On Feb. 6, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria, 21 miles west of the city of Gaziantep. According to authorities, more than 35,000 people died in Turkey and an estimated 5,500 died in Syria.
Beyond the death toll, millions of people have been injured and displaced. The United Nations said that the earthquake had affected as many as 5.3 million in Syria alone. And for Turkey, the situation is all too familiar: Turkey sits atop two major fault lines and has suffered major earthquakes before. In 1999, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake was blamed for an estimated 18,000 deaths.
Complicating the current crisis is the fact that the area of Northern Syria impacted by the earthquake has been riven by violence for the past decade due to the county’s ongoing civil war. The war, which grew out of the wider Arab Spring protests of 2011, has left northern sections of the country in the hands of rebels opposed to Bashar al-Assad, the country’s leader.
To shed light on the complexities of this ongoing catastrophe, Fordham News spoke with experts in international humanitarian aid, the Middle East, and mental health.
Politics and Aid
Anjali Dayal, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and a senior scholar in residence at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
The aid situation in Syria is deeply dependent on United Nations Security Council politics because the region in Syria that was hardest hit has been part of complex international negotiations about the passage of aid. The U.N. is an intergovernmental organization, and under the terms of the U.N. Charter, the Syrian government has ultimate authority over the area–but the northwest part of the country remains locked in an ongoing civil war, where the Syrian government’s authority is contested on the ground. The politics of U.N. aid passing into this part of Syria have become really complicated, as a result.
Over the years, the negotiations in the Security Council, where Russia has veto power, narrowed down the number of open crossings to a single one in northwest Syria, Bab al-Hawa, which was badly hit by this earthquake.
Thankfully, after a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that the Syrian government has agreed to allow two more border crossings between Syria and Turkey to open up for three months [to allow for] humanitarian relief to the earthquake-struck zones.
This is important because it means that the international community [including the U.N.] can get aid to a part of Syria [run by the anti-al-Assad rebels] where the Syrian government is more than happy to let people die. There are local organizations on the ground that cross through other crossings, but nobody really has the scale or reach that the U.N. does for the volume of aid that’s necessary at this moment in particular. That’s why this has become so contentious.
So a huge crisis like this really highlights how important it is to have concerted multilateral abilities to respond right away in the service of people who really need the best assistance that they can get.
Consequences of Corruption and Civil War
Melissa Labonte, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and a faculty affiliate of Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs
I would describe this as sort of a tale of two humanitarian crisis responses. In Turkey, you have a capable state, but it’s a state that is sclerotic and has been plagued by corruption. Anyone who has traveled to Turkey in the last few years has seen huge construction projects that have been doled out as political favors to loyalists of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party. You have buildings that have not been built to code, in areas that are very close to the fault lines. This was a recipe for disaster.
The other is Syria, where prior decisions stemming from the Civil War mean that in an area with about 11 million people in it, more than half are internally displaced persons from other parts of Syria.
Most people understand that the Syrian Civil Defense Force, or “white helmets,” have been working in this area for a really long time with very little assistance from the outside world.
You’ve got millions of people who are now living in structures that were decimated by the war. They have no food, no shelter, no medicine, and no water. It’s that last element that is going to turn that part of the post-earthquake crisis into one where the death toll is going to start to mount catastrophically. Because what’s going to happen next is there’ll be a massive outbreak of cholera.
As an international community, we have to come to the recognition that things are so deeply interconnected. Our failure to deal with crises like Syria and our failure to cultivate a more responsive democracy in Turkey are the antecedent conditions that lead to the inability or the unwillingness of regimes to respond effectively to their populations.
‘Recovery Will Take Time’: The Importance of Ongoing Donations
Selin Gülgöz, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology who lived in Istanbul from 1993 until 2009, when she moved to the United States for graduate school. Her family still lives there today.
Istanbul wasn’t affected directly by this earthquake, but we did live through the major earthquake back in 1999, where the epicenter was a little bit outside of the city. I was very fortunate at that time that our family was unaffected, but it’s hard to remain unaffected even if your close ones are not hurt. I was 11 at the time, so it was quite traumatizing.
It’s estimated that this earthquake has impacted roughly 15 million people. Turkey as a whole country has about 80 million. So that’s a huge percentage of the population.
Most of my efforts so far have been trying to raise awareness of some of the local organizations that have been there from day one, and are often faster than governmental organizations.
There are two that have a proven record of trust and professionalism, are reliable, fast-acting, and have networks in Turkey on the ground: Turkish Philanthropy’s Turkish Earthquake Relief Effort; and Bridge to Turkiye’s Earthquake Relief Fund.
Right now, 30,000 people have died and the number is expected to rise. Even more have been displaced, including children who have lost their families, so monthly contributions are encouraged, as healing and recovery will take time.
An Event That Affects the Whole Region
I work with projects addressing the crisis in Lebanon, which has the highest refugee population per capita in the world. Our office supports JRS teams in Syria in Aleppo and Homs, and right now they’re helping with emergency distributions, especially winterization materials because it’s very cold here right now. Anyone who wants to help our teams can do so by donating here.
The difficulty that all organizations are experiencing right now in Syria is that a lot of aid workers and volunteers there have also already experienced multiple traumas from the war. Now they’ve survived this earthquake, and many have suffered their own personal losses.
In Lebanon, the earthquake woke us up from our sleep here, and luckily, it missed us. But people are still affected here. So many of the people we work with have lost loved ones in Aleppo. It affects the whole region.
A concern that I have is that international attention could wane. Right now there’s a big effort from the international community to respond to these crises, but once crises become protracted, the eyes of the world look away to new emergencies.
Focusing on Mental Health
Lynne Jones, child psychiatrist and course director for the program on Mental Health in Complex Emergencies at Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs
I hope that this will shake people into their senses and realize that human beings are human beings, and they need their basic needs addressed. I would add to that list the emotional need for connection. Whether somebody has died or not died, everybody has experienced loss. If it’s compounded by the loss of a loved person, of course, it’s much worse, but even if you haven’t lost a person, you’ve lost the environment in which you’ve lived. You’ve lost any sense of security, you’ve lost all your belongings.
Imagine you’re standing there and everything around you has been destroyed. What you need is to be reconnected with people that are familiar to you and reestablish as quickly as possible some kind of structure and routine in your life. And, these two things will really help you address the other issues of maintaining your physical health.
I’ve written guidelines with others for both the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine crisis on how we can support children who have suffered a bereavement. We’re adapting them now. The key points are, to tell the truth in a way that’s appropriate to a child’s developmental age and to make sure that they have continuous loving care.