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The Turkiye-Syria earthquake raises important questions about humanitarian aid

February 20, 2023 at 3:30 pm

United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sends 1400 prortable beds along with hammer drills to quake victims via a Qatar Emiri Air Force [Arife Karakum – Anadolu Agency]

The earthquake that hit Turkiye and Syria recently was heart-breaking, given the loss of life, the injuries and the devastation caused. It also raised some important questions about humanitarian aid in the modern world. It seems that aid is being politicised and made conditional.

With a staggering death toll 40,000 and counting, and hundreds of thousands of people injured, along with the devastation of whole towns and cities, it is clear that the humanitarian response had to be proportionate to the magnitude of the disaster. However, from the very first day, international confusion over how to deal with the catastrophe was evident, especially with regard to the delay in getting aid to the part of Syria affected by the earthquake outside regime control. The pretexts were political and obliterated any sense of humanity and empathy with the victims. The longer that aid took to get through, the more that lives were lost, and the suffering of survivors without shelter, food and drink, and other basic necessities was compounded.

Even though Turkiye was hit harder by the earthquake in terms of destruction and human and material losses, the Syrians faced a parallel catastrophe that doubled the number of victims as a result of the slow humanitarian response. In short, humanitarian aid for Syria was deeply politicised.

This is a curse for charitable and humanitarian work. Those of us working in the field continue to seek the application of international laws and conventions that are apparently disregarded when it comes to providing essential aid in certain parts of the world. The result, as we have seen in Syria post-earthquake, is both unnecessary and extremely ominous.

The delay in sending, or allowing, international humanitarian aid to get to those affected by the earthquake in Syria is unforgiveable. What kind of political “road map” is the international community applying in this day and age to face totally apolitical challenges that threaten our fellow human beings? I believe that the approach taken threatens our shared humanity by allowing sanctions against the regime in Syria, for example, to have an impact on the provision of aid to people in desperate need due to events completely beyond human control.

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How can the system be such that the UN failed to issue a binding resolution to open the doors for humanitarian aid to reach those affected by the earthquake, but allows countries — so-called superpowers — to invade other countries, impose sanctions which affect ordinary people more than the regimes that govern them, or besiege territories and their people? What sort of system allows that to happen, and gives legal justifications for depriving children, women and the elderly of food, clean water and essential medicines?

Turkish and Russian citizens collect donations for earthquake victims in Turkish provinces after 7.7 magnitude earthquake in Kahramanmaras of Turkiye at Turkish Embassy building in Moscow, Russia on February 07, 2023 [Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish and Russian citizens collect donations for earthquake victims in Turkish provinces after 7.7 magnitude earthquake[Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

The UN is in serious need of reform. It could start by redefining the vocabulary in its humanitarian lexicon, so that it sets out clearly that those who call for political, military and humanitarian support for, say, the people and government of Ukraine, are not allowed to stay silent and block the access of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, despite the entirely man-made humanitarian catastrophe that has been imposed on them for the past 16 years and counting. It was Ukraine’s supporters in the West who did not have the political or moral courage to allow humanitarian aid through to north-west Syria immediately in the face of the devastation caused by the earthquake.

The UN needs to be reminded that humanitarian necessities and aid should be — must be — unconditional if it really believes that human beings have equal rights and equality in good times and in bad. The Qur’anic verse “O mankind! Eat of that which is lawful and good on the earth” is a clear and logical sign that no single group has been singled out for preferential treatment when it comes to basic needs. The Creator of us all addresses everyone, without discrimination and without conditions.

The very concept of humanitarianism revolves around the premise that we are all human beings first and foremost, and we all have the same needs. Race, religion, culture and nationality don’t enter the humanitarian equation. Or at least they shouldn’t. All human beings must be respected, because the Creator tells us, “Indeed, We have dignified the children of Adam.”

As a Muslim who seeks to follow Islam in all that I do, I know that my faith is connected deeply to charity and doing good deeds. We will not be judged by anything but good deeds and the extent of their reflection on ourselves and others, especially those who are less fortunate than us. The goodness of the individual is at the heart of the goodness of societies; and the goodness of societies is at the core of the goodness of all mankind.

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It is impossible to justify negligence when it comes to providing support for those afflicted by disaster or misfortune; political consideration should have no part to play.

“We were fighting helplessness and time to reach people alive,” explained the head of the Syrian White Helmets, Raed Saleh. “The lack of adequate equipment is a big reason for this helplessness, but we swear to you that we worked and did our best.” He accused the UN of deliberate negligence towards the victims of the earthquake in Syria.

However, even if the UN tries to catch up with humanitarian relief efforts, the challenges ahead will still remain. Appropriate humanitarian support will be required for many months and years ahead as agencies work to avoid diseases being added to the list of problems facing the people of Syria (and Turkiye). Beyond the emergency relief stage, international, Arab and Islamic institutions need to factor in the provision of humanitarian support for the reconstruction of towns and cities so that survivors of the catastrophe can rebuild their lives. It’s a tall order, but charitable and humanitarian organisations will continue to fulfil their responsibilities to the best of their abilities. What they need more than anything else, though, is for humanitarian aid to be depoliticised so that they can get essential support to the people most in need wherever and whoever they might be.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.