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The Failures of Turkey’s Earthquake Response

6 minute read

More than 37,000 people have died and tens of thousands have been injured as a result of the devastating earthquakes that impacted northwestern Syria and Turkey on Feb. 6.

The earthquakes—the deadliest in the world since Japan’s Fukushima in 2011—caused more than 5,600 buildings across southeastern Turkey to collapse, leaving people without shelter, and in great need of food, blankets, and fuel to leave the city and find safety. 10 provinces in Turkey are currently under a state of emergency for the next three months.

The Turkish government has received criticism for its disaster response—or lack thereof. In the hours following the catastrophe, there were no military forces sent to affected areas, leaving people to fend for themselves. Several residents reportedly attempted to get in contact with the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), but were unable to do so successfully.

A resident of the badly-hit Turkish city of Antakya called the government’s response “shocking,” saying that there were minimal professional rescue teams or equipment from the government in the first two and a half days. He says that many family members that were able to get out of buildings during the earthquake stayed behind waiting for emergency response teams to arrive and help rescue family members still alive under the debris.

“You could hear people who were still alive under the rubble, trying to scream and say they were alive, but there was absolutely no one helping at that moment,” he says.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged his government’s shortcomings in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, saying that it was not “possible to be prepared for such a disaster.” The government initially had issues at airports and roads, but promised that things were now “under control.”

But that hasn’t stopped critics from pointing out that in the days following the earthquakes, Erdogan was seemingly focused on censorship and political goals. Here are the three biggest criticisms of the government’s response effort, and preparedness, so far:

Limiting access to Twitter

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, people took to social media to share their location, in hopes that rescue efforts would soon arrive. When no one did, many lashed out at the Turkish government for its poor disaster response, sharing photos and videos of what was happening on the ground.

Turkey then temporarily banned Twitter for 12 hours from Wednesday afternoon to early Thursday, largely limiting the contact survivors on the ground had with others.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
ANKARA, TURKIYE - FEBRUARY 14: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes statements atAFAD headquarters in Ankara, Turkiye on February 14, 2023.Halil Sagirkaya—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Erdogan, who is seeking reelection in May, said he blocked access to the platform to stop disinformation from spreading and expressed outrage at the criticism the Turkish government faced. “In such a period, I cannot tolerate the viciously negative campaigns for the sake of simple political interests,” Erdogan said.

In October, Turkey passed a law that claimed to work to “criminalize the spread of misinformation.” But a Brookings report reveals the law actually functions as a way for the government to moderate social media platforms. People can receive up to five years in jail for posting false information that “disrupt[s] Turkey’s domestic and external security,” or “public order.”

The decision to restrict Twitter is reminiscent of a similar circumstance in 2014, when the platform was previously banned after it spread leaked audio recordings of Erdogan ordering his son to transfer millions of dollars of cash out of the house when he learned authorities were raiding politicians’ homes.

Carrying out arrests

On Wednesday, Turkish authorities announced they arrested five people and put another 18 into custody for “provocative posts” related to the earthquakes, according to the Wall Street Journal. Law enforcement said that they had also identified more than 200 social media accounts that posted about the aftermath of this natural disaster, likely criticizing the government for its response.

Many have questioned why authorities were prioritizing arrests and taking down Twitter during a time of great devastation.

“Twitter has been an absolute lifeline in the aftermath of the earthquakes, both for rescuers to seek assistance and coordinate the provision of rescue equipment, and by those seeking missing loved ones,” Alp Toker, the director of internet-monitoring group Netblocks, told the Washington Post. “There is no obvious replacement to fill the gap.”

Negligent infrastructure practices

Turkey, which is located between two tectonic plates, has dealt with earthquakes for centuries, though this disaster is one of the strongest to impact the country since 1999, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake killed more than 17,000 people.

That earthquake prompted the Turkish government to establish an earthquake tax and improve construction standards to better prepare for quakes. But experts told TIME that many newer buildings were not built up to code, and older buildings did not meet the set caliber.

“In terms of regulations, Turkey has the most state-of-the-art code in [the building] design process,” said Dr. H. Kit Miyamoto, a structural engineer at ​​Miyamoto International. “It’s the application where we have big problems. Both for the building capacity and regulation consistency.”

Miyamoto told TIME that because construction is a substantial industry in Turkey, the government often turns a blind eye to regulation. And economic differences between Eastern Turkey and Western Turkey means infrastructure standards have also vastly differed, making the impacted region even more vulnerable to quakes and the aftershocks.

This has affected the medical attention people have been able to receive following the quakes, with reports of medical centers like the Iskenderun Devlet Hastanesi hospital—which had an estimated 300 people inside—turning into rubble when disaster struck.

That lack of regard for building safety has angered thousands, inciting much of the public outrage Erdogan is trying to avoid.

“It’s not safe at all. The city here is totally destroyed. Basically there’s no one building that is not affected by this,” the Antakya resident says. “Even if a building stayed standing, it is still not safe to live in.”

Correction, February 16

The original version of this story misstated the location of two maternity centers supported by Doctors without Borders that were forced to evacuate due to the risk of collapse. They were in Syria, not in Turkey.

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