Blog post by Dr Özlem Gürakar Skribeland, University of Oslo

In the early morning hours of 6 February 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria. Its epicentre was near Gaziantep, Turkey. It will be a while before we know how many lives are lost but the current figure of around 40,000 is sure to rise immensely. Thousands have lost their family members, friends, livelihoods, homes…

Following the Turkish media from abroad, I am seeing and hearing many heart-breaking stories. One is of a woman rescued from under rubble after days. As she is rushed to an ambulance, she asks not to be sent to a private hospital; I cannot afford it, she says. Another one relates to a Syrian family saved from under rubble, again after days. It turns out that they tried to make all the noise they could but without speaking; they did not know Turkish and were scared to shout for help in Arabic. A status report by the Association for Migration Research in Turkey (GAR) from 11 February 2023 highlights, among other things, how some refugees in the area have problems accessing aid, and how some stand back for fear of negative reactions from others in the community.

Help, support and solidarity from the international community is needed on many different aspects of this catastrophe and on both sides of the border. There are countless urgent issues. Scared and traumatized survivors of the earthquake are now trying to survive the cold and the dire conditions in which they find themselves; there are serious public health concerns; there has been fear of children surviving without parents subsequently going missing. And one of the many and complex issues is the tension involving the refugees in the earthquake-struck parts of Turkey.

The Turkish government has declared a ninety-day state of emergency in the ten provinces of Turkey worst hit by the earthquake. All of these provinces are either on or close to Turkey’s border with Syria. In many of them, the ratio of registered Syrians under temporary protection to the total population is particularly high, at 37.5% in Kilis, 17.8% in Gaziantep, 17.5% in Hatay, 14.7% in Şanlıurfa, 10% in Adana, 7.3% in Kahramanmaraş and 6.5% in Osmaniye. There is no publicly available data on refugees of other origin in the area, but in short, this is a region which had become home to a high number of Syrian refugees in recent years.

The large number of refugee arrivals starting 2011 has led to tensions between the refugees and the local Turkish population. As it happens in Europe and elsewhere in the world, in Turkey, too, some politicians try to score points by blaming refugees and other migrants and foreigners. There have been accusations on social media in the past week about refugees looting and stealing in the affected areas. This is always a very dangerous game. But it is even more dangerous today when people have lost so much that is dear to them and the available resources are even scarcer than usual. Meanwhile, there are valuable calls from Turkish civil society for solidarity and calm in spite of the hate speech, provocations and incitement.

There are many urgent and critical issues that need addressing and there is surely need for different kinds of support. After the earthquake, Turkey has temporarily partly eased the restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement within the country. Some European countries also announced that they would be easing the visa conditions for affected people, so that they can temporarily join their families in those countries. Facilitating people’s ability to receive help from their families and personal networks is a good way of extending much needed support, both generally but perhaps even more so considering the delicate and tense dynamics of the area. As international organisations and other countries are considering how best they can help, these dynamics are also one thing they should take into consideration.

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