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Thousands of children orphaned by earthquake at risk of abuse, aid agencies warn

16 February 2023


People made homeless in the earthquake queue to receive aid supplies at a camp in the city of Iskenderun, southern Turkey, on Tuesday

People made homeless in the earthquake queue to receive aid supplies at a camp in the city of Iskenderun, southern Turkey, on Tuesday

HUNDREDS of thousands of children left orphaned and homeless by the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria (News, 10 February) are now at risk of exploitation and abuse, aid agencies have warned.

As the number of the dead continues to rise above 40,000, many children have been separated from care-givers during frantic escapes and rescues, and thousands have been left without anyone to care for them. In Syria, nearly one million children were already displaced by conflict.

World Vision’s Syria response director, Johan Mooij, said that separated and homeless children were “extremely vulnerable”.

“In the early stages of a crisis,” he said, “as emergency actions are undertaken to meet the urgent needs of vulnerable people, safeguarding systems can struggle to develop quickly enough. Unfortunately, there are people who will prey on this vulnerability and will exploit these children at a time when they most need support and protection.”

In north-western Syria, there were “extremely high numbers of unaccompanied children, many of whom have lost one or both parents”, World Vision said. Ages of children ranged from between a few days old to eight years, and most were missing identification documents, which adds to the challenge of trying to reunite them with caregivers.

Children who had survived the earthquake were now struggling to survive in freezing weather conditions, Mr Mooij said. World Vision is working in Syria with displaced children and families, giving food and medicine and fuel for rescue teams.

Rescues of survivors have slowed as the hours pass, and the UN aid chief, Martin Griffiths, said that the rescue phase was coming to a close.

In parts of Syria, particularly those rebel-held areas run by an Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), no heavy machinery has arrived to help rescuers, who have given up searching the rubble. Front lines into the area are sealed off, although the Syrian government has indicated that it is willing to send in aid. The UN and the United States classify HTS as a terrorist organisation.

The UN said it welcomed a decision by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to open two more border crossings with Turkey for at least three months, so that more aid could reach the north-west, where 12 years of bitter fighting have complicated the international relief effort.

A BBC reporter who reached the area described children trying to lift rubble with their bare hands. One man told him: “We’ve received nothing but God’s mercy.”

An appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee for aid to the disaster area had raised more than £65 million earlier this week.

The UN has said that at least 870,000 people urgently need food in Turkey and Syria; and in Syria alone up to 5.3 million people are believed to have been made homeless. Turkey reports that more than one million are in temporary shelters.

The Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, the Rt Revd Paolo Bizzeti, told La Croix newspaper that 70 per cent of the historic city of Antioch, now called Antakya, has been razed to the ground by the earthquake.

On Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged people to support the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal. “As we continue to hear of the terrible loss, suffering and trauma of those affected by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, I continue to call out to God in prayer for those who have been so terribly bereaved, and all those struggling to find warmth, food and shelter. I continue to express my profound condolence and solidarity with the people of Turkey and Syria, including those who have endured many years of conflict and hardship before these events,” he said.

“I call on Anglicans around the world to pray for all those affected by these catastrophic events and to support relief efforts. The Disasters Emergency Committee have set up an appeal for funds to offer urgent relief. Christian Aid and Tearfund are among those charities where you can donate to help channel resources to those that need it most. Please consider donating to them if you can.

“It is at moments like this when words are insufficient to express the unimaginable suffering before us. We struggle to comprehend how such tragedies can happen. But we do know that the crucified God shares in the depths of human suffering. We can reflect that solidarity by recommitting ourselves to the love and mercy of God in Christ, backing up our prayers with our generosity and care.”

The Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse has set up a 52-bed mobile hospital in Turkey, in the grounds of the destroyed Hatay State hospital, close to Antakya. The facility offers two emergency operating rooms and a pharmacy, and the first patients arrived within minutes of its opening. Among the first to arrive was a woman who had fractured her shoulder in the quake, a man who had been helping to rescue survivors, and a child with cancer.

The Christian charity Mary’s Meals has launched its own appeal to deliver food to children in Syria. It has been working in Aleppo since 2017, serving a meal a day to schoolchildren, and is now handing out emergency food aid to children.

The Church of Ireland has also called for donations, and Church of Ireland bishops have released €10,000 from its reserves to Christian Aid to support its relief work in the region.

More than 100 arrest warrants have been issued in Turkey in connection with the construction of buildings that collapsed in the earthquake. Some building contractors have already been arrested, as anger mounts at the collapse of thousands of buildings. Many people have blamed corruption and shoddy building practices for the scale of the devastation.

Opposition leaders have accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government of not enforcing building regulations, and of failing to account for the proceeds of a levy imposed after the 1999 Izmit earthquake to ensure that buildings were more resistant to earthquakes.


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