News media play a key role during public health crises since news media attract public attention; affect attitudes, and public opinion. Media coverages affect social representations of emerging infectious diseases by producing information during pandemics/epidemics. When Ebola (the first outbreak of the Ebola epidemic was in Ebola River in Democratic Congo Republic in 1976) spread across other parts of Africa, it received widespread media coverage in the British press in the mid-1990s. Especially in the British tabloids, Ebola was depicted as intrinsically African and spread partly by African traditions of close contact with monkeys as well as eating them ( p966). The SARS epidemic, severe acute respiratory syndrome, which occurred in Hong Kong, took media attention in the spring of 2003. News stories on SARS pervasively covered the themes of difference between the West and the East through othering Chinese authorities and Chinese people’s dirt, unhygienic lifestyles in the British press ( p2568). When the H1N1 influenza emerged in Mexico in June 2009, the WHO declared a pandemic. However, media stories which pointed out that the outbreak supposedly started in Mexican pig farms played a role in the denunciation of Mexicans and Latinos as usual suspects in the US in 2009 ( p1), while also exonerating the dominance of white Americans.
The media had an enormous influence on public during the SARS epidemic. It was shown that consistent messages about preventive measures, mask use and hygiene practices on television and in the newspapers affected the total spread of the germs. Rise in media reports and encouraging news stories on SARS and H1N1 epidemics impacted social distance practices, vaccination behaviors, severity, and length of the epidemic/pandemic ( p1–2-10,  p870). Media exposure served to enhance H1N1 knowledge of people during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009; the degree of neighborhood social capital, community trust, social networking and social bonds enhanced information flow and affected positive health behaviors including parents’ decisions on vaccination ( p4860–5).
A study shows that media coverage cannot be responsible for the control of transmission of the epidemic by itself, but it helps shorten the time of the secondary peak by alerting and making aware of the public to the virus ( p50). Regarding this, media have a considerable effect on the pattern and the scale of transmission ( p163). When media guide the public, it can mitigate emerging infections during the early stages of an outbreak ( p9). The effects of the media coverage become more significant when visibility of issue increases and when news stories are consistently biased in one direction ( p15).
Syrian refugees in Turkish news media
Turkish news media and Turkish state officials hardly ever mentioned Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the pandemic although Syrian refugees have been stereotypically represented in Turkish news media for years. Prevailing perceptions of Syrian refugees were mostly affirmative in the early years of the Syrian refugee crisis. General social acceptance of Turkish society towards Syrian refugees was remarkable between the years 2011 and 2014. The descriptions of Syrian refugees as “people who escaped from persecution and tyranny”, “our guests in Turkey” and “our brothers and sisters of the same religion” were examples of the positive attitudes. However, there were also some negative perceptions such as “people who are a burden on us” or “parasites/beggars” ( p66–67).
Syrian refugees were depicted negatively since their arrival in Turkey by news media. Discriminatory framings in national press between 2011 and 2014 helped justify backlash of “threat”, economic burden, and security problems without regarding human rights perspective ( p157–77). Negative media representations in local and national dailies between 2013 and 2015 affected adversely social integration of Syrian refugee women ( p15–8). Their vulnerabilities and poverty were partly mentioned in the news media along with depictions such as criminals, fugitives, and as a burden on national economy in 2014 ( p78–79). Syrian refugees became the target of hate speech for the first time in 2015 in Turkish press ( p8,12). They were exposed to hate speech pervasively in the press and online ( p400–1).
They were characterized as a potential source of public disturbance, represented as a burden for Turkish economy, and portrayed as a threat against Turkish family structure and social order in the press in 2016 ( p8–9). News media differently covered Syrian refugees in the national and local context. National press dramatized problems of refugees such as health problems, deaths, and impoverishment more than local press. Only 11.3% of news stories in 2017 and 2018 covered education, healthcare, and housing issues of Syrian refugees ( p33). Syrian refugees were depicted as a burden on Turkish public services, claiming that Syrians had priority over Turks in health access, business ownership and other governmental resources ( p383). Newspaper articles expanded otherization of Syrian refugees in the society ( p46). Syrian refugees were the most targeted group of hate speech in the Turkish press in 2019 . Online hate speech against Syrian refugees was associated with political and economic problems, division in terms of Islam and secularism, hate against government policies. Online hate speech posed a more severe threat against Syrian refugees more than traditional media. Online hate speech reproduced pre-existing otherization of Syrian refugees and spread the discourse of discrimination. This affected very much ordinary individuals compared to other individuals with extreme beliefs. ( p147–8, p153). Hate, hostility, and racist discourses on social media, involved negative depictions which intensified ‘banal nationalism’ ( p9).
Hegemony of dominant groups and their media access bring out stereotypical media representations of minorities in the interest of majority groups. Superiority of dominant groups is strengthened by social representations of outgroups and stereotype content in the media ( p402–3, p410). Stigmatized groups face discrimination, which encompasses structural discrimination, too. Structural discrimination occurs when institutional policies deprive stigmatized groups ( p372– 3; p1527). Stigma brings “resource-reducing discrimination” which causes a variety of problems such as unemployment, housing, education, and access to healthcare ( p814) Stigma processes affect the distribution of life chances including medical care .
