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January 30, 2012, Monday

Panic in Expatville

Most readers will be familiar with the expression “to set a cat among the pigeons,” meaning, basically, to cause an uproar.

 Well, last week was the week that an enormous bureaucratic leopard was set amongst the resident yabancı pigeons, who were soon, to mix metaphors madly, running around like headless chickens.

Pause and rewind. It was last Monday when trustworthy information started to suggest that we must all register at our local Social Security Institution (SGK) office and start paying around TL 200 a month for health services or risk a whopping TL 886 fine.

The details were vague. Did you have to register if you were covered by a social security system in your home country? What if you had taken out private Turkish health insurance? But the real bugbear was the short notice. The deadline was Jan. 31, which was just seven working days away. How, we wondered, were we all to meet it?

Not feeling particularly optimistic, I set off for Nevşehir to see what was what. In my favor, there were likely to be shorter queues here (I’d already heard reports of 300 twitchy foreigners waiting in line by 9 a.m. at one İstanbul office). On the other hand it was hard to believe that word would yet have filtered through to our neck of the Cappadocian wood.

But, you know, sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised. Expecting suspicious looks at an office not accustomed to foreign visitors, I was ushered straight through to the right place where a jolly soul called, predictably, Mehmet Bey was soon shuffling through the photocopies of passport and residency permit that I’d brought with me. “No,” he said finally. “You don’t have to sign up. You will be covered by social security in your own country. This is for people who don’t have that cover.”

Actually, that begged a whole lot of questions about the UK’s “habitual residency” test for deciding who does and does not qualify for treatment under the National Health Service. But at least the UK has an NHS -- an American friend who was turned away in İstanbul was told that he was covered by America’s social security system, which really only covers the elderly. Sadly, the new changes also affect many Turks who previously qualified for free healthcare through the green card system. A queue was forming, the phone was ringing. I made my excuses and left.

Then -- hoorah! -- came news that the British ambassador was to investigate and report back to us. For one wild moment (and apologies to anyone from the embassy who is reading this) I had a vision of him riding out from his castle on a white charger, lance at the ready, although of course in more mundane modern times he presumably just slipped into his car and had his chauffeur drive him to the ministry for a quick chat (short notice, lack of clarity, blah blah blah) over a cup of tea.

Whatever, it had the decided effect. By the end of the week the revised advice was that we Brits need only sign up if we wanted to. For other nationalities the situation remains unclear, and the old requirements could always be reactivated later, as happened after the fiasco of the unheralded visa changes two years ago. Watch this space.

Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.

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