The world mustn't fail Turkey-Syria earthquake victims
When the people of Turkey and Syria went to bed Sunday night, little did they know that the next 24 hours would leave a lasting impact on their lives, and for the worst. Turkey and Syria are reeling from the shocks and aftershocks of three powerful earthquakes that have rocked these countries within a span of less than a day. The first earthquake, of 7.8 magnitude, shook the region at around 4:17am, local time, on February 6. It struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep at a depth of only 18 kilometres, shaking southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria to the core, jolting the residents out of their sleep. The tremors were also felt as far as Egypt, Cyprus and Lebanon. Later, as aftershocks continued, two more major earthquakes occurred – one of magnitude 7.6, striking southeastern Turkey's Kahramanmaras region, and the other of magnitude 6.0, in central Turkey – putting the lives of thousands of people in the affected areas at greater risk.
As of 4pm Bangladesh time on February 7, as many as 5,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria because of the earthquake, and hundreds of thousands are rendered homeless. Harrowing tales are coming out of the region. The death toll is expected to rise as search and rescue operations continue in both the countries. There is another risk involved: the dropping temperatures. Weather conditions in both the countries are not conducive to conducting effective rescue operations. Those left homeless and placed in tents will be under increased risk of being affected by the near freezing temperatures, especially the children and the elderly.
The challenge for the residents in the war-torn northeast Syria is greater, as they are already in compromised living conditions. Eleven years of civil war and oppression by the government forces and terrorist elements have left millions in Syria's northeast vulnerable to multiple risk factors, including multiple displacements – there are people who have been displaced up to 20 times – reduced access to nutrition, decent accommodation, medical care, education, and now the earthquake is expected to make the situation worse for the people. "Women and children will find themselves particularly at risk of exploitation and abuse should they find themselves once again displaced," said Tanya Evans, country director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Syria.
And in the rebel-held areas, where reaching aid and humanitarian assistance is already difficult due to differing geopolitical interests of various actors, people's sufferings will be greater. Not that Syria has much of an aid, with less than 50 percent of the required USD 4 billion collected. The IRC has urged the international community to "urgently increase critical funding." While many countries, including Bangladesh, India, China, US, UK, and France, have offered assistance for the earthquake victims, making sure they reach the victims in need would be a critical challenge for the agencies working on the ground.
For Turkey, the earthquake - worst in years and resembling the harrowing 7.4 magnitude earthquake in 1999 that claimed more than 17,000 lives – could not have come at a worse time. The economy is fighting spiralling inflation – 85 percent as per the recent data – and an increased cost of living: as of data from November last year, food prices were 99 percent higher than the year before, transportation expenses had increased by 117 percent, housing cost went up by 85 percent, and domestic producer price index indicated a 157.69 percent annual increase. And in the wake of the first earthquake, the Turkish lira hit a record low, adding further pressure on the struggling currency.
While there is no denying that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been generous in opening the country's doors to the helpless Syrian victims – currently housing more than 3.6 million refugees – it is taking an additional toll, among other factors, on the country's economy and his popularity, as people are having to eat up their savings due to the rising living costs and increasing poverty, and there has been little help from the international community.
Amid these conditions, general elections are expected to be held in Turkey in May this year. How the 68-year-old veteran – president since 2014 – responds to this new emergency will be a key factor determining his standing in the upcoming elections.
But keeping all considerations and analyses apart, reaching aid and assistance to the affected families and individuals, ensuring their immediate and sustainable rehabilitation – especially in view of alarming weather forecasts – and making sure they get safe and unmanipulated access to essential nutrition and medical care will be the priority.
To reach the victims trapped in the rebel-held areas in Syria (Idlib and northern Aleppo provinces) – home to more than 4.1 million internally displaced refugees – the agencies would have to navigate challenging scenarios. Already the UN has limited access to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing – a major crossing point between Turkey and Syria – through which aid could be transported into northeast Syria, and on top of it, it has also sustained significant damage due to the earthquake, making aid transportation difficult. Moreover, Gaziantep, epicentre of the first earthquake, is considered a major hub for aid groups working across the border in northwest Syria, and the damage there has created additional pressure on aid workers.
In view of these scenarios, aid agencies and both the Turkish and Syrian governments, as well as the rebel groups, would have to work in collaboration and find immediate and effective solutions to make sure that the people trapped there are taken care of and provided with the support they need.
The next few hours are going to be critical – so is reaching immediate aid to the affected people. If there was ever a time for the Turkish and Syrian governments, the rebels and the world community to rise above their differences and unite for the cause of humanity, it is now. The world must not fail the helpless earthquake victims.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb