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Tallying Turkey-Syria earthquake devastation, a month on

Burak Ünveren | Pelin Ünker | Rainer Sollich
March 5, 2023

Several earthquakes shook southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6. The humanitarian, political and social aftershocks have been devastating in both countries.

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Man, rubble of Habib Najjar mosque destroyed during devastating earthquake in Antakya
Image: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

At least 50,000 people have died, millions have lost their homes and 214,000 buildings have collapsed or are at risk of doing so since two earthquakes hit the region on February 6. Millions of people remain in urgent need of help.

The deaths and damage spans 11 provinces in Turkey alone. One month later, the death toll there is expected to rise even higher because numerous victims have yet to be identified. Many people have still not been officially registered as dead, as survivors continue to look for their loved ones. When asked by DW about how many people were still missing, Turkey's Justice Ministry did not comment.

A man and his father stand on rubble and try to rescue some of their belongings
The devastation left behind by the earthquakes covers 11 provinces in TurkeyImage: ELOISA LOPEZ/REUTERS

In the immediate aftermath of the quakes, survivors' grief became intertwined with anger. People started asking how it was possible that so many buildings that were supposedly earthquake-proof had simply collapsedthrowing the blame on the authorities and accusing them of negligence.

In many cases, construction companies do not appear to have followed building safety codes. To date, nearly 1,000 people are formally suspected of having skirted construction regulations. At least 235 people have been arrested, 330 are being monitored under judicial control and four are in pretrial detention. Arrest warrants have also been issued for 270 other suspects. Five are abroad, 82 have already been released and 32 have died.

Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority had warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of an earthquake years ago. It had also prepared and issued plans from 2019 to 2021 to reduce the risks from disasters.

In 2020, one of these plans forecast that a 7.5 magnitude earthquake would occur in Kahramanmaras province. That prediction came true on February 6.

An aerial view of destroyed buildings in Kahramanmaras, with smoke and dust rising
In 2020, scientists predicted a 7.5 magnitude quake in KahramanmarasImage: ISSAM ABDALLAH/REUTERS

Millions of children injured, displaced in Turkey

According to UNICEF, about 5 million children have been affected by the earthquakes. On March 1, Turkey's Family and Social Services Ministry said that of the 1,911 children rescued from the ruins who did not require heavy medical intervention, 1,543 have been returned to their families. Almost 100 remain in the care of the ministry itself, and 81 have yet to be identified.

The ministry rejected reports that some of the children had been handed over to Islamist groups and associations with official connections. However, Halk TV, a station that is critical of the government, has reported that 60 children have been placed in three buildings in the Istanbul district of Beykoz where they were apparently in the care of Islamist groups.

DW's Turkish service also reported that nine children had been taken away from their parents and enrolled in a Quran school with links to the radical Ismailaga branch of the Sufi order.

Turkey facing elections, billions in reconstruction costs

With Turkey headed for presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, the government is under fire. The campaign was briefly interrupted after the earthquake, but now seems to have restarted in earnest.

On March 1, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the opposition in a speech and signaled that elections would be brought forward from June to take place on May 14, confirming an announcement he made back in January before the disaster. "The people will, God willing and as the time draws near, do what is necessary on May 14," he said in Ankara. A presidential decree is expected on Friday to make this date official.

It's not yet known how the voting will take place in the cities most affected by the earthquakes. There has been a suggestion that voters from the earthquake zone would be able to cast their ballots in other cities for the presidential vote, but not for the parliamentary elections.

Turkey: Experts inspect buildings left standing after quake

The mammoth reconstruction task comes with Turkey already in the midst of an economic crisis. The World Bank has calculated that the earthquake caused material damage worth at least $34.2 billion (€32.5 billion). According to the Turkish Statistical Office, approximately 14 million people live in the 11 main cities in the earthquake zone. The regional economy, which accounts for about 9.8% of the country's GDP, is based on agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as textiles, steel and energy.

Economist Mahfi Egilmez, a former undersecretary in the Finance Ministry, has published a detailed study on the economic consequences of the earthquakes. He calculated that removal of debris, repairs to damaged residential buildings and infrastructure, the construction of new homes and state financial aid of $2.5 billion will come to a total of $48.7 billion. Of this, $27 billion would go toward the construction of new housing.

Economists have said the destruction will lead to increased demand for many products and services, which in turn will fuel inflation, which is already high. Murat Kubilay, another economist, told DW that he expected inflation to reach at least 50% by the end of 2023. 

Freedom of speech and the press has been further restricted in Turkey since the earthquakes. The Radio and Television Supreme Council has already imposed fines amounting to around 8 million Turkish lira (about €397,000/$426,000) on three TV stations for their coverage of the disaster.

Meanwhile, supporters of the major soccer clubs Fenerbahce and Besiktas, who recently called on Erdogan and his government to resign, have been banned from attending sporting events, leaving the teams playing in empty stadiums.

A man cries against a backdrop of devastation after the quakes
Much of the aid being sent to Syria is not reaching the people who need it Image: Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images

Amid civil war, Syria's quake toll unknowable

In northern Syria, the February 6 earthquakes were the latest blow to a region already devastated by 12 years of civil war waged by the regime of Bashar Assad with the backing of Russia and Iran.

Less information has come from Syria in the weeks since the disaster, with many living in precarious settings after years of fighting. The UN has estimated that some 8.8 million people have been affected by the earthquakes, many of whom are now homeless. Officially, the country has reported 5,900 deaths but the actual figure is probably much higher.

With international borders blocked, many Syrians received no help at all in the first few days after the quakes. Though aid is now being sent to Syria, it is not reaching the people affected. Large parts of the earthquake zone are not under the full control of the regime. The city of Idlib, effectively the last rebel stronghold and home to more than 2 million people, is mainly controlled by Islamist militias. Observers have said official aid is not arriving here.

Thousands of Syrians too traumatized to sleep at home

Before the quakes, there were already about 1.8 million displaced people living in makeshift tents, shelters and homes in northwestern Syria. Now, many are forced to live outdoors in freezing temperatures.

Ammar Fayyad told a reporter from DW's Arabic service that he and his son were traumatized and living in a car. "Tents cost between $200 and $400, and we can't afford that, so we've decided to stay here."

This article was originally written in German.