With Turkey’s disaster management authority (AFAD) announcing an imminent end to rescue operations following the country’s string of deadly earthquakes, efforts to meet the acute needs of survivors are only just beginning in earnest. Local authorities have already reported a shortage in basic supplies reaching an estimated 13.5 million living in affected areas. And with close to 2 million refugees amongst that number, the majority of whom are Syrian, effective humanitarian relief will require an equitable distribution of aid to all survivors, including those already facing socio-economic precarity. As it stands, however, a discriminatory aid response is pushing Turkey’s most vulnerable closer to the precipice.
A hostile socio-political climate towards refugees had been brewing well before the recent earthquakes. Alongside President Erdogan’s explicit call for the deportation of Syrians suspected of crimes in 2019, reports have proliferated of deportations back to Syria at gunpoint and regular beatings by border guards. Moreover, faced with persistent economic downturn and an election campaign increasingly defined by the refugee question, Erdogan has unveiled a grand plan to forcibly relocate up to one million Syrian refugees back across the border. In this context, the aid response to the earthquakes has been jealously monopolized by AFAD, with the country’s Interior Minister offering an unequivocal warning that the disaster management authority will not tolerate any domestic competition in aid coordination. Thus, Syrians in Turkey – who represent approximately 20% of fatalities according to reports – are now almost exclusively dependent on the Turkish state for meeting their basic needs.
The state-led response to the disaster, however, has proven profoundly discriminatory. Widespread reports of the denial and confiscation of aid have been coupled with tight constraints on the movement of Syrian survivors. For untold numbers of refugees whose IDs and official documentation have been buried beneath layers of debris, there are growing fears that the Turkish authorities may resist issuing replacement documents, restricting movement as well as access to aid and key services. One SJAC source based in Gaziantep at the time of the earthquakes was forced to spend several days sleeping in a car with her young family before Turkish authorities belatedly relaxed restrictions, enabling Syrians with Turkish ID cards to temporarily relocate outside of quake-affected provinces. Despite some concessions, the government has consolidated a discriminatory aid process, organizing bespoke transport services for Turkish nationals whilst forcing refugees into buses to unknown final destinations. Elsewhere, SJAC interviewees corroborated reports of state aid workers looting supplies and refusing to distribute vital items, including medicine and tents, to Syrians. Exposed to harsh winter conditions, lacking adequate shelter, and prevented from moving freely inside Turkish borders, thousands have been left with little choice but to return to neighboring Syria and the civil violence which they have already fled. And though the Turkish authorities have offered assurances that they will be allowed safe passage back if they return in the next three to six months, many suspect that this may be a ploy to fulfil Erdogan’s grand plans for refugee relocation and provide a decisive boon to his hopes of presidential re-election in May.
The earthquake is already fueling a new wave of anti-Syrian hate sentiment, driven by political leaders seeking to exploit the disaster for political gain in the run-up to the country’s May 2023 elections. Umit Ozdag, leader of the Far-Right Victory Party, has enthusiastically encouraged the expulsion of Syrians and spread disinformation (later deleted), accusing Syrians of stealing from rescue workers. While many Turkish civilians and aid workers have taken a stand against racist discourse, this divisive rhetoric has inevitably spread onto social media platforms, with hashtags such as ‘We do not want Syrians’ and ‘Migrants must be deported’ trending on Twitter in the aftermath of the quakes. Hate speech online has, in turn, spilled onto the streets with reports of Syrians being expelled from emergency shelters and targeted for speaking Arabic. In several cases, anti-refugee enmity has escalated into outright violence, with reports of Syrian volunteers being attacked and one group of agitators leading chants of ‘Let's shoot the Syrian in Hatay, let's shoot the Afghan in Kahramanmaraş’. In Gaziantep, meanwhile, a Syrian transporting aid supplies was shot and wounded for allegedly having collided with a nearby car. In this context, some Syrian families have preferred to return to the rubble and debris of collapsed apartment blocks in Hatay province, rather than risk exposure to violence elsewhere.
To deal with the proliferation of hate speech and violence, the Turkish government should urgently adopt measures to clamp down on anti-refugee attacks and discourse. Equally, the Turkish government must ensure the equitable distribution of aid to all survivors of the earthquake, irrespective of national origin, in compliance with its international obligations, including the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement of Cooperation. It must recognize that the manipulation of aid – or its privation – as a political tool to stimulate the return of refugees contradicts the principle of non-refoulement, and constitutes a violation of international law. In a similar vein, Syrian refugees who have returned to their country of origin in the aftermath of the disaster must be allowed to return to Turkey irrespective of the date of return, while the authorities should take pro-active measures to facilitate the swift replacement of official documentation lost during the earthquake in order to ensure access to vital services for the country’s most vulnerable. For its part, the international community should increase its contribution to aid efforts and press the Turkish government to integrate clear reporting and accountability processes for ensuring an equitable share of aid to refugee communities. Finally, in recognition of the disproportionate contribution which Turkey has made to the refugee crisis, the international community, particularly the European Union, must consider increasing its intake of refugees from the region to allay serious risks of a redoubled humanitarian disaster in the aftermath of the quakes.