a temporal distance, bringing to light what we refer to as a “moment”, a space in time situated in the long-term and identified through a specific chronology. The construction of this fieldwork revealed an event-based chronology of the political handling of the health crisis which we will analyse in relation to each of the territories studied. Due to prior knowledge of the field [11] (Rublon, 2015), the health impact of COVID-19 and the significance of the migration issue, we chose to focus our research on Iraq and Turkey. In June 2020, the International Rescue Committee [12] estimated that COVID-19 infections in Iraq had increased by 600%, with 70,000 positive cases reported and 3,000 deaths recorded. By April 2020, Turkey had the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases in the Middle East, with over 4,000 deaths and more than 80,000 infections reported. [13] Alongside the health crisis, both the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Iraq were suffering the consequences of the conflicts that have been shaking Iraq and Syria since 2011: in 2021 Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide, [14] and Iraq had more than 1.2 million migrants on its territory and more than 8 million Iraqi refugees abroad. [15]

Spaces, Actors and Territorialities

5 Initial responses implemented by states to limit the spread of the virus were mainly aimed at reducing mobility and restricting the crossing of land borders, thereby limiting overall migration flows. Between March 2020 and February 2021, IOM recorded nearly 105,000 movement restrictions implemented by states and a decrease in the number of international migrants by nearly 2 million worldwide. [16] The performative dimension of the border, though an artificial and symbolic object (Bocco and Meier, 2005), was invoked to protect “national bodies” from external elements, the latter being perceived as potential vectors of the virus. Understood as limits that are difficult to cross and as barriers to human movement, borders played a central role in controlling the pandemic. We approach them as a subject of study giving form to specific territorialities, but also as an analytical category, resulting from socio-cultural construction processes. By territoriality, we refer to “the principle of exhaustive political control based on the existence of an authority, whether legitimate or not, that is continuously effective, over a given space” (Levy and Lussault, 2013: 1137). The notion of territoriality, by allowing us to go beyond the framework of territorial control, examines the relationship between the individual, the community and the territory, drawing on arguments based on identity or ideology to legitimise the authority imposed on a specific space (Belhedi, 2006). Practices and lifestyles thus become the new boundaries of a territory that goes beyond administrative limits, outlining a territoriality constructed around specific cultural, ethnic or religious social ties (Huet, 2015). As complementary or critical in relation to the structure and uniqueness of the nation state, the concept of territoriality questions the social, cultural and political management of an area, and the symbolic or physical transformation of it by the actors imposing their authority (Kaya, 2017). The persistence of ethnic-religious conflicts in the Middle East illustrates the complexity of the relationships between political actors and territorialities, between identities and territories, between nation and state. We therefore focus on the situation of Syrians, who remain in the majority among the exiles in Turkey, where 3,737,369 Syrians had been granted the status of “temporary protection” in 2021. [17] They also represent 73% of refugees in Iraq, i.e. 243,011 people, 99% of whom are hosted in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. [18] These two examples raise questions about the socio-political constructions involved in the management of the pandemic and migration crises. A brief history of the structures in charge of managing exiles in Turkey and Iraq will help to put the 2020 health crisis into perspective within each country’s specific socio-political contexts.


6 Migration flows in Turkey are managed by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, AFAD (Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığ), a governmental organisation operating under the authority of the Prime Minister. Established in 2009, this organisation acts as a coordinating body with the capacity to assign missions and allocate tasks within the various Turkish state departments. Since 2011 and following the mass arrival of Syrians fleeing the war, [19] AFAD has been in charge of their reception, building camps and establishing logistical support bases. While in October 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified twenty-three refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border, today only seven remain officially open, in the provinces of Hatay, Adana, Osmaniye, Kilis and Kahramanmaras. In October 2018, AFAD closed camps that were considered “temporary” in Midyat-Mardin (2,458 refugees), Gaziantep (23,095 refugees) and Adiyaman (8,627 refugees), while 34,180 Syrians were sent back to camps near the Syrian border. [20]

7 Since 2013, a specific situation has applied to Syrians. The adoption of the “Law on Foreigners and International Protection” granted them a special “temporary protection” status, under which they are entitled to file their asylum application directly with the Turkish government, bypassing the need to do so with UNHCR. Several million Syrian nationals have this status, which provides them with access to basic services such as food aid or schooling for their children. As of June 2018, 216,890 Syrians were living in centres set up by AFAD, while 3,353,462 were living outside such centres. [21] As of November 2019, the provinces of Istanbul, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Hatay and Izmir were the areas with the highest concentration of exiles in Turkey (see Map 1).

The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq and the Government of Iraq

8 Since the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) was recognised by the UN Security Council in 1992 as a federated region of Iraq with a government, presidency and parliament (Baban, 2015), the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) has played a key role in managing the migration crisis that has shaken the region for over a decade. According to the United Nations (UN), as of on 31 August 2020, 239,234 of the 283,925 refugees living in Iraq were Syrians supported by the regional authorities in Kurdistan and the UNHCR, and only 39% of them were accommodated in camps. [22] A new regional border, that is still unclear today, has been gradually taking form between two entities with a political mandate over the same national space: the KRG and the Government of Iraq (GoI).

