World Government Summit: Unicef warns of mental health toll on young earthquake survivors

Vulnerable children will need counselling and support, fundraising chief says

A girl walks near a tent beside collapsed buildings on Monday in Hatay, Turkey. Getty
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Children pulled from the rubble of buildings destroyed in the devastating earthquakes across Syria and Turkey will need psychological support to deal with the traumatic experiences of the last seven days, Unicef has said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the World Government Summit in Dubai, Unicef’s director of private fundraising and partnerships Carla Haddad warned of the mental health toll on earthquake survivors and that time was running out.

With thousands of homes destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, children are among those most at risk in the aftermath. Many have lost parents or become separated from families.

Many are unaccompanied as they have lost their parents, either because they have died or they have become separated
Carla Haddad, Unicef’s director of private fundraising and partnerships

“Relief operations are reaching a critical phase now, so it is very hard to watch families forced to survive in the cold,” she said.

“Children will need help to cope with the trauma they have lived and witnessed, many with the separation from their families.

“Our partners are ensuring children are getting the help they need for their physical and mental well-being.

“Child protection is a key focus for Unicef now.

“Many are unaccompanied as they have lost their parents, either because they have died or they have become separated.

“It is chaos on the ground so our teams are trying to reunite children with their families as quickly as possible.”

Images of children freed from the debris of collapsed buildings offered rare moments of hope in recent days, but the likelihood of more youngsters being found alive is fading fast.

“The situation speaks for itself when you see a child rescued from the rubble — we have to still believe,” said Ms Haddad.

“I always think those children nursed by their mothers have enough strength to hold on, but we are racing against the clock.

“Every minute matters. These images of children being rescued are extremely powerful.

“It will be tough for children, but our programme is designed to target exactly what they need.”

Life-saving aid was delayed from entering parts of northern Syria under rebel control in the early days of recovery operations due to government restrictions.

When the Syrian government lost control of almost all of its borders with Turkey during the 12-year civil war, it objected to all cross-border operations.

Humanitarian aid from the UN has since been allowed to pass across the front lines to assist millions of earthquake survivors, but it has arrived too late for some.

The UN says more than 5.3 million are now homeless in Syria, with at least 870,000 in need of hot meals across the country and neighbouring Turkey.

Heavy snowstorms, with more sub-zero temperature days to come, have made recovery operations and aid delivery particularly treacherous.

Shortages of trauma supplies and medical kits from Unicef warehouses in Damascus forced rescue workers to send emergency aid from Lebanon and Jordan.

Children in particular are in urgent need of supplies, such as high-energy nutrition biscuits, clean water, food, blankets and medicine.

Unicef is co-ordinating food aid for those most in need, especially children under two and pregnant women.

Psychological support and mental well-being will become a critical feature of the next steps, particularly for children, Ms Haddad said.

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Updated: February 14, 2023, 6:38 AM