The population in some refugee camps could double, with women and girls facing the most risk of sexual abuse and violence, aid workers fear as they call for immediate international assistance in disaster’s aftermath
Aid workers fear the population of refugee camps could double in the wake of the disastrous earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, hitting some of the world’s most vulnerable people and putting women and girls in danger.
More than 3,000 people have been killed, with thousands more having been injured, across Turkey and northern Syria after two powerful earthquakes struck within the space of 10 hours on Monday.
In their wake, the earthquakes have caused massive destruction, levelling thousands of buildings. With the death toll rising by the hour, people still alive are scrambling to find safety and stay alive in the freezing temperatures. Charities working in the region told i refugee numbers are expected to soar as people flee their homes in search of safety.
Aid worker Abida, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety, is currently supporting over 200 partners throughout Turkey and Syria as they work tirelessly to help the thousands of people impacted by the earthquakes. She worries about how reports of earthquakes still to come will impact refugees – some of the most vulnerable people in the region – in coming days.
“There is now new waves of refugees coming into camps very quickly,” she told i, describing how people are flocking to tent-filled refugee camps as their homes have been destroyed in the quakes. “In refugee camps where there were 10,000 families, there could now be 20,000. The camps will be more crowded, but less resourced.”
She said that displaced people in camps will need more heating, medicine, psychological help, and food as the numbers of people inside increase. In addition, she worries that unless the frontline workers separate men and women within the ever-growing camps, women could risk sexual harassment and assault.
Mike Noyes is the humanitarian director for ActionAid UK and told i the earthquakes’ destruction in Turkey and Syria remind him of his time working in Haiti and Nepal. He, too, is concerned about how refugees and previously displaced people are going to cope.
“Typically, refugees will be living in the least robust and well-built homes that are much more likely to be affected by the physical impact of shaking and more prone to collapse,” he told i.
“On top of this, they will be already impacted by the difficulties of life as a refugee which will be multiplied by such an event things like the impact of winter, the lack of employment, and a dependency on an inadequate aid response which will be both disrupted by the earthquake and see the demands on it increase. In particular, we will see that women and girls will become even more exposed to the risks of sexual and gender-based violence and find their economic activities disrupted by the devastation.
Mr Noyes rightly noted that refugees in both Turkey and Syria have already experienced huge amounts of disruption and devastation prior to the earthquakes.
“They made have fled homes destroyed by bombing or have lived in camps in the past,” he said. “Events such as this [earthquake] take a very long time to recover from and people who have already experienced the trauma of war and displacement will need both physical and psychological support to continue to cope in the future and rebuild once more.”
Hani Habbal is a Syria Relief worker based in Turkey who said that he and everyone else is in survival mode, especially those in the most vulnerable predicaments – people who were displaced before the earthquakes.
“People do not have financial powers to manage even without the quake,” he told i. “They might have managed to secure temporary protection before, but now they don’t have it anymore. People are trying to keep calm, but inside, we are all so afraid.”
i has also been told that refugees in the region are doing everything they can to support others.
“We started hearing from our local partners in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria early this morning,” said Sanam Naraghi Dnderlini, founder of the International Civil Society Action Network. “They work with Syrian refugees across the three countries and they are overwhelmed. But despite their own trauma, they are figuring out how to help others.”
David Miliband, the former UK Foreign Secretary who is CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid agency, told i Syrian earthquake victims were particularly vulnerable to this “huge catastrophe” in the “ungoverned space” caused by the country’s ongoing civil war, which began in 2011.
“For people in northwestern Syria, having been bombed into a corner of the country over the last 10 years, the infrastructure is very weak,” he said. Aid agencies have struggled to find out what had happened and where, he said.
Mr Miliband hopes the earthquake will remind the world of how desperate the humanitarian situation continues to be in Syria. “There are people who are on the edge there. They need our support.”
But asked whether it could lead to greater international action to help refugees and internally displaced people, with a renewed focus on resolving the country’s conflict, he replied: “I fear it won’t.”
He said: “The world is suffering from poly-crisis – multiple crises that are compounding each other and the bandwidth for remembering there’s been a 10-year war in Syria is limited.”
His organisation has “a significant number of people working in northwest Syria,” he added. “We’re able to function there relatively effectively, but only because there’s a UN [border] crossing providing aid into Syria… This is why you need official crossings. And the absence of support from Damascus for northwest Syria shows why you need international aid.”
Carsten Hansen, Middle East regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, echoed concerns for refugees and displaced people, saying: “Millions have already been forced to flee by war in the wider region and now many more will be displaced by disaster.”
He urged a “massive scale up” to assess the situation and provide direct support to those most affected.
“We appeal to the international community for the immediate mobilisation of financial resources to support collective relief efforts in Syria and southern Turkey,” he said. “With every minute of delay, there will be lives lost.”
International charity Save the Children also called for the international community to act amid fears children are trapped in the rubble after over 2,800 buildings collapsed in Turkey, including hospitals, schools and government buildings.
Sasha Ekanayake, Save the Children’s Turkey country director, said: “This is one of the strongest earthquakes to hit the region in 100 years and made thousands homeless, while the region is experiencing freezing weather and snowstorms. Schools in the affected areas are now closed for a week. Our teams are moving quickly to check all our staff are safe, and to respond to the emergency, but it’s crucial that the international community acts now to provide support to the thousands of people in need.”
Okke Bouwman, the charity’s Syria media director, said that after 12 years of conflict, Syrian families are “on the brink”.
“The economy has collapsed, and families were already struggling to feed their children, to keep them warm this winter and to send them to school. Now children may be trapped in rubble, separated from their caregivers or unsure whether they will have a warm place to sleep tonight. Aftershocks are continuing, bringing further terror. These children need our immediate support – the international community must step up to help them now.”