9 Associating the ethno-cultural dimension with a desire for community control, Iraq is subject to various political authorities and divided into several territorialities: to the north of the border area, the Government and Parliament of Erbil, controlled mainly by the Kurdish political parties PUK and KDP; to the south, the central government of Baghdad and its parliament (see Map 1). According to the Iraqi Constitution of 15 October 2005, responsibility for general health policy is shared between the federal state and the regions, and, in the event of conflict, regional laws take precedence over federal laws (Baban, 2015). Each of these entities developed its own responses to the migration crises of the 2010s and the COVID-19 health crisis. The KRG filled in the gaps left by a central state whose capacity had been so weakened by the fall of Baathist rule that it was not in a position to provide appropriate national responses to the health crisis.

10 We will focus in more detail on the impact on exiles of responses to the health crisis, beginning with a chronology of the political management of the crisis in Turkey and the consequences for individual in migration situations.

Map 1: Middle East: States and Territories

Figure 0

Map 1: Middle East: States and Territories

Source: United Nations, 2021; background map: Qgis.
Credit: T. Rublon, 2021.

Centralised Management of the Health and Migration Crisis: The Example of Turkey

From Border Control to Biopolitical Exercise: A Chronology of Crisis Management

11 On 19 February 2020, the Islamic Republic of Iran formally confirmed the presence of COVID-19 in the holy city of Qom. It took Turkey only a few days to announce the closure of the four land border crossing points with Iran and the suspension of air traffic from the Islamic Republic. These measures were the first movement restrictions adopted to combat the spread of the virus. While mobility to the east was restricted on health grounds, the Republic of Turkey announced the opening of its border with Greece on 28 February, denouncing the influx of Syrians fleeing the Russian offensive on Idlib. According to IOM, [23] migrants of Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian origin were brought in buses chartered by the Turkish state to the Kastanies-Pazarkule crossing (see Map 1), on the border with Greece, some twenty kilometres from the crossing with Bulgaria, redirecting migratory journeys with already complex trajectories. On 9 March, a UN report described the border area as a jungle covered with makeshift tents where nearly 13,000 people are gathered waiting to be able to cross into Europe (Üstübici and Karadağ, 2020). Although physical clashes took place between migrants and the various security forces present in the area, the Turkish government seized this opportunity to denounce the European Union’s position on the migration crisis, to increase pressure on its Greek neighbour and to try to ease political and social tensions in Turkey. Within just a few days, the Turkish Interior Minister publicly announced that 150,600 migrants had crossed the border into Greece, to appease public opinion by conveying the idea that exiles were leaving Turkish territory. As the health situation at the border deteriorated, a situation described by the UN as extremely precarious and conducive to the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic caught up with Turkey on 10 March (Özvarış et al., 2020), when the first Turkish citizen returning from Europe tested positive. A week later, the President of the Republic of Turkey announced the closure of public spaces throughout the country and on 18 March the closure of the border with Greece and Bulgaria, although no general lockdown was declared. On 11 March, Turkey decided to close the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salame crossing points (see Map 1) on the Syrian border. The Pazarkule camps (see Map 1), on the other hand, were not evacuated until 26 March and the 4,000 exiles still present were transferred to several quarantine centres across the country.

12 While the various measures adopted to limit the spread of the virus (closing borders and public spaces, banning gatherings, closing schools) had a real impact on the health situation, they also allowed the Turkish government to reassert its legitimacy and consolidate its political authority by giving the fight against the virus a national and highly political dimension. Nationalism, defined as a political ideology and a model of social engineering (Norman, 2004), can be interpreted as a response by governments to problems of insecurity, whether related to armed conflict, economic crises or, in this case, a health crisis resulting from a pandemic. This explanation seems to make particular sense in a context where the multiplicity of crises threatens the legitimacy of long-established political elites (Kleinfeld, 2020). The chronology of political measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus reveals a desire to control and limit mobility on Turkish territory by considerably limiting the movements of members of the national community, while imposing on migrants present on the territory movement towards the border with the European Union.

13 The situation in Cyprus, and the repatriation of Turkish nationals to their country of origin, illustrates the discriminatory and exceptional nature of the measures imposed on migrants by political actors, raising an analytical question about the notion of territoriality. On 29 February 2020, the Republic of Cyprus decided to close the four checkpoints along the green line that divides the island in two, separating the Turkish-controlled area from the Republic of Cyprus, citing the threat of COVID-19 and the risk of an influx of migrants following the opening of the Greek-Turkish border. In the space of three days, 223 migrants arrived on the island by sea and the fear of the virus spreading to the island territory became a reality when on 10 March the first cases were detected on both sides of the island. Both governments decided to close the border dividing the island into two territorialities to restrict movement, and external borders to limit arrivals. It was not until 25 March that both governments imposed a complete lockdown and a quarantine on migrant camps, which closed their reception services. From 25 March, 771 exiles were confined in the Pournara camp (see Map 1), designed to accommodate 350 people for a maximum of 72 hours. Although a relaxation was announced on 4 May, the camps were closed until mid-June and the conditions for leaving the camps remained very restrictive and controlled by the authorities. While the closure of external borders seemed to be an effective tool for slowing down the spread of the virus, the prolonged quarantine of the migrant camps in Cyprus and Greece, after lockdown measures had been lifted for the national population, was yet another discriminatory measure imposed on exiles, discrimination that the political discourse sought to justify by invoking the protection of the “national body”, invoking a “migrant exception” justified by the health emergency.

14 Whereas the Turkish state has used migratory pressure, mobility and the dispersal of its nationals throughout Europe as effective political levers in relation to the European Union, and as a tool for controlling Turkish political opponents in exile, the COVID-19 health crisis instead obliged migrants to remain immobile and drove Turkish nationals living abroad to return to their country of origin. From the beginning of April, Turkey launched a large-scale repatriation operation involving 25,000 nationals from fifty-nine countries. Despite the fact that virtually all flights from abroad were banned, that non-national citizens were not allowed to cross land borders, and that the government was constantly talking about an invisible threat from abroad, the Turkish state launched a vast operation aimed at bringing as many of its nationals as possible back to Turkey to engage in a “national struggle against a global problem” (Gülseven, 2020). As in many other countries, repatriation to the country of origin was perceived as a means of combating the virus, as if, beyond territorial borders understood as tools for controlling mobility, the existence of symbolic borders of identity and culture provided a form of “group immunity” in response to a global health crisis. The discourse of the Turkish state and the media representations at the beginning of the crisis tend to confirm this analysis. Indeed, in the first weeks of March, the Turkish media carried scientific discourses developing the idea that “Turks are naturally immune to the coronavirus due to their genetic make-up” (Gülseven, 2020) or that the use of Eau de Cologne would protect Turkey from the pandemic crisis. [24] The COVID-19 pandemic thus reinforced the sense of belonging to a specific community by using arguments that fed the political discourse with biological data. The “national body” was more than an image, it structured a biopolitical rhetoric (Foucault, 2004): the national community constitutes the flesh of this body, and the state is responsible for ensuring its good health. Accordingly, borders are biologised, the distance from foreign nationals becomes impassable and the other becomes a risk factor that must be neutralised. This “migrant exception” is justified by the desire to keep individuals who are not part of the community away from this “body”, thus excluding them from the national body to avoid its contamination. This biopolitical response to the health crisis was demonstrated in Turkey by the desire to bring the national community together and the idea that the latter had biological specificities that made it better able to fight COVID-19. The territory was thus perceived as a space for the protection of the community, where geographical and biological borders were used to form a body, to produce the “national body”. In order to ensure its proper functioning, the state deployed a rhetoric based on identity and culture that served to impose various restrictive and discriminatory measures on “foreign bodies” present on Turkish territory (Belhedi, 2006).

Turkish Minorities and Working Classes in the Context of COVID-19: The “Migrant” Exception and the Impoverishment of the Middle Classes

15 While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP has remained in power since 2002 due to the country’s economic performance, the deterioration of the political and economic situation since 2016 largely contributed to an increase in violence against the Syrian community in Turkey. The month of March 2020 was marked in particular by massive anti-migrant demonstrations and numerous attacks on Syrians. Today, fewer than 100,000 of the 3,600,000 refugees in Turkey still live in camps. The vast majority have settled in cities near the Syrian border or in economic hubs such as Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir and Bursa where they work illegally (Budak and Bostan, 2020). Many neighbourhoods in these metropolises were under lockdown restrictions and refugees were placed in quarantine centres for a fortnight before being dispersed to different cities in the country. [25] The Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million Syrians are exploited in Turkey in the textile and construction industries, while only 200,000 are reported to have obtained regularisation enabling them to be legally employed (Cagaptay, 2019). According to a UN World Food Programme (WFP) survey, 84% of settled Syrian families have at least one member employed, although only 3% of refugees have a work permit. [26] Their living conditions, already precarious, deteriorated considerably with the pandemic despite the government’s announcement that it would provide 14 billion euros in economic support to businesses. Relief International estimated that more than 87% of migrant households saw a member lose their job as a result of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. With the majority of migrants in Turkey living from the informal economy, many migrants in an irregular situation chose to return to their country of origin when the first lockdown was announced.

16 The exceptional status of Syrians in Turkey was severely weakened by the COVID-19 crisis. Although they still had free access to public health services, the pandemic overwhelmed the Turkish health system. According to a report by Relief International (2020), in April 2020, 71% of Syrians in Turkey declared that they did not having access to health services [27] and 81% claimed they could no longer meet basic needs such as access to food or shelter. For the first time since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkish associations saw registered refugees join the ranks of the most precarious populations in Turkey. As the NGO Şefkat-Der notes, before the pandemic crisis the informal economy enabled many migrants to have jobs and a certain degree of financial stability. [28] But the inflation of the Turkish lira has rendered the humanitarian aid of 17 euros a month ineffective, with the price of some basic foodstuffs rising by more than 500%. Requests to NGOs for accommodation, healthcare and treatment increased tenfold in April 2020. Such requests came not only from migrants, but also from a growing number of Turkish nationals, who were forced to turn to humanitarian organisations to meet their most basic needs (Dogan and Genc, 2020).

