Protracted conflict and displacement complicate humanitarian response

Members of the Health in Humanitarian Crises Centre at LSHTM comment on the devastating impact of recent earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria and the urgent humanitarian assistance required.
A statement on the humanitarian situation following the earthquake in Syria and Turkey

On 6 February 2023, southern regions of Türkiye and northern regions of Syria were struck by the strongest earthquakes in decades. The death toll is rising daily, and tens of thousands have been injured and left homeless. Ongoing rescue efforts are hampered by freezing temperatures and chances of finding survivors shrink with every passing hour. 

Prior to the devastating earthquakes, both countries were facing multiple pressures. Türkiye hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, including almost half a million Syrian refugees in Gaziantep, a city close to the epicentre of the quake. In Syria, an estimated 6.8 million people remain internally displaced, many having faced multiple displacements. Northwest Syria is under opposition control and already hosting a staggering 2.9 million internally displaced people. For many Syrians, these earthquakes will result in further displacement. 

Health systems in both countries are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of injured people. Northern Syria’s health systems are already fragmented and politicised, with limited governance. Access to medical care was already precarious, especially in opposition-held northwest Syria. UNICEF indicates four million people in this part of the country alone were receiving humanitarian support prior to the earthquakes due to ongoing cholera outbreaks since 2022, a particularly harsh winter and poor or no social services due to protracted conflict. Northwest Syria has experienced record levels of poverty, food insecurity, fuel shortages, and electricity cuts. The 2022-2023 Syria Humanitarian Response Plan, established to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable, has so far only received 47% of required funding and not adequately addressed pre-earthquake needs, so is unable to address current needs.

Acute and long-term humanitarian assistance required

Humanitarian support for affected populations is critical, and complicated in northwest Syria, with limited access due to ongoing conflict and politicisation of aid. The United Nations Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has allocated $25 million to respond in Türkiye and Syria. At the time of writing, no cross-border aid is entering Syria. Small-scale civil society organisations and individual or community initiatives in northern Syria are trying to address the consequences of this crisis with minimal external support. Funds are being channelled through UN agencies and international NGOs, which are not currently able to access affected areas in Syria. Funding is urgently needed for local response efforts. International media reports suggest that the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets and consisting of approximately 3,000 volunteers operating in northwest Syria, face an impossible search and rescue effort with completely inadequate supplies and equipment. Support for earthquake-affected Syrians will require overcoming the aid politicisation and donor fatigue that have hampered previous support efforts.

The psychological impact of this crisis is expected to be immense and may even exceed the physical damage. It will not be limited to those who have survived the earthquakes, but could affect millions of people who have been through other traumatic events such as the conflict in Syria and past earthquakes in Türkiye. It is critical that psychological support is provided alongside other assistance, including for first responders and humanitarian aid workers who are responding to this crisis.

In the long term, both countries will require assistance to rebuild infrastructure and provide health services to people living with the long-term consequences of this disaster. While international attention is currently focused on the earthquake response, the reality is that amidst multiple national, regional and global crises, financial resources are limited. 

Ways to help

As national and international response teams are working against the clock to find survivors, LSHTM staff and students are liaising with colleagues and collaborators in the region to determine what support can be provided. 

Urgent calls for donations to support relief efforts have been launched. Some of our students, colleagues, and research collaborators are heavily affected by this disaster and we stand in solidarity with them and encourage those who are able to donate to the earthquake response.

The Syria Research Group recommends donating to this list of organisations operating in the region. Additionally, UK charities have launched an urgent Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal and a live list of responding organisations can also be found here

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