Helping those left jobless by the Turkey and Syria earthquakes is about more than income

Unemployment can damage mental health and has the inimical effect of exacerbating other problems

Men in the in Turkish coastal province of Hatay play backgammon on the beach weeks after an earthquake struck the region. AFP
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Losing one’s job can be a hammer blow. Aside from the financial fears it conjures – how to pay the rent or put food on the table – a sudden loss of work can shatter our sense of self, stripping away an important part of our identity.

For people lucky enough to live in stable and secure countries, unemployment is a serious challenge. For those living in nations hit by war or natural disasters, it can be a matter of life and death. A report this week from the UN’s International Labour Organisation has revealed that 170,000 people in Syria are now out of work because of last month’s earthquakes, leading to $5.7 billion being lost every month in the country as a result.

In Turkey, the picture is also worrying. The report’s initial findings suggest that the earthquakes left more than 658,000 workers unable to earn a living, and more than 150,000 workplaces unusable.

Unemployment is a problem that has the inimical effect of magnifying other problems. For every breadwinner that is out of work, there are people who depend upon them, be they children, elderly parents or a partner who needs care. For young people in particular, the risk posed to their education – their future – is great, and the ILO is warning that there could be a rise in child labour in Turkey and Syria.

A man passes the rubble of a collapsed building in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey. The devastation has damaged thousands of workplaces in Turkey and neighbouring Syria. EPA

Unemployment has pernicious and long-term effects. Earlier research from the ILO has revealed that the impact of youth unemployment can be felt for decades, leading to persistent inequality and “distrust in the socio-economic and political systems”. Other international research has revealed the intergenerational nature of the problems caused by unemployment, as young people’s life chances fall victim to the struggle to make ends meet.

The dangers of unemployment are not just financial. The Health Foundation, a charity in the UK, has found that being out of work “causes stress, which ultimately has long-term physiological health effects and can have negative consequences for people’s mental health, including depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem”. The mental and emotional impact on people who have already lived through the trauma of the earthquakes, having had their lives turned upside down – in some Syrians’ case several times over – can only be guessed at.

In Syria and Turkey, a slow transition from the acute phase of the earthquake to more medium and long-term challenges is taking place. Although the immediate drive to provide food and shelter is an important one, for the hundreds and thousands of people who now find themselves abruptly out of work more sustained support will be necessary.

Amid warnings that millions face a slide into poverty or may fall into hand-to-mouth jobs, backing for continuing emergency employment schemes is essential. So is aiding engineering and repairs to make workplaces safe again for use. Engaging with trade unions and business organisations will also be important to ensure a future for seasonal workers, refugees and children.

Helping people out of unemployment is as much about restoring a feeling of usefulness and dignity as it is about paying the bills. In the case of the areas in Syria and Turkey impacted by earthquakes, a sustained effort will be needed to rebuild workplaces and help people back to work. It is a struggle that will go on long after the glare of media attention has faded.

Published: March 31, 2023, 3:00 AM