17 The pandemic thus affected both a migrant population, already living in precarious conditions, which further deteriorated as a result of the measures put in place to combat the spread of the virus, and a Turkish middle class plunged into precariousness by these same measures. Migrants and middle classes suffered the full force of the economic and social consequences of government decisions. This increased insecurity of the middle classes in a context of severe economic crisis awakened xenophobic sentiment, fuelled by Turkish nationalist organisations that perceive this strong “Arab presence” as a demographic danger, economically and ethnically jeopardising the “Turkish nation” and its people. In September 2020, a member of the NGO Şefkat-Der (Dogan and Genc, 2020) suggested that the COVID-19 crisis took place in a specific set of circumstances where the accumulation of political, economic and social crises had saturated the solidarity capacities of Turkish society, amplifying an already existing movement of retreat into nationalist ideas of identity. National identity, already heightened in Turkey, and discrimination suffered by migrants have significantly increased since April 2020. However, migrants are not the only targets. Indeed, during a sermon on 24 April, the President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs also blamed LGBTI communities for the global pandemic crisis. While minorities in Turkey are often portrayed as a threat to national unity and migrants as a threat to economic growth, a new chapter in the national narrative was written around the latter. They were said to be carriers of the virus and therefore risk contaminating the accommodation they rent, the places where they work, the schools their children attend. The biopolitical argument is used here once again by making exiles, by virtue of their status as foreigners, the carriers of the virus and the scapegoats of the health crisis.

18 Michel Duclos, former French ambassador to Syria and advisor to the Institut Montaigne, identified several phases in the management of the health crisis by the Turkish state (Duclos, 2020):
1/ A sense of immunity resulting from a denial of the crisis;
2/ The designation of a scapegoat, an external or internal culprit to legitimise the authorities in charge internally and in their spheres of geopolitical influence;
3/ The use of the crisis to justify a legal arsenal reinforcing those in power;
4/ The use of brutal repressive measures.
Migrants have been used as a political instrument by the Turkish state at each of these stages to implement tools to fight the pandemic and strengthen the power of political elites. The de facto modification of the special status previously enjoyed by Syrians in Turkey was a direct consequence of this, as were the severe attacks on freedom of expression and respect for human rights. The pandemic, which affected individuals without distinction of class, amplified economic and social inequalities, neutralising the mechanisms of solidarity and defence that are constructed and organised in civil society. It was on this very terrain that populism was deployed and that the state set up an arsenal of controls aimed at limiting the spread of the pandemic, but also at stifling political opposition and limiting individual freedoms by making extensive use of the health argument to suppress dissident voices. The health crisis was used by the ruling political alliance in Turkey as an opportunity to consolidate its authority and silence opposition voices. Spaces of migrant detention and deprivation of liberty thus became necessary elements in controlling the spread of the virus. While university dormitories and clinics were used as quarantine areas for Turkish nationals returning to the country, refugee camps were never under full lockdown. Migration movements from cities to villages were rapidly observed in eastern Turkey, where many families, displaced during the 2015-2016 conflicts, resettled in rural areas where the pandemic was spreading at a slower pace. Maps of the spread of the virus showed a much weaker presence of the virus in Turkey’s eastern regions [29] which, although more sparsely populated than western cities, are areas with significant cross-border mobility (Roussel, 2015).

The Symbol of the Border as a Tool to Exert Political Pressure in a Period of Health Crisis

19 The nature of the ruling political regimes played an important role in the management of the COVID-19 health crisis. The tools of control imposed by the Turkish state, while slowing the spread of the virus, also served to justify the imposition of new legal norms (Lipscy, 2020) that strengthened its power and severely limited public freedoms, including freedom of association. The Turkish government then used the health crisis to try to appease its domestic political problems by designating migrants and opponents as “the enemy”, allowing the different political forces to unite around a common fight: the defence of “the homeland” against the spread of the pandemic.

20 The pandemic crisis underlined the need for states to ensure strong control over their territory by imposing restrictions on internal and external movements. To ensure limited mobility, the Turkish state banned movement between regions and in order to ensure continuity of territorial control, several Kurdish mayors from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP: Halkların Demokratik Partisi) were arrested from May onwards and replaced by government-appointed officials. The border areas saw a considerable increase in the number of control devices put in place to reduce illegal crossings, together with a stronger presence of the military apparatus. On 20 May 2020, Turkish special forces and infantry set up a camp along the Evros River and planted a Turkish flag on Greek soil. Greek soldiers reported having been the target of gunfire from Turkish infantry who, despite the Greek state’s injunctions, refused to leave the enclave. On 4 June 2020, several hundred migrants arrived in Edirne (see Map 1) and Ipsala by bus, increasing tensions at the Turkish-Greek border, which had been open since 1 June. The movement of migrants to Greece is an effective tool for Turkey to exert political pressure, with the latter using this moment of global health and political crisis to put pressure on the European Union by playing the migration card once again, after a period of several weeks during which migrant arrivals in Greece had dried up. The first ten months of 2020 were marked by a significant drop in asylum applications in Europe: 33% fewer than in the same period in 2019. Irregular border crossings also fell considerably over this period: the European Commission estimates that there were 19,300 irregular border crossings between January and November 2020, compared to 114,300 between January and November 2019. [30] A Commission report states that this reduction is largely due to the significant decrease in the arrival of migrants in Greece via Turkey, adding that the trend is subject to political and social developments in the Republic of Turkey. [31] The political use of borders and migrants is not unique to the situation on the Turkish-Greek border. The Turkish state uses the same strategies based on geopolitical tensions at its borders with Syria and Iraq where, in June 2020, a military operation to secure the border area was launched. Several dozen villages were bombed, causing the displacement of several hundred Iraqi Kurds in a region already hosting more than 1.5 million IDPs.

