The fall-out of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria continues, with NGOs warning of the long-term impact on children and families who have lost everything
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When the dust has settled, the rubble has been cleared, and the dead have been buried, the humanitarian aftershocks of Monday’s horrific earthquake will continue to reverberate, aid agencies warn.
More than 20,000 people are feared dead across parts of Turkey and Syria, after two quakes of 7.5 and 7.8 magnitudes respectively shook the region, destroying buildings, homes, lives and livelihoods.
According to the Disaster Emergency Committee, in Turkey alone, 6,000 buildings including schools and health centres have collapsed, with infrastructure vital to everyday life such as sanitation and water supplies badly damaged.
The committee’s chief executive Salah Saeed said: “The devastation in Turkey and Syria is heartbreaking, with thousands of people losing loved ones suddenly in the most shocking of ways.”
The destruction of so many homes poses a long-term harm to families, specifically children, who are particularly vulnerable to illness, and at risk of losing out on education.
“Essentially, thousands of families in Turkey and Syria no longer have a home,” Sam Hewett, regional director at the charity ShelterBox, told Byline Times. “When you unpack that notion of home, it’s meant to be a place of safety.”
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ShelterBox provides emergency response in cases of disaster and conflict, including by providing tarpaulins, hygiene aids, cooking essentials, and shelter kits. It has launched an urgent appeal in response to the earthquake.
That safety, Hewett continued, can mean the most basic physical protection from winter temperatures, when families without shelter will be “exposed to freezing temperatures, and what belongings they have left will get wet. Their daily routines are disrupted – so cooking, meals and also sleep. Families need somewhere safe to sleep and be protected while they are asleep”.
According to witnesses on the ground, families in Turkey are finding shelter wherever they can, including in cars. Salah Aboulgasem, deputy director of partner development at Islamic Relief, based in Gazientep, Turkey, described how “a lot of people are sleeping in cars because they are scared to go back into the buildings due to aftershocks. The cars are freezing cold”.
Losing home and shelter is an immediate disaster, but it has long-term health consequences, particularly on children. “If you’ve not got shelter, or even if you have some reasonably good shelter but it’s cold and damp, you’re not able to rest properly,” Hewett said.
This has an impact on education. When children eventually are able to get back to school, they may be in a safe place for learning. But without a safe and warm place to sleep, “they are not going to be well-rested and therefore able to learn”.
Then there are health concerns. Without a safe place to call home, explained Hewett, “people are more at risk of getting disease, and existing health conditions are exacerbated”.
The long-term concerns are reflected in the emergency response, with emphasis being placed by NGO leaders on the immediate urgency to clear the rubble, as well as the future need of those struggling with the impact of losing their loved ones, homes, and sense of safety.
“The next priority is supporting people who have lost their homes and gone through huge trauma,” said Aboulgasem. “People need medicines and warmth. There is a lot of screaming, people are trying to find relatives.”
Risks to Refugees
The impact of the earthquake on Syria is of particular concern, with the country still involved in a 12-year conflict that has left thousands dead and millions displaced.
The Assad regime and its Russian allies have inflicted huge harm on formerly opposition strongholds such as Aleppo and Afrin, and the remaining rebel-held area of Idlib, all of which were hit by the quake.
There were already more than four million people in north-west Syria in need of humanitarian assistance, with between one and two million people in need of support in the north east of the country.
“That was before the earthquake,” said Hewett. “Now you’ve got a situation where this large population has experienced another disaster on top of the fact they’ve already been displaced. They’ve got reduced coping mechanisms already.”
Opposition-controlled regions of Syria have already endured so much loss and trauma. Families have lost loved ones, their homes, and children have lost education and stability. Now they are facing a new trauma – new death, new destruction, and new fear.
The conflict followed pro-democracy protests in Syria during the 2011 Arab Spring. The calls for a more democratic system were met with violence and brutality by the Assad regime, leading to more than a decade of war. Millions of people are internally displaced, including those who fled the regime into opposition-controlled areas. It has led to 6.8 million refugees escaping Syria — of these, just over half are in Turkey.
The high number of refugees living in the Turkish regions impacted by the earthquake is a further cause for concern, with the potential for tensions and a battle over a limited resources. The affected regions in Turkey are home to the majority of Syrian refugees who have resettled in the country.
“Syrian refugees in Turkey are already vulnerable, they are already marginalised,” Hewett told Byline Times. “There are already existing tensions, and now you’ve got additional pressure, because there’s been a major disaster where everyone is in a very difficult situation.”
The UK has sent a “top tier” effort to Turkey to assist the rescue efforts, aid minister Andrew Mitchell told Channel 4 News, but acknowledged the challenges in getting into Syria, including the route for aid from Turkey into the country being damaged by the quake.
There are concerns that aid from the Syrian Government is not reaching rebel held areas, leading to accusations that the regime is weaponising the disaster in its ongoing war.
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