Geneva aid groups stretched as they scramble to respond to Turkey-Syria quake

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) work to rescue a trapped boy under a destroyed building in the city of Jandairis following the devastating earthquake that struck the Turkish-Syrian border, 8 February 2023. (DPA/Anas Alkharboutli)

A major earthquake along the Turkey-Syria border has revealed deep fault lines and gaps in the humanitarian system in a region already rendered vulnerable by a history of conflict and geopolitics.

Two days after a devastating earthquake shook southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, humanitarian relief was in short supply and struggling to get through amid natural and international hurdles. Roads and airports have been shut due to the quake damage, as the latest death toll exceeds 11,000, and WHO warns it could be twice as much.

Humanitarian workers on the ground responding to the worst affected areas in northwestern Syria, where access to areas is limited, were themselves recovering from the disaster.

“A lot of our colleagues are still recollecting from the shock that we went through,” Madevi Sun-Suon, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the quake’s epicentre, told Geneva Solutions Wednesday morning. “People are still reaching out to their colleagues regarding their safety and to their loved ones just recollecting from the horrors that we went through.”

A day earlier in Geneva, an unusually large array of aid organisation spokespersons were present for the first UN press briefing following the disaster, with each detailing first responses and needs.

Jens Laerke, OCHA’s chief communicator, said 12 international search and rescue teams had arrived in the region, with another 27 teams expected soon in Turkey. Partner organisations in Turkey were looking at moving helicopters and additional trucks to the region to help with relief efforts.

Mads Brinch Hansen, head of the Syria delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the organisation’s spokesperson, Tommaso Della Longa, explained that search and rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of equipment and fuel impacting machinery and transport, while electricity shortages were affecting hospitals.

A spokesperson for the UN children’s aid agency, Unicef, James Elder, described an “unimaginable hell” for children, in a region already hit by severe winter conditions and cholera outbreak. He reported that “thousands” of children had been killed.

Aid access, resolutions and geopolitics

Just two weeks after Ghada Eltahir Mudawi, OCHA deputy director, reported to the UN Security Council that in northwest Syria humanitarian efforts remained 78 per cent underfunded, aid experts say the life-or-death issue now is to ensure greater access to the region.

“Time is essential. We need to move very fast to save lives,” Karl Blanchet, director of the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, told Geneva Solutions. The centre has trained Turkish and Syrian medical staff to work in the region, and said that as a result of that, maternal deaths have fallen in recent years. “Opening the borders and the roads to ensure that aid and relief workers could gain access to populations is essential.”

A cross-border aid regime, dependent on the regular renewal by the UN Security Council, allows for assistance to only be delivered to opposition-controlled Syria via a single route through Bal Al-Hawa crossing point, from aid hubs such as Gaziantep in southern Turkey.

The UN says that access had been affected by the quake, complicating the humanitarian response to roughly 4.1 million people of a population of 4.6 million residents, relying on the assistance.

Crossborder response coordinated by the UN amid the decade-long conflict in Syria, has been a “humanitarian lifeline” for the millions of people in northwest Syria, said Sun-Suon, allowing them “just to stay afloat”.

Those affected by the earthquake in northern Syria include roughly 62,000 Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East.

Sun-Suon said that OCHA was “exploring all avenues” to overcome road access issues to deliver aid to the transhipment hub in Hatay, Turkey, where aid supplies heading to northwestern Syria are monitored.

“Our priorities are to reach the people most in need as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian government under president Bashir Assad, which manages aid distribution in areas it controls, has been asking for relief assistance, and for sanctions imposed mostly by Western countries to be lifted.

The United States and European countries refused to reverse the measures taken in response to human rights abuses, saying they will continue to deliver aid only to humanitarian organisations through Turkey.

Khaled Hboubati, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, said the organisation would be ready to deliver aid to all areas of the country, including non-government controlled areas. Damascus’s military ally Russia, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have flown aid to those areas.

Asked whether organisations are seeing divisions in donor support to Syria, Laerke told Geneva Solutions: “It is imperative that everybody sees this as the humanitarian crisis that it is, where human lives are at stake. Please do not politicise any of this. Let’s get the aid out to the people who so desperately need it.”

UN spokespersons brief journalists on 7 February 2023, following a major earthquake on the border between Turkey and Syria. From left: Jens Laerke of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Tommaso Della Longa from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, James Elder of Unicef and Matthew Saltmarsh of the UN Refugee Agency. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)
Chronic underfunding

Initial funding appeals Tuesday included a call by the IFRC for CHF 120 million to support the Turkish Red Crescent and CHF 80 million for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

UNHCR said it may launch a separate appeal following the quake, but said that existing funding requests for the two countries were far from reaching their targets. Mathew Saltmarsh, the agency’s spokesperson said that its $348 million appeal for Turkey was only 11 per cent funded, while a $465 million appeal for Syria had so far only raised seven per cent. Some 1.7 million Syrian refugees live in the ten affected provinces in Turkey.

With humanitarian needs being assessed by organisations as they reach affected areas, Laerke told Geneva Solutions to “watch this space” over the coming days.

Sun-Suon provided a reminder of the context in areas that the UN is attempting to get aid to: “We cannot imagine the challenges they are facing now. Responders are doing their best, but it is extremely worrying.”