21 With a strong state capable of imposing its authority over its entire territory, Turkey responded to the health crisis by centralising political decisions and using the context of the health crisis to strengthen a power weakened by a major economic and migration crisis. The exceptional situation created by the pandemic allowed the Turkish authorities to ease the tensions resulting from these multiple crises by imposing new norms structuring society. Although during the first wave of the pandemic mobility was never completely prohibited, it was used as a tool to exert pressure and as a political argument to justify repressive reforms and pursue the construction of an internal enemy that could bind the national unity. Once again, the government used the identity-based argument [32] as a response to the health crisis, drawing on biopolitics to justify the implementation of discriminatory measures against exiles. Syrians in Turkey, as a visible and precarious minority, were thus the primary victims of these liberticidal abuses, allowing the assertion of a political territoriality structured around a strong national imaginary.

22 In Iraq, the decentralised management of the health crisis also made exiles and IDPs the first victims of the pandemic crisis, giving rise to the idea of a mode of governance to deal with the COVID-19 crisis that is specific to the territoriality over which the authority of the KRG is asserted.

Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq: Territorialised Management of the Health and Migration Crisis

23 The first case of coronavirus in Iraq was detected on 22 February 2020 in the province of Dhi Qar, southeast of Baghdad. In response to the first officially recognised case in Iran on 19 February, the KRG decided the following day to preventively close its border with the Islamic Republic of Iran to avoid the risk of the virus spreading. Restrictive measures were then adopted in the airports of Iraqi Kurdistan, banning more than ten nationalities from entering the territory from 6 March. The Semalka border crossing point, geographically and economically linking the KRG to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, was closed by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities on 14 March. More general restrictions were gradually imposed on Iraqis, first in the form of holidays ordered by the KRG authorities from 26 February to 10 March. On 13 March, a lockdown was imposed in Iraqi Kurdistan and refugee and IDP camps were quarantined from 16 March. At the time, this autonomous region hosted more than 1.5 million IDPs and exiles, i.e. 20% of its total population. The KRG handles more than 70% of Iraqi IDPs and 99% of Syrians, who are sent to camps managed by the UNHCR in collaboration with numerous international NGOs. The regional border, which is the subject of ongoing disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, delimits two areas of sovereignty and control of migratory flows. Although Iraqi Kurdistan is not an independent state, but an autonomous political entity in northern Iraq, it fully assumes its role as a host for displaced populations: five of the seven UNHCR offices are located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Delayed Responses to the Health Crisis: Conflict of Territorialities

24 The Federal Republic of Iraq has been experiencing a major political crisis since the US intervention in 2003. Multiple political and religious actors play an important role in the conduct of state affairs, including the control of the territory and management of the health crisis. Under pressure from many Shiite political actors, the decisions taken by the Central Government of Iraq (GoI) to address the health crisis came almost a month after the various restrictions imposed by the KRG. It was not until 8 March that the 1,500-kilometre border with Iran was completely closed and placed under the protection of Iraqi military forces. Even Iraqi citizens living in Iran were not allowed to return to Iraq. On 22 March, the central government declared a full lockdown across the entire country. Until then only a few Iraqi provinces had imposed local curfews. The central government’s Ministry of Health estimated that there were 451 cases across Iraq (Al-Jumaili, 2021). Inter-provincial travel was prohibited and the regional border between the KRI and the rest of Iraq was completely closed on the Kurdish side. On 20 April, the GoI eased the lockdown and movement restrictions: a curfew was imposed, travel was allowed outside curfew hours and the regional border was opened, although 2,085 cases had been confirmed by 30 April. However, inflows were still heavily controlled: airports and the country’s external borders remained closed. The KRG authorities adopted a similar strategy to that in Turkey by launching a vast operation to repatriate their citizens to the regional territory. Several hundred students, expatriates and travellers were repatriated to Erbil and quarantined in hotels for a fortnight. [33] The KRG also decided to release hundreds of prisoners until their court date. More than 1,500 detainees were affected by this measure, but they were forbidden to travel between Iraqi provinces. At the beginning of May, just as the KRG saw the spread of the virus stabilising in the region, the GoI announced a considerable increase in the number of infections and deaths: [34] on 10 May, the United Nations recorded 2,676 cases, 107 deaths and 76 new cases each day; [35] on 18 May, the Iraqi government declared a new emergency lockdown in Baghdad.

