Originally published in www.hic-mena.org
HIC-HLRN is deeply saddened by the massive and widespread destruction, loss of tens of thousands of lives, and the displacement, dispossession and homelessness of millions by two devastating magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 Mw earthquakes that struck southeastern Türkiye and northwest Syria on early hours of Monday morning on 6 February 2023. Two weeks later, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck the same region on 20 February.
The ensuing destruction has left at least 50,420 dead and over 108,600 people injured at the time of this writing. The 6 February quakes affected ten neighboring provinces in Türkiye,[*] and caused more than 6,680 deaths and 14,500 injuries in six affected areas in Syria.[†] Reports indicate that over 47,000 buildings collapsed, or are heavily damaged across ten provinces in Turkey, while more than 9,000 buildings have been completely or partially destroyed in Syria, leaving at least 11,000 families homeless in Harim and Afrin alone. An estimated 5.3 million people in Syria may be affected and need shelter assistance across the country.
This Network of housing and land rights advocates salutes the many humanitarian organizations, workers and volunteers scrambling for days to rescue victims against so many odds. In this acute disaster, HIC-HLRN also expresses grave concern at the complicated conditions of aid delivery to the beleaguered population in Syria, already dealing with massive humanitarian challenges in the non-government-controlled areas.
Decades of political intransigence on the part of both Turkish and Syrian regimes has prioritized political and authoritarian interests over human security and preventive measures, as well as emergency humanitarian aid and relief. The sheer scale of the ongoing disaster is largely a result of both neoliberal and politically nepotistic policies and other forms of corruption of the two regimes. The devastation also exposes the long-standing neglect and conflict in the Kurdish regions and areas controlled by other rebel and opposition groups. Moreover, the long-imposed European Union and United States sanctions against Syria have had cumulative effect. The international scope of US sanction regime under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, despite being temporarily suspended, has impeded aid to Syrian quake victims.
So far, no heavy equipment, international rescue experts, or fuel have crossed the Turkish border into Syria. Humanitarian access from the Syrian government-controlled areas has been slow and/or blocked by the al-Asad regime. Even though al-Asad has opened two additional crossings to the affected region, many in the quake zone are skeptical of his motives and suspect he will use to situation to consolidate his hated regime over the area.
HIC-HLRN raises concern also about the consistently inequitable treatment of Kurdish-majority territories across region. These are also the territories that have hosted millions of refugees from Syria, many of whom have been moved into hastily constructed and unlicensed apartments that have been exempted from earthquake safety standards, and subject to official corruption and poor enforcement of regulations that have put the people in danger. The construction boom in many urban centers in Turkey has followed the army’s destruction of over 3,500 Kurdish villages in rural areas of southeastern Turkey during 1991–96.
Kurdish-majority cities such as Diyarbakır, in eastern Anatolia, have witnessed periods of clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), especially since the failed cease-fire in late 2015. Ensuing Turkish government assaults on Kurdish-majority town centers have led to gross human rights violations that have involved whole neighborhoods having been torn down, confiscated by the central government and reconstructed for profiteers, without consideration to the local cultural specificity, housing and property rights, or necessary steps to minimize risks in urban planning, low-rise buildings, construction codes, and enforcement of existing standards.
In Türkiye, a recent government amnesty has exonerated builders of millions of illegal structures as late as 2019, despite expert warnings of current and impending seismic hazards. Thereby, officials of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are responsible for violations by commission and omission that have caused the quakes’ high toll of death and destruction. In addition, President Erdoğan’s administration has been severely criticized for the “late, incomplete or faulty” implementation of search and rescue efforts.
Hasty and ill-planned development and urbanization process characterize the entire region. This poor development performance has persecuted vulnerable and minority communities especially, subjecting millions of people to environmental risks.
The Union of Turkish Bar Associations has described this negligence as a prosecutable crime perpetrated by unscrupulous contractors and local authorities and practitioners who prepared architectural, static and other plans, projects and designs for those buildings. This liability extends to officials who issued zoning and occupancy permits for these unsafe structures, the municipal officials who have failed to conduct effective inspections and ministry officials who neglected to ensure that inspections were properly carried out. This is despite lessons learned from the 1999 Marmara Earthquake in western Türkiye that revealed the corruption of construction using inferior materials, as well as the subsequent improvement of building codes.
HIC-HLRN also commends the efforts of local governments and authorities to respond heroically to this new crisis to provide essential material and psycho-social needs of the quake victims. Ironically, the central government also has issued arrest warrants for more than 100 people across the ten provinces affected by the quake, as the Justice Ministry ordered officials in those provinces to set up “Earthquake Crime Investigation Units.”
HIC-HLRN calls on both Turkish and Syria governments, as well as rebel groups effectively controlling the conflict areas in northwest Syria, to uphold their responsibilities toward the victims of the earthquake by:
- Delivering and facilitating delivery of emergency aid and relief efforts as their first priority to meet the immediate and livelihood needs of the affected populations;
- Assisting the affected communities to meet essential needs, including food, shelter and household items, for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities;
- Providing emergency and continuous physical and psychological health services;
- Prosecuting all parties responsible to evading or violating quake-proof building codes within the states’ jurisdiction;
- Avoiding any form of discrimination on the bases of ethnicity, gender or political affiliation in the provision of aid or tenure security to earthquake victims;
- Urgently reforming urbanization and spatial-development policies to eliminate institutionalized, material discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender or political affiliation, as well as all other forms of financial and political corruption, and
- Henceforth scrupulously enforcing quake-resistant construction codes and urban-development standards.
We also call on all international parties, including charitable and development agencies, as well as concerned individuals, to:
- Contribute generously to the remedial efforts of local actors, especially, to provide emergency relief aligned with longer-term development objectives within the overarching framework of human rights, in particular,
- Scrupulously apply the criteria of the human right to adequate housing in all immediate and longer-term measures to shelter and rehouse those affected by the earthquakes.
[*] Adıyaman, Kilis, Osmaniye, Gaziantep, Malatya, as well as Şanlıurfa, Diyarbakır, Adana and Hatay, Elazığ.
[†] Aleppo, Idlib, Lattakia, Tartous, Homs and Hama governorates.