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University hosts flash panel in response to an earthquake-induced humanitarian crisis in Turkey and Syria

| Thursday, February 16, 2023

The Nanovic Center for European studies hosted a flash panel Wednesday in response to the recent disastrous earthquake in Turkey and Syria, which left infrastructure destroyed and over 40,000 dead as governments struggled to provide aid. 

The panel was moderated by political rights and peace activist Avrum Burg, adjunct faculty in history for the University of Notre Dame at Tantur. The panelists included​​​​​ graduate student Şehrazat Mart, lecturer for London Metropolitan University Ahmet Öztürk and ND Tantur director of undergraduate studies Gabriel Mitchell.

Burg opened by asking the panelists to describe the situation on the ground. Mart described that in war-torn Syria, the lack of a central government and infrastructure means that it is proving difficult for international organizations to aid victims of the devastating earthquake and that the disaster has also been met with a delayed response from the Turkish government to provide relief to civilians.

Mart explained how volunteers “spent hours on the first day waiting for the necessary signatures before they could actually start their rescue and search missions,” while many people remained trapped under collapsed buildings. 

On paper, Mart noted, Turkey was prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. In the past two decades, the country has implemented an extensive legal and bureaucratic earthquake preparedness framework to reconstruct areas that are at risk to earthquakes. The government also collected over $38 million in earthquake taxes, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. However, Mart said the reality is vastly different. 

“Part of it is corruption,” Mart said. “Public officials overlooked aberrations from the law and construction regulations for their own political and economic gains.” 

Another reason for the current situation is the corrupted use of the earthquake preparedness framework, which has become an economic tool. Law 6306, for example, gives the ministry of urbanization the right to evacuate and reconstruct areas of earthquake risk, but according to Mart, this law is used instead to “demolish the neighborhoods of marginalized communities and to forcefully evacuate them from urban centers.”

Öztürk attributes the corruption and ultimately unstable construction work to president Recep Erdogan’s “neo-patrimonial” authoritarian regime, which allows companies to disobey regulations for quick and cheap construction instead of stable buildings that can withstand earthquakes. 

Öztürk said the disaster has many underlying political implications because Erdogan used the earthquake as a “political tool” to polarize the population by targeting individuals who criticized his delayed response. The earthquake in Syria and Turkey has created a devastating humanitarian crisis and will likely have large impacts on Erdogan’s regime as well as stir up regional tensions. According to Öztörk, “this is a geographic disaster and this is a disaster of politics.”

Continuing, Öztürk said it is clear that the disaster will have large impacts on Turkish internal politics as well as the surrounding areas. With the number of displaced people whose homes were destroyed, there will likely be a large wave of immigrants to Western countries. That wave has the potential to stir up tensions as Western states deal with another refugee crisis.

Mitchell predicts that Turkey’s foreign policy may be impacted by the earthquake and that the country “is going to have a lot of difficult challenging choices to make” if Ergodan is to resolve problems with neighbors and cooperate in return for humanitarian aid. 

Mitchell also added that the earthquake has made the situation in Syria even worse, a country already caught in the midst of a 10-year conflict has even more damage and casualties.

“The civil war in Syria is not going to end,” Mitchell said. “A lot of the issues about delivering aid to that area are going to persist.”

Burg concluded by prompting the panelists to consider whether the international community is prepared with pre-existing institutions to handle future humanitarian crises caused by events like natural disasters. Panelists agreed that there are sufficient mechanisms and organizations to respond to the crisis in Syria and Turkey, but problems may arise if developments in other parts of the world stretch resources thin. 

“Like the Dutch boy, we’re sticking our fingers trying to plug up all of these holes, but eventually there’s going to be one hole in which the water continues to pour out,” Mitchell responded. He noted that “the international community’s biggest challenge right now is a lack of unity,” which may impact the effectiveness of disaster responses in the future.

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