25 This discrepancy between the health situation under the KRG and the GoI can be explained by the temporality of the measures put in place and the nature of the actors in charge of the health crisis in each of these territorialities, as management of the health situation is also a shared responsibility between the federal state and the regions. From the beginning of the health crisis, political interests have influenced the decisions taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Unlike the Turkish state, which centralised and controlled communication and decisions on the health crisis, the management of the pandemic in Iraq was supervised by several actors. At the beginning of March, the Committee 55, the Iraqi government’s crisis unit, became responsible for managing the pandemic. The committee declared on 22 March that the health crisis was a situation of force majeure and imposed a general lockdown, almost two weeks after lockdown measures were imposed by the KRG. Iran was at that point the epicentre of the virus in the Middle East and the closure of the Iraq-Iran land border was both an important health issue to limit the spread of the virus, and a considerable economic and diplomatic issue, given Iran’s strong influence in Baghdad. Since the US-imposed economic sanctions of 2018, Iraq has become the main regional trade outlet for Iran. The closure of the border for five weeks stifled an economy already severely weakened by international decisions. The KRG controlled a large portion of this border where an informal economy had developed on both sides. Beyond the official border crossing points under KRG control, there were numerous clandestine routes across the border, used by smugglers of goods and people, facilitating the journeys of Iranians fleeing their country for Iraq. With the closure of border crossings and restrictions imposed by the authorities, the informal economy and illegal entries increased. In March 2020, more than 150 smugglers were arrested for trafficking in goods and human beings. [36] In the face of difficulties of enforcing restrictions and the certainty that the virus was spreading uncontrollably to the rest of Iraq, the KRG decided on 30 April to open its borders with Iran [37] without consulting the GoI, who announced the official opening of two border crossing points on 12 May. Although the pandemic situation in Iran was far more serious than in Iraq, [38] the border remained open for a period of several weeks. However, the KRG authorities decided to limit travel to and from Iraq, requiring each request to be reasoned and justified in order to be allowed to leave or re-enter the area under the control of the Erbil authorities.

26 The management of the Iran-Iraq border illustrates the complexity of relationships between the various political actors who took charge of managing the health crisis. The notion of territoriality helps us to understand how, in the context of a health crisis such as COVID-19, regional political actors can apply health measures that are different to those applied by national actors (Johnson, 2020). While the Turkish state was able to impose its authority by using “national identity” to unite part of the population, the Iraqi state does not have such a capacity to impose new norms. In a context where, following elections, the majority was struggling to consolidate in Parliament, and where the central authorities were struggling to assert themselves in the face of the multiplicity of non-state actors operating on national soil, the Iraqi state was unable to maintain continuity of power and authority over its entire territory. The management of the Iran-Iraq border raises the question of transnational diplomatic and economic considerations, while the role of the regional border challenges the legitimacy of the Iraqi state. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the area separating these two territorialities was used as an external border by the KRG, designating Iraqi territory as a space from which the pandemic could re-emerge. The temporary closure of the crossing points between these two areas enabled the KRG authorities to reshape their migration policy, particularly the management of IDPs. From 18 April 2020, several hundred Yezidi IDPs found themselves blocked at gateway to the KRI. In this way, the regional authorities transformed an exception based on the health context into a political argument aimed at limiting the return of IDPs to their territory, a political decision with important consequences for the construction of migratory routes.

The Iraqi Regional Border and IDP Management: From Health Exception to Political Norm

27 The restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the virus had a significant impact on the most vulnerable communities in northern Iraq. The camps remained unaffected by the pandemic for a long time, with the first case of coronavirus only identified in Darashakran camp in Erbil province on 26 April. A two-week full lockdown was then imposed in the camp, raising fears of a rapid spread of the virus in an area where more than 13,000 Syrian nationals were living. However, the first strict lockdown measures and the complete closure of the camps were ordered long before the first cases of infection, as the camps were closed at the beginning of April and the inhabitants were advised to stay inside their accommodation to avoid social contact as much as possible. A large number of NGOs were forced to temporarily suspend their activities in the camps and close schools and clinics. The spread of the virus and the economic consequences of the health crisis had an impact on the return of exiles to their country of origin from the end of May. The closure of public spaces and businesses slowed down the formal and informal economies and affected the financial situation of exiles and IDPs. As the camps were also closed, many IDPs who had found work in the cities of Erbil, Dohuk or Souleymanieh (see Map 1) were left without jobs and, therefore, without income. According to the Iraqi NGO Lemon Tree Trust, in Domiz 1 camp, which hosted more than 32,000 Syrian Kurds, nearly 40% of the inhabitants lost their jobs. As a result, many Syrian Kurdish families decided to leave the KRI at the beginning of May in order to return to Syria in the hope of finding more economic opportunities and receiving greater support from the local authorities. [39] To facilitate these movements, the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES) announced the opening of its border with the KRI at the end of May (Hasan and Khaddour, 2020). According to the authorities in charge of the Semalka crossing point (see Map 1), on the Syrian-Iraqi border, in May-June 2020, between 100 and 150 Syrians, [40] who had been settled in Iraq, crossed the border each day to return to Syria, where health restrictions were less severe than those imposed by the KRG authorities. The same applied to refugees living outside the camps in the KRI. As in Turkey, many IDPs left urban centres and camps to take refuge in the countryside in the areas under the GoI or the KRG. This was also the case for Iranians who, for political reasons, went to Iraqi Kurdistan rather than Iraq. More than 250 Iranian families who had fled their country in this context settled in Suleymaniyah, where health restrictions also had a strong economic and social impact on populations already weakened by conflicts and regional geopolitical tensions. Unable to return to their country of origin, they could not obtain Iraqi nationality or benefit from the aid offered by UNHCR to Syrians and IDPs. Amplifying discrimination based on national origin, ethnicity or religious orientation (Yaya et al., 2020), the COVID-19 crisis also increased inequalities in access to aid and solidarity mechanisms set up by international NGOs and state actors.

