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Refugees and the Turkey-Syria (Kahramanmaras) Earthquake

By Amanda Gallant, on 15 February 2023

By Mhari Gordon

Nine days after the Kahramanmaras Earthquake on the 6th of February, the collapse of buildings and harsh winter weather conditions have raised the recorded death toll between Turkey and Syria to over 41,000 (Rasheed and Stepansky, 2023).

There are currently 5.5 million foreigners living in Turkey, including 3.7 million Syrian refugees, 320,000 people under international protection, mainly Afghans (UNHCR, 2022; Uras, 2022), 46,000 Ukrainians (Ukrinform, 2022) and 153,000 Russians (The Moscow Times, 2023) – since February 2022 fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine – as well as other migrants.

Millions of refugees live in areas most affected by the earthquake (France 24, 2023). In Syria, 57,000 Palestinian refugees live in 3 refugee camps in the quake-affected north (France 24, 2023). In Turkey, approximately 2 million Syrian refugees are living in south-eastern Turkey (ACAPS, 2023). Over 90% of Syrian refugees live among local Turkish populations, in buildings which are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking (IOM, 2017).

There has been widespread concern about the quality of buildings and infrastructure to withstand earthquakes. Despite the upgrade of building codes and stricter safety standards in the past 55 years, there has been a lack of regular and reliable inspection to ensure its enforcement and retrofitting of existing structures (Alexander, 2023; Lewis, 2003). These failures have led to mass fatalities and injuries, as well as homes and belongings lost due to collapsed and damaged buildings. The Kahramanmaras Earthquake has again highlighted the need for effective disaster prevention and preparedness.

Whilst Turkey is one of the only countries which includes migrants in their Disaster Risk Reduction policies, as it stands, there is currently limited information about the specific needs of migrants and refugees following the earthquake (ACAPS, 2023).

A UNHCR representative shared that they predict the refugee camps in south-eastern Turkey, which are already inhabited by 47,000 refugees, will be where earthquake-affected victims will seek refuge and medical assistance due to the already existing humanitarian systems and aid corridors (France 24, 2023). However, many of the key access roads are unsafe or damaged, also affected by the snow and rain of the winter storm, impacting the movement of people and resources including aid delivery (ACAPS, 2023; Al Jazeera, 2023). This has also significantly delayed search and rescue teams and aid getting to affected areas. For example, the south-eastern Turkish province of Hatay has only received external help 5 days after the initial earthquake with its airports reopening (Rasheed and Stepansky, 2023). In Syria, the response has been slower and delivering aid has been further complicated by restricted access (The Guardian, 2023). As seen in other earthquake-triggered disasters, citizens are the first responders pulling people out of the rubble and gathering resources. In Turkey, many Syrian refugees are participating alongside locals in the search and rescue of people as volunteers (France 24, 2023).

Many people who have sought refuge in Turkey and Syria may be subject to moving again, however, the accessibility and choice of relocation could be severely restricted depending on the availability of resources such as transport and money. This can place them in further precarious situations and increase the challenges of resettlement. Research has shown that in cases of other earthquake-triggered disasters, such as in Japan 2011 and New Zealand 2010-2011 (see studies by Uekusa and Matthewman (2017) and Ikeda and Garces-Ozanne (2019)), refugees and migrants were heavily involved in the immediate aftermath and recovery stages following the disasters, but there was confusion amongst the non-citizens on which resources they could access. Critical information was disseminated in languages or formats that were not suitable or inclusive of refugees and migrants. In these cases, local NGOs stepped in to circulate around migrant communities to relay and translate information, however, this required strong social and support networks. Appropriate warnings and information dissemination are key in helping people prepare for and recover from the impacts of hazards.

The following weeks and months will be significant for the recovery of people living in Turkey and Syria following this disaster, especially regarding the support needed for refugees and other migrant populations.

Reference List

ACAPS (2023) Briefing note: Earthquakes in south-eastern Türkiye and north-western Syria, ACAPS. Available at: https://www.acaps.org/sites/acaps/files/products/files/20230207_acaps_briefing_note_turkiye_and_syria_earthquake_0.pdf (Accessed: February 9, 2023).

Al Jazeera (2023) Severe weather hampers earthquake rescuers in Turkey and Syria, Earthquakes News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/6/severe-weather-hampers-earthquake-rescue-in-turkey-and-syria (Accessed: February 9, 2023).

Alexander, D. (2023) Reflections on the Turkish-Syrian Earthquakes of 6th February 2023: Building Collapse and its Consequences, UCL IRDR Blog. Available at: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/irdr/2023/02/09/reflections-on-the-turkish-syrian-earthquakes/ (Accessed: February 9, 2023).

France 24 (2023) Millions of vulnerable refugees in Turkey-syria quake zone, France 24. France 24. Available at: https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20230207-millions-of-vulnerable-refugees-in-turkey-syria-quake-zone (Accessed: February 9, 2023).

Ikeda, MM. and Garces-Ozanne, A. (2019) ‘Importance of self-help and mutual assistance among migrants during natural disasters’, WIT Transactions on the Built Environment, 190, pp. 65–77.

Lewis, J., (2003). Housing construction in earthquake-prone places: Perspectives, priorities and projections for development. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 18(2), pp.35-44.

Rasheed, Z. and Stepansky, J. (2023) Turkey-syria quake rescue phase ‘coming to a close’: Un, Turkey-Syria Earthquake News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/liveblog/2023/2/13/turkey-syria-earthquake-live-news-us-urges-un-vote-on-aid-access (Accessed: February 15, 2023).

The Guardian (2023) Syria earthquake aid held up as millions suffer in freezing conditions, The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/13/syria-earthquake-aid-held-up-as-millions-suffer-in-freezing-conditions (Accessed: February 13, 2023).

The Moscow Times (2023) Turkey stops granting residence permits to new Russian arrivals – report, The Moscow Times. The Moscow Times. Available at: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/01/23/turkey-stops-granting-residence-permits-to-new-russian-arrivals-report-a80018 (Accessed: February 13, 2023).

Uekusa, S. and Matthewman, S. (2017) ‘Vulnerable and resilient? Immigrants and refugees in the 2010–2011 Canterbury and Tohoku disasters’, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 22, pp. 355–361.

Ukrinform (2022) Since war-start, 279,000 Ukrainian citizens arrive in Turkey, 46,000 remain, Ukrinform. Укринформ. Available at: https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-society/3538094-since-warstart-279000-ukrainian-citizens-arrive-in-turkey-46000-remain.html (Accessed: February 13, 2023).

Uras, U. (2022) Rising anti-refugee sentiment leads to debate in Turkey, News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/27/rising-anti-refugee-sentiment-leads-debate-turkey (Accessed: February 9, 2023).

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