UN has failed Syrian earthquake victims, aid chief says

Martin Griffiths warns that the death toll is set to double as earthquake destruction 'beyond belief'

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Follow the latest news on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

The UN has failed the people of north-western Syria nearly a week after a powerful earthquake hit the region and killed more than 28,000 people, a toll that is feared to rise by tens of thousands, a top aid chief said on Sunday.

Martin Griffiths, the UN's Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, described “devastating” scenes he had witnessed in Turkey as he visited the quake-hit areas.

“At the Turkey-Syria border today. We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria,” Mr Griffiths said on Twitter.

“They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” he said.

Mr Griffiths said his main focus and duty now is to “correct this failure as fast as we can.” He added that it is typical in a natural disaster that water supplies get “tainted” and spread disease, warning of a second wave of cholera in Syria.

He described the earthquake as the region's worst event in 100 years, predicting the death toll would at least double.

He praised Turkey's response, saying his experience was that disaster victims were always disappointed by early relief efforts.

Tens of thousands of rescue workers continued to scour flattened neighbourhoods in freezing weather that has deepened the misery of millions now in desperate need of aid. In Turkey alone, about 13 million people live in a zone of massive devastation, around 500km in diameter.

International aid continued to pour into Turkey on Sunday, with around 100 countries sending aid and rescue workers to the region. From the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined Egypt and Jordan in sending aid to stricken areas of northern Syria, while Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed arrived in Damascus on Sunday to discuss ways the UAE could increase its assistance to Syria, where as many as five million people are feared homeless following the disaster.

In Turkey, security concerns led some aid operations to be suspended, and dozens of people have been arrested for looting or trying to defraud victims after the quake, according to state media. Turkish authorities said on Sunday that 130 people in the construction and real estate sector had arrested warrants issued against them after being accused of violating building standards. The standards have been in place for nearly two decades but are seldom enforced.

Some people are miraculously still being rescued, almost a week after the disaster, as incredible stories of survival continue to emerge.

Three Emiratis survived the quake in Turkey after they were trapped inside their hotel as the walls crumbled.

Mohammed Al Hrmoodi 26, Majed Abdulrhman, 24 and Ahmed Al Yassi, 26, were asleep in the Northhill Hotel in Antakya when last Monday's 7.8-magnitude quake struck. They woke to find the building swaying and the deafening noise of cracking concrete and windows, but were able to escape unharmed.

Aid getting to Syria

The situation in the areas devastated by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria is “bleak beyond belief”, Britain's Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell said on Sunday.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Mitchell said: “It’s bleak beyond belief, it is the worst crisis, the worst earthquake we have faced certainly since Nepal [2015], probably since Haiti [2010].”

He suggested the death toll could reach 50,000, backing Mr Griffiths assessment that it could dramatically increase.

“I think that the figure that the UN emergency co-ordinator has given yesterday when he was in the region of 50,000 is the right figure, I fear, that we’re going to see.”

Mr Mitchell said there is “good organisation” of the relief effort in Turkey, but in the “ungoverned space” of war-torn Syria the situation is more difficult.

The EU's envoy to Syria on Sunday urged authorities in Damascus to “engage in good faith” with aid workers to get help to those in need.

“It is important to allow unimpeded access for aid to arrive in all areas where it is needed,” Dan Stoenescu told Reuters.

“Entering a fake blame game is not constructive and does not help us deliver aid to those in so much need and distress in a more timely manner. On the contrary,” he said.

A Qatari Red Cross medical team crossed into Syria on Sunday — the second aid shipment from Arab governments to rebel-held areas — to the northern region in the country worst hit by the 7.8-magnitude quake, residents and aid workers said.

They said that while any aid is welcome, despite it being too late to rescue anyone under the rubble, there remains a huge shortage of tents and other supporting material for those without shelter.

The 12-member team, which left Doha to Turkey on Sunday, passed through the Bab Al Hawa crossing, a border gate between the Turkish province of Hatay and the governorate of Idlib.

A Qatari Red Crescent statement said the team will be treating people upon its arrival, and that another team accompanying shipments of medicine and medical equipment will follow.

The Qatari aid came a day after the first Arab government aid arrived from Saudi Arabia via the Al Hammam crossing, 5km west of the rebel-controlled city of Jindiris.

The earthquake brought down 267 buildings in the small city, the most in any town in rebel-held areas, according of the Stabilisation Support Unit, a pro-opposition aid co-ordination organisation.

Syrian expatriates have been also sending aid and volunteer Syrian doctors have been crossing into rebel-controlled areas.

A Saudi philanthropist known as Abu Turki paid for 20 containers of wood, which was sent to towns and villages most affected by the quake.

Messages on a WhatsApp group of aid workers in non-regime-held areas said that most of the aid that has come in so far through Turkey has consisted of blankets, clothes and canned food.

“Nothing has arrived into the liberated areas to shelter people,” said Sirin, one of the aid workers. “The number of tents we have is very limited.”

With extra reporting from Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Jordan

Updated: February 13, 2023, 4:46 AM