28 Both the KRG and the GoI used authoritarian methods to standardise the discourse on crisis management and justify the imposition of legal norms reinforcing those in power and severely limiting civil liberties. The Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (CMC) suspended the licence of Reuters news agency for several weeks from 2 April for publishing an article alleging that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country was much higher than official statistics indicated. [41] The narrative of the crisis was framed by the GoI’s communications bodies, the CMC, but the overall rhetoric differed with the KRG producing a discourse criticising the GoI and its handling of the pandemic. A Human Rights Watch report, [42] published in June 2020, documented numerous arrests targeting journalists, activists, artists and academics in the areas under the KRG and the GoI for demonstrating or expressing critical opinions on government restrictions. These repressive measures also affected exiles and IDPs, who were used as a tool to exert pressure by Iraqi political actors. Following the closure of the regional border, several thousand IDPs and exiles were stranded on the Iraqi side of the border (see Map 1). This was not a new situation, Arab populations having been victims of widespread discrimination since the launch of the war against the Islamic State, and often forced to settle outside their villages of origin if they are located inside KRG territory. [43] However, the situation deteriorated after April 2020, with the health argument and the defence of the national interest serving as a convenient justification for the adoption of discriminatory measures. Thus, more than 1,200 Arab families were banned from returning to their villages in the KRI, and the fight against the spread of COVID-19 was used to justify the discretionary closure of checkpoints between the two territorialities. This use of the regional border as an external border is part of a broader dynamic aimed at reshaping IDP and exile management policy in Iraq. Indeed, the health crisis accelerated the closure of IDP and exile camps, a process that had been announced by the Iraqi national authorities in August 2019.

29 In the early stages of the health crisis, the objective of the measures put in place by the KRG and the GoI was to close the camps in order to reduce movements and prevent the spread of the virus to the spaces under lockdown where thousands of IDPs were living. Economic hardship, linked to the lockdown measures, drove a significant number of IDPs and exiles to leave the major cities and camps to return to their villages of origin in often precarious economic and health conditions. The closure of regional borders made it possible to prevent the return of some IDPs to the camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, once the measures had been eased. The Iraqi national authorities exploited this moment of health crisis to accelerate reforms and close down virtually all IDP camps within the space of a few months. After being locked down in the camps for several weeks, the IDPs were expelled. Camps in the regions of Kirkuk, Baghdad and Nineveh (see Map 1), the vast majority of which were under the control of the GoI, were gradually closed between September and November 2020, leaving more than 100,000 people [44] destitute in the middle of a health crisis, with the only instruction being to return to their region of origin. According to IOM (İçduygu, 2020), more than 50% of these exiles and IDPs had no possibility to return to their place of origin, due to the destruction and insecurity caused by the resurgence of the Islamic State. Between October 2020 and January 2021, the GoI shut down fourteen IDP camps across Iraq without any reception strategy being established by the authorities to deal with the families who were unable to return to their regions of origin. The latter were accommodated near major cities or in informal camps where it was even more difficult to put in place health protection measures. In contrast to the GoI, the KRG announced that it would keep the camps open: [45] twenty-six of the twenty-eight official IDP camps still open in Iraq in 2021 were located in the KRI. [46] By using the health crisis to accelerate the closure of the camps, the GoI did not solve the IDP crisis as it had announced in August 2019, but instead contributed to creating a new wave of displacement. A few months after the closure of the camps, a significant number of Iraqi IDPs took up the journey towards Europe where they joined the KRG’s IDP camps. [47]

When COVID-19 Redraws Migratory Routes

30 The strategies employed by the Turkish and Iraqi states in the context of the COVID-19 health crisis raise questions about the relationship between peoples and their territory. As the virus circulated mainly by land, controlling space and restricting movement were essential to curb its spread. Turkey and the KRG developed different policy responses, influenced by their geographical and geopolitical positioning and by the historical and socio-cultural heritage of the populations living in these territories. The notion of territoriality enables us to grasp the elements that structured and influenced the health and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, since it allows us to integrate the relationship between individuals and their community into the notion of territorial control. Thus, media representations during the health crisis highlighted the importance of national identity in Turkey and the community dimension in the KRI. The notion of biopolitics makes it possible to distinguish between the responses of the Turkish state and those of the KRG and the Iraqi state, neither of which were in a position to invoke the protection of the national body. The chronology provided and constructed by the news feed showed that exiles and IDPs, who were already in a situation of economic and social vulnerability, were victims of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus and targets of the authoritarian abuses by the ruling powers. Amplifying ethnic, racial and religious discrimination in the host societies, these measures also had a strong impact on the construction of migratory journeys, with migrants being used by the authorities, in the case of Turkey and the GoI, to reaffirm their authority over a territory and their community. In order to gain a better understanding of the extent of the phenomenon, the consequences of the health crisis on migrants in the Middle East and Europe should be the subject of further study. While, in keeping with the notion of journey, migratory itineraries are drawn up, while paths are forged along the way (Bacon, 2016), it would be important to study, through an analysis of migrants’ words, how this crisis, this pandemic moment, reconfigured the projects and migratory journeys of exiles crossing the Middle East region at the time.



