Over 33,000 people were confirmed dead at the start of this week after two earthquakes struck south Turkey and northern Syria. The final death toll will be far higher. Desperate rescue attempts continue with those on the ground saying the disaster will have a “long tail”.
Alongside the injuries and deaths, disease is expected to spread and damaged infrastructure and supply routes will hit the most vulnerable hardest. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near Gaziantep in south Turkey, 30 miles from the Syrian border. It was soon followed by a 7.5 magnitude quake less than 100 miles north.
As Socialist Worker went to press, 29,605 people had died in Turkey and 3,574 in Syria. The rising death toll is a product of political negligence and giving profit priority over construction safety. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in charge in Turkey for 20 years.
Throughout his rule the government has sold developers legal exemptions from building safety laws in return for a fee. In the area hit by the earthquake up to 75,000 “construction amnesties” were handed out, according to the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects. And a new law is awaiting parliamentary approval that would grant a further amnesty for recent construction work.
More than 6,000 buildings collapsed in the disaster zones. Regulations state that concrete has to be reinforced with steel bars, and vertical columns and horizontal beams have to be able to absorb the impact of tremors. Had the regulations been followed the damage would’ve been confined to the beams. Instead, the columns gave way and the floors collapsed on top of each other.
One big question is what happened to the large sums collected through two “earthquake solidarity taxes” created after a 1999 quake. The funds were meant to be used to make buildings resistant to future earthquakes. Meanwhile Erdogan’s response to the disaster has been to increase repressive state powers. He has also tried to shift the blame onto victims, describing them as “whingers” and “looters”.
The huge rescue operation across ten of Turkey’s 81 provinces took days to reach some villages due to damaged roads and access issues. But also because the resources employed are too small. Turkey’s civil disaster authority now has the central role in the disaster relief, with a staff of just 15,000, assisted by non‑government groups.
Several governments have promised to provide aid and support—but this will likely be restricted by budget cuts. And they won’t readily open their doors to those that attempt to flee the wreckage and despair. Refugees from Kurdistan and Syria already face persecution across Europe .
The devastating death toll exposes the failures of a profit driven system. With natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods and drought increasing because of accelerating climate change, more deadly events can only be expected.
The US has issued a 180-day exemption for its sanctions on Syria, which applies to “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts”. The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had detailed how US and other Western sanctions were impeding the relief effort. And United Nations experts say more needs to be done to allow aid into Syria.
“While welcoming steps taken to suspend some sanctions on Syria. I call all sanctioning states to lift sanctions, to open all ways to deliver humanitarian aid and to ensure that no donor, bank or other actor is punished for humanitarian help to Syrians to avoid over-compliance,” said Alena Douhan, a UN official.
Even if the exemption successfully allows more relief efforts, US sanctions on Syria are specifically designed to prevent the country’s reconstruction. This will hamper rebuilding after the earthquake.
The Tories said they would give £8 million of support to Syria and Turkey. And they promised £3 million to volunteer organisations. Meanwhile, a public appeal to help survivors has raised more than £60 million in its first three days. It included just £5 million from the government.
Britain halved the amount of aid to Syria from £180 million in 2020 to £90 million in 2021. British bombs worsened the civil war in Syria, crushing infrastructure, health services and causing a reliance on aid. Before the earthquakes, the UN said over 70 percent of Syria’s population relied on aid.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attacked Kurds in regions across Turkey and Syria throughout his reign. He has overseen repression against Kurdish journalists, activists, academics and sympathisers. Those living in Kurdistan’s regions face the full force of the Turkish state, and now expect little aid.
Following the 2012 earthquake in Van, Turkey, the government blocked some aid to the region. Now many are turning to community organising systems in response to being ignored by Erdogan’s regime.
The World Health Organisation says about 26 million people across Syria and Turkey have been affected by the earthquake. In Syria alone, up to 5.3 million people may be homeless. Erodgan has overseen the deportation of thousands of Syrian refugees. Many now homeless in Turkey will fear the same could happen to them.
Charities working in the region say refugee numbers are expected to soar. But if they flee the area, almost all will be pushed back at the borders or forced to endure dangerous journeys to reach safety.
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