Rescuers search for survivors through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the city of Adana on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023 after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Turkey. AFP PHOTO

UN agencies launch emergency response after quakes hit Turkey, Syria

AFTER a massive earthquake hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday, prompting fears of a humanitarian crisis, United Nations aid agencies scrambled to help the victims, including those believed to be still buried under the rubble. The initial 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck close to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, followed by another 7.5-magnitude temblor several hours later.

“My heart goes out to the people of Turkey and Syria in this hour of tragedy” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “The United Nations is fully committed to supporting the response. Our teams are on the ground assessing the needs and providing assistance.”

In a situation overview published shortly after 4 p.m. GMT (12 midnight in Manila on Tuesday), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said nearly 2,000 people were reported dead in the two countries, with at least 78 aftershocks recorded before the second quake struck.

The Turkish government has issued a Level 4 alarm, calling for international assistance.

Northwestern Syria is home to about 4.1 million people who rely on humanitarian aid, the majority of them women and children. Syrian communities are suffering from an ongoing cholera outbreak and harsh winter weather. So far, there is a 48 percent funding gap for the last quarter of 2022, with $371 million pledged out of a required total of just over $800 million.

Guterres said the UN was counting on the international community to help those affected by the disaster, “many of whom were already in dire need of humanitarian aid in areas where access is a challenge.”

Emergency medical teams from the World Health Organization (WHO) have been allowed to provide essential care for the injured and most vulnerable, its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a tweet.

“The immediate priority is to support the response locally,” said Dr. Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency manager who is coordinating the Turkey earthquake response at WHO/Europe.

“Turkey has very strong capacity to respond to earthquakes, but such is the level of the destruction [that] they have put out an alert for international medical assistance. And we are coordinating potential deployment with the Turkish authorities,” she added.

Specialist surge teams from the Office of UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination also tweeted that they were “ready to deploy” amid multiple horrifying social media posts showing huge buildings collapsing in heavily built-up areas.

In a statement on Twitter, the UN in Turkey expressed deep sadness over the loss of life and the destruction of property. The team expressed its condolences to the families of the victims, “as well as to the people and government”, and wished the injured a speedy recovery.

Syria aid lifeline hit

According to the OCHA, the initial earthquake’s epicenter was in southern Turkey, where Gaziantep — an important UN aid hub for northern Syria — was among the cities affected.

“Deeply saddened by the loss of life caused by this morning’s #earthquake,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees tweeted, adding that it was “actively coordinating a response with #UN Agencies and other humanitarian actors to deliver assistance and support to those in need in Syria.”

The UN and its humanitarian partners assist some 2.7 million people every month in northwestern Syria, via cross-border air deliveries.

The UN reported that 224 buildings were completely destroyed and at least 325 partially destroyed by the quakes in 17 different subdistricts there, according to initial information from local authorities.

The cities of Aleppo and Idlib in northern Syria also reportedly saw thousands of buildings collapse, including two hospitals.

Humanitarian needs in northern Syria are already huge, as the region is home to millions of people displaced by the country’s long-running war.

Snow and rain have hampered the work of rescue teams, whose families are also among those believed to buried under collapsed buildings.

UN-wide support

After an official request for international assistance from Ankara, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) confirmed that it was ready to support the emergency response.

Unicef reported that official figures from the two nations affected indicated that more than 2,300 have died from the quakes and “these numbers are only likely to increase.”

“The images we’re seeing out of Syria and Türkiye are heart-wrenching,” Unicef Executive Director Catherine Russell said. “That the initial earthquake happened so early in the morning, when many children were fast asleep, made it even more dangerous, and the aftershocks bring continuing risks.”

“Our hearts and thoughts are with the children and families affected, especially those who have lost loved ones or who have been injured. Our immediate priority is to ensure children and families affected receive the support they so desperately need,” she added.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said its warehouse in Gaziantep had prepared nonfood items and essential relief ready for distribution. “IOM teams are also doing on-the-ground assessments to inform the response,” spokesman Safa Msehli said.

IOM Director-General Antonio Vitorino tweeted his solidarity “with people in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and all those affected following the deadly earthquake. We will be working closely with governments in the region to support those affected and help alleviate their suffering.”

There are more than 700 UN staff members in total based in the earthquake-hit areas. In the Turkish city of Hatay, there are two international staff and 52 national staffers, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told correspondents in New York City, where a headcount is underway to ensure that everyone is accounted for. In Gaziantep, there are some 154 international and 376 national staff members, all of whom have been accounted for.

“In Syria, all staff are safe and accounted for,” Dujarric said.

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