Exacerbating pre-existing political and social tensions, the pandemic revealed the structural weaknesses of certain states in dealing with migratory flows and the issue of the reception of exiles and internally displaced persons (IDPs). This case study focuses on Iraq and Turkey. The health and policy responses adopted by both states had specific impacts in a region where the frequency and density of mobility are high, and where conflicts have made populations ever more precarious and have weakened state actors with the capacity to address crises. The notion of territoriality allows us to grasp the elements that structured and influenced health and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, in that it adds the relationship between individuals and their community to the notion of territorial control. We describe how the various political forces involved used the health crisis to consolidate their power, redefine their migration policy(ies) and reshape the management of displaced persons. The article also considers the production of scientific knowledge in the field of human and social sciences in a context of health crisis, where researchers are themselves confronted with the closure of borders and forced to remain immobile.

  • migration
  • policies
  • exiles
  • camps
  • pandemic
  • COVID-19
  • international relations
  • territoriality
  • biopolitics
  • Iraq
  • Turkey
  • Iraqi Kurdistan
  • internally displaced persons (IDPs)

Réponses politiques à la crise de la COVID-19 et gestion migratoire en Turquie et en Irak : des enjeux de territorialités ?

Exacerbant les tensions politiques et sociales déjà existantes, la pandémie a révélé les faiblesses structurelles de certains États face à l’appréhension des flux migratoires et à la question de l’accueil des exilés et des déplacés. L’Irak et la Turquie constituent les deux espaces principaux sur lesquels se concentre cette étude de cas. Les réponses sanitaires et politiques adoptées par ces États ont en effet eu des impacts spécifiques dans une région où la fréquence et la densité des mobilités sont importantes, et où les conflits n’ont cessé de précariser les populations et d’affaiblir les acteurs étatiques capables de répondre aux crises. La notion de territorialité permet justement de saisir les éléments qui ont structuré et influencé les réponses sanitaires et politiques à la pandémie de COVID-19, en ce qu’elle ajoute à la notion de contrôle territorial, la relation entre l’individu et sa communauté. Nous décrivons la manière dont les différentes forces politiques en présence se sont emparées de la crise sanitaire pour asseoir leur pouvoir, redéfinir leur(s) politique(s) migratoire(s) et réorienter la gestion des personnes déplacées. Il s’agit également de questionner le travail de production de savoirs scientifiques en sciences humaines et sociales dans un contexte de crise sanitaire dans lequel les chercheurs se trouvent eux-mêmes confrontés à la fermeture des frontières et contraints à l’immobilité.

  • exilés
  • relations internationales
  • migration
  • politiques
  • camps
  • déplacés
  • pandémie
  • COVID-19
  • territorialités
  • biopolitiques

Respuestas políticas a la crisis de la COVID-19 y gestión de la migración en Turquía e Irak: ¿cuestiones de territorialidad?

Exacerbando las tensiones políticas y sociales ya existentes, la pandemia ha puesto de manifiesto las debilidades estructurales de algunos Estados a la hora de afrontar los flujos migratorios y la cuestión de la acogida de exiliados y desplazados. Irak y Turquía son las dos áreas principales en las que se centra este estudio de caso. Las respuestas sanitarias y políticas adoptadas por estos Estados han tenido repercusiones específicas en una región en la que la frecuencia y la densidad de la movilidad son elevadas, y en la que los conflictos han precarizado constantemente a las poblaciones y han debilitado a los actores estatales capaces de responder a las crisis. La noción de territorialidad permite captar los elementos que estructuraron e influyeron en las respuestas sanitarias y políticas a la pandemia de COVID-19, ya que añade a la noción de control territorial la relación entre el individuo y su comunidad. Describimos cómo las distintas fuerzas políticas implicadas aprovecharon la crisis sanitaria para consolidar su poder, redefinir su(s) política(s) migratoria(s) y reorientar la gestión de los desplazados. También se trata de cuestionar la producción de conocimiento científico en las ciencias humanas y sociales en un contexto de crisis sanitaria en el que los propios investigadores se enfrentan al cierre de fronteras y se ven obligados a permanecer inmóviles.

  • política
  • migración
  • campos
  • pandemia
  • COVID-19
  • exiliado
  • personas desplazadas
  • relaciones internacionales
  • territorialidad
  • biopolítica
  • Irak
  • Turquía
  • Kurdistán iraquí
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Tony Rublon
Doctoral student in geography, MIGRINTER, University of Poitiers, MSHS, Bât. A5, 5 rue Théodore Lefebvre, TSA 21103, 86073 Poitiers cedex 9; tony.rublon[at]
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
Translated by
Katherine Booth
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Uploaded on on 24/08/2023
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