People are being urged to give generously as 15 leading UK humanitarian groups band together to launch an urgent appeal, for what workers on the ground are calling a “miserable” situation in Turkey and Syria.
More than 16,000 people have been reported dead, after the region was struck by two massive earthquakes on Monday (6 February). The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that number could still climb significantly, and as many as 23 million people could be affected in some way across the two countries.
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has assembled to launch an urgent fundraising appeal on Thursday evening, with the UK Government to match the first £5 million in donations pound-for-pound. The DEC is made up of 15 major UK aid charities, including the British Red Cross, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, Tearfund, and World Vision UK.
The group assembles at times of serious crisis overseas, to fundraise as quickly and efficiently as possible. Fourteen of the committee’s 15 members are also either responding or planning to respond in Turkey and Syria, and will receive funds from the appeal. DEC chief executive Saleh Saeed said the scenes they were witnessing were truly shocking.
“By working together with charities on the ground and their local partners, we’re hoping to reach millions of people,” he said. “We’ve just heard now more than 17,000 people have lost their lives, and that number will rise… Millions are in need of humanitarian aid.”
Saaed said donations from the public would make a huge difference in helping DEC charities reach the people who needed it most. Members of some of their partner groups were already on the ground, he said. Salah Aboulgasem of Islamic Relief arrived in the Turkish city of Gaziantep around 14 hours after the earthquake.
“The size and the scale of this is unprecedented,” he said. Aboulgasem said he visited one province where up to 70% of the buildings were thought to have been destroyed.
Authorities were still encouraging many not to return to buildings, and he said with ongoing tremors and further buildings still collapsing, many were hesitant to sleep in buildings regardless - despite freezing winter conditions. “People are cold, very very cold,” he said.
“We’re offering them tents… a lot of people are sleeping on the streets, a lot of people are sleeping in their cars.” They were also handing out blankets, and Aboulgasem said he had never seen them disappear so fast.
In rebel-held northwest Syria, local DEC partner the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association (SEMA), was working to bridge gaps in health services. Dr Wassel Aljerk said the government was not responding to the emergency, and a lot of aid work was coming from White Helmet volunteers.
“The situation is miserable in northern Syria,” he said. Aljerk said there could be as many as 12,000 injured people needing healthcare in the region, even as efforts to extract people from the rubble continued. But the earthquakes had also worsened medical staff shortages, with one surgical assistant he knew of even losing an arm.
Racha Nasreddine of ActionAid, an organisation focusing on women and girls, said health and aid workers in northern Syria had already faced years of strain from the civil war, and there was an ongoing cholera outbreak in the region. “Today we have very limited maternity facilities. Pregnant women are facing risk of complications,” she said.
In Syria, a newborn baby was saved from the rubble of a collapsed building with its placenta still attached. Sadly its mother did not survive. Nasreddine said access to both period products and privacy has also been an issue for women and girls who were currently menstruating. ActionAid had been working to establish shelters for them.
“Women and girls usually face increased risk violence and abuse in these times of crisis,” she said. The group was also starting to provide psychological and social support, focusing on children first.
“We need to redouble the support for this area, northwestern Syria.” British Red Cross regional head Jeremy Smith said they had Red Crescent ambulances responding in northwestern Syria within 10 minutes of the earthquakes.
“This is really a crisis within a crisis in Syria,” he said. Smith said this was going to be a multi-year long recovery effort, and there were people who had lost their homes or would have lifelong injuries. “We need people to give generously.”