“Support” for Syrian refugees
Turkish state and several nongovernmental organizations provided some resources to meet the needs of refugees since the displacement of refugees following the outbreak of Syrian crisis in 2011 . General Directorate of Migration Management and the Migration Board were established in 2013 to implement government policies and strategies aimed at supporting migrants and refugees. After Syrians flee to Europe, the EU considered a crisis when over one million Syrian refugees arrived in Europe in 2015. Following all member states could not reach a solution of receiving refugees fairly within the EU borders, cooperation with the origin and transit countries came to the fore. Since the EU needed an urgent solution to stop refugees crossing the borders, the EU regarded Turkey as a potential partner ( p2–3). The EU and Turkey agreed on Joint Action Plan in October 2015 cooperating on preventing undocumented migration to the EU borders . Following the Joint Action Plan, the EU-Turkey Statement of November 2015 was agreed on and according to the Statement, the EU committed an initial 3 billion euros to Turkey to be spent for improving the socio-economic situation of the Syrians under temporary protection. Through ‘structured and more frequent high-level dialogue’ between the EU and Turkey, the EU pledged to accelerate visa liberalization once the requirements of the Roadmap are met. In return to concessions of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone, re-energizing accession negotiations of Turkey’s membership to the EU and opening of the new chapters, Turkey committed to prevent undocumented migration flows to the EU .
The EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016 agreed on to end the undocumented migration from Turkey to the EU in line with the Joint Action Plan. The EU committed to mobilize an additional three 3 billion euros until the end of 2018 and to accelerate the visa liberalization roadmap aiming to lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens until the end of June 2016. Turkey would take any necessary measures to prevent new undocumented migration and resettlement process of Syrians would be ensured according to the Statement. As of 20 March 2016, Turkey would readmit all new undocumented migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands . Since the EU needed Turkey to keep Syrians out of the EU borders and Erdogan threatened the EU to open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria in February 2016, the EU had to expand the concessions of Turkey . Recognizing and treating Turkey as a safe country of return were among these concessions, which lead to ignoring human right violations and authoritarian crackdowns ( p328). Weaponizing Syrian refugees by using them as a tool to extract concessions from the EU helped Erdogan to be less subject to the EU’s scrutiny and criticism ( p178). Empowering the Erdogan regime has undermined Turkish democracy ( p207) and press freedom. International refugee law has been breached by Greece, the EU and Turkey in many aspects according to the expert . Erdogan threatened to open the borders to send back Syrian refugees, and when he opened the northern border with Greece in spring 2020, asylum seekers were subject to violations of human rights on both sides of the border. At least one Syrian lost his life, while trying to enter Greece. Although illegal and violent pushback took place, the EU has not taken any action to protect international law in terms of protecting human rights and stopping pushbacks at the borders. The EU aimed at preventing enters of asylum seekers to its borders by providing “cooperation packages” with third states and amended the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in September 2020. It has been considered a further step in reducing access to asylum in the EU and increasing deportations from EU territory .
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, according to Turkey’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Voluntary National Review report in 2019, significant progress was achieved especially in social policies including reducing poverty, inequalities and accessing to basic services and health care. In this regard, registered Syrian refugees who hold a temporary ID number may receive all health care, free of charge. Unregistered Syrian refugees who do not have a temporary ID number are only provided with limited services and all Syrians are entitled to go directly to the health care centers of the Ministry of Health ( p46). Within the framework of the government policy, Migrant Health Centers (MHCs) were established in densely populated areas by Syrian refugees aiming at breaking language and cultural barriers as stated in the government report ( p46). However, prominent difficulties of Syrian refugees in access to basic services, registration issues, integration problems, stigmatization, discrimination, low socioeconomic level, and a general decline in the quality of life persist ( p5–8).
Syrian refugees have been extremely at risk due to the poor living conditions in crowded houses, insufficient sanitation conditions and lack of income since the outbreak of the pandemic ( p3–8). The pandemic exacerbated the existing problems in many areas, particularly access to healthcare since Syrian refugees are not entitled to healthcare in the provinces other than they reside ( p 7; p31). Moreover, Arabic-Turkish language barrier and lack of translators in health care facilities in most places remain ( p1439), which result in treatment gap ( p2). Although some health measurements were taken in 178 Migrant Health Centers in 29 provinces of Turkey ( p9–10), according to the report of Refugee Support Association, Syrian refugees were reluctant to go to health centers due to problems of social integration, mainly such as language barrier, worries, and lack of information. It was revealed that even employed Syrian refugees were reluctant to go to hospitals due to fear of being deported, eviction or dismissal, in case of testing positive. According to the survey, 52% of Syrian refugees did not have sufficient information on updates on access to healthcare, such as hospital appointments, medicines, and renewal of health reports. ( p25–6]).
Syrian refugees have become more impoverished during COVID-19 pandemic . A survey revealed that before the pandemic, unemployment rate was only 18% among the refugees, but then it increased to 88% after March 2020. Participants (43%) stated that they lost their jobs because the company or institution they work for stopped their activities. Dismissal (18%) and not being able to find a job (12%) were among the causes of unemployment. Syrian refugees had inadequate access to food (63%) and hygiene (53%) as of March 2020. They had difficulties in paying their rents, bills, and meeting basic needs due to increased expenditures (90%). 48% of children enrolled in the schools could not benefit from distance education ( p21–3).
A survey was conducted in 12 provinces of Turkey to reveal the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on employment of Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees, in May 2020. Results indicated that Syrian employees became more fragile than Turkish employees and women suffered the most. Loss of income was 88% for Syrian refugees, but it was only 50% for Turkish citizens. The rate of dismissal and unpaid leave of Syrians was higher than Turkish citizens. Nearly half of Syrian refugees lost their livelihood for an indefinite length of time. It was revealed that most of the refugees (90%) could not benefit from the COVID-19 support . Content analysis of Turkish news media will demonstrate underrepresentation of the plight of the refugees in the research period.