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Earthquakes rock Türkiye and Syria: Syrians forced to fend for themselves 

Death toll rises up to 47,000, while the Syrian Civil War and Western sanctions prevent aid delivery to millions of victims in Syria

A magnitude 6.4 earthquake rocked Türkiye and Syria last Monday February 20th, only a fortnight after the region was devastated by a 7.8 tremor. More than 47,000 deaths have been confirmed so far, almost all of them caused by the destruction of the first quake. Millions were displaced, while entire cities flattened on both sides of the border. 

Most rescue and relief efforts have been concentrated in Türkiye, leaving the war-ravaged Syria with little support. Power outages, fuel shortages and other constraints posed by the Syrian Civil War have made the work of humanitarian agencies arduous. Further complicating matters, rebel groups control some of the most affected areas, which are subject to blockades imposed by the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad.

Since the 2011 popular uprising against Al-Assad, the United States, the EU, Australia and other Western nations have imposed economic sanctions on the Syrian government. However, some foreign policy specialists claim that these tough measures have had little or no effect in pushing the regime to offer political concessions or improve its human rights record. All the while, conditions in Syria have only worsened. The COVID-19 pandemic along with the recent earthquakes have fueled an economic collapse, leaving as many as 5.3 million people homeless

After initial difficulties with providing aid to Syria, the US Treasury has announced a 180-day exemption on its sanctions. Senior analyst, Delaney Simon, from the International Crisis Group’s US program, explained that “there are just too many access issues [for aid delivery]”. She also said that the new exemption might “ease the concerns of financial providers to show them that sanctions won’t be a risk for them to engage in Syria.”  

Tharunka was present at a protest against Western sanctions and prayer for Syrian earthquake victims in Haymarket on February 17th. Sandra, one of the demonstrators, expressed her indignation over the lack of help for Syria. 

“No one is doing anything! These aren’t just Instagram posts or stories or trends, these are lives and there are humans behind these trends,” she said.

Protest against Western sanctions and prayer for Syrian earthquake victims in Haymarket on February 17th

The Moussads, a Syrian family present at the Haymarket protest, explained that people in their country are most in need of essential supplies, such as milk, fuel, and nappies. “No one is helping because of the sanctions. You can’t compare this to anything else we’ve experienced. Because of the sanctions, no one can import or export anything,” they said.

Soon after news of the disaster reached Australia, the Turkish Society at UNSW put together a food stall fundraiser to help the victims. James Uzgur, member of Turksoc, expressed their gratitude towards “any small contribution”.

“It goes towards a better cause. Towards benefiting the Turkish community. It was a fulfilling experience, knowing we are able to give back to our community and to the victims,” he said.

All donations are sent to Ahbap, a Turkish NGO. 

The earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria were the deadliest since 2011, when a tremor followed by a tsunami in Japan killed almost 20,000 people. Experts say that the 47,000 death toll in the Middle East is expected to rise even further, as many victims are still unaccounted for. However, even amongst the rubble and heartbreaking news of more bodies emerging, signs of life continue to be heard.  

If you would like to help victims of the earthquakes, these are some trusted organizations you can reach out to:

White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defence) 
Karam Foundation 

Editor: Rafael Mocelin, Anh Noel