Death toll continues to rise following Turkey-Syria earthquake

Hatay, Turkey, 9 Feb., 2023. Members of the UK's International Search & Rescue Team continue working in coordination with other search and rescue teams looking for survivors. Photo credit: UK ISAR Team, Uploaded a work by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office from with UploadWizard

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked northern and western regions of Syria and southern and central parts of Turkey, initiating a humanitarian disaster and compounding political tensions that have existed for decades.

In the early morning on Feb. 6, the Middle East was faced with a historical natural disaster. With the epicenter just 40 km west of Gaziantep, a major city in south-central Turkey, the event has caused insurmountable damage and devastated tens of thousands of lives across the two countries.

“It was very big for an earthquake rupturing the Earth’s crust. The rupture zone was about 350 km in length and then there was a 7.5-magnitude 9 hours later which by itself is very big,” marine geosciences Professor Falk Amelung said. “The biggest earthquakes occur along subduction zones. But the impact is generally less as the megathrust fault is not close to the surface and generally off-shore.”

Beginning Monday morning, 25,000 search and rescue workers in Turkey have been working tirelessly to recover civilians from under the rubble.

As of Feb. 13, the death toll has risen to 36,000, surpassing that of another devastating earthquake that hit northwest Turkey in 1999, which killed over 17,000 people.

In addition to the astounding death toll, the crisis has left hundreds of thousands of people in both countries homeless. People have resorted to finding shelter in mosques, supermarkets and amid the buildings reduced to rubble.

“It is particularly sad because in the last big earthquake in Turkey in 1999 the same thing happened. Many buildings collapsed whereas those which were properly built, kept standing,” Professor of Marine Geosciences Falk Amelung said.

While it is difficult to gauge the extent of the damage, experts at the World Health Organization estimate that around 23 million people will be affected by the earthquake.

President Julio Frenk released a statement to the UM community on Feb. 7 acknowledging the event and offering solidarity to those affected by the earthquake.

“The devastation and humanitarian crisis unleashed by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria are powerful reminders of our shared vulnerability to disasters which can devastate individuals, families and communities across the globe,” President Frenk said.

The statement also included a list of charities providing humanitarian assistance to the region, including the AKUT Search and Rescue Association, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Doctors without Borders.

Over a dozen countries, including the U.S, South Korea, China and the European Union have offered humanitarian aid to the regions affected.

In addition to pledging over $85 million in humanitarian aid, the U.S. has dispatched its highly trained Urban Search and Rescue Teams, engineers, emergency managers and paramedics to the hardest-hit areas of Turkey.

Historically tense diplomatic relations between the two countries has further aggravated the disaster, with many political factors preventing the flow of key resources.

“After the 1999 disaster the government vowed that this would never happen again. The building codes were updated. Unfortunately the codes were not followed. The government failed to enforce them. A very sad example of the government failing their people,” Amelung said.

The Syrian government has expressed concerns over territorial integrity and sovereignty as Turkey delivers aid to the rebel-occupied northwest of Syria.

Anne-Marie Issa, a junior studying political science, international studies and history, spoke on the conflict, calling attention to Syria’s vulnerable position in restoration efforts.

“This earthquake has exacerbated the existing conflicts in the region in more ways than one,” Issa said. “The areas affected by the earthquake in Syria, particularly, have been those holding a large population of rebel forces against the dictatorial regime. Syria has been significantly underserved in the search and rescue efforts, despite aid being dispatched from Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the United States.”

Amidst political tensions, there is a question of whether or not Turkey and Syria are receiving their fair share of humanitarian resources.

One student from Syria explained some of the barriers that Syrians are facing as they look to acquire outside aid.

“All the resources are depleted with absence of basics and medical supplies,” said junior biochemistry and molecular biology major Louay AlDaher. “On top of that, there are sanctions that prevent Syrians from receiving direct aid from many countries, leaving them with a president who only cares about his bottom line, refusing aid or support to his people and his nation.”

Students standing in solidarity with Turkey and Syria are emphasizing the need for an equal share of assistance to both countries, regardless of diplomatic tensions in the international community.

“No one is talking about it. The Syrian people are in need of international assistance, all of which has been blocked by Russia’s veto power. The Syrian people need our prayers and support during this time,” Issa said.

Students and faculty can donate to the student-led GoFundMe here.