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Turkey and Syria Earthquake

Volume 827: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 7 February.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement to the House on the situation in Turkey and Syria.

On Monday morning at 1.17 am UK time, a major earthquake struck south-eastern Turkey and north-western Syria. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake’s impact was felt hundreds of miles away in Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Israel. Just nine hours later at 10.24 am London time, a second major earthquake struck the same region, with a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale. The first tremor centred on the Turkish city of Gaziantep, some 150 miles north of the Turkish-Syrian border. The epicentre of the second quake was approximately 80 miles further north.

Earthquakes of this severity have not been seen in that region for 80 years. The effects of the two earthquakes have been devastating. At least 2,291 deaths have already been confirmed by the Turkish authorities, and at least 15,834 people have been reported injured. Those numbers are, I regret to inform the House, highly likely to rise significantly. I know that the House will join me in offering our sincere condolences to the people of Turkey and Syria.

Across the region, which is inhabited by more than 12 million people, more than 6,000 buildings have collapsed. Electricity and gas infrastructure has been severely damaged. Many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey reside in the affected provinces. Turkey’s outstanding disaster relief response capability has been severely tested by the sheer scale of the catastrophe. The Turkish Government have declared a state of emergency, and they are requesting international assistance on a scale that matches the enormity of the situation that they are facing. Turkey will lead the disaster relief response in the areas of Syria where it has a presence.

As of this morning, we know that three British nationals are missing. The Foreign Office’s crisis response hub is working to support the at least 35 British nationals who have been directly affected by the earthquakes. We assess that the likelihood of large-scale British casualties remains low. The Turkish Government have contacted His Majesty’s Government to request support, and we are working closely with our Turkish allies to provide them with the help that they need as swiftly and as effectively as possible.

I have been in direct contact with my Turkish counterpart, and I plan to speak to the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordination this afternoon to discuss future steps. Our 77-strong urban search and rescue team, with four dogs and state-of-the-art equipment, is due to arrive at Gaziantep later today. I have also authorised the deployment of a UK emergency medical assessment team.

In Syria, the UK is in contact with our partners on the ground to establish their need and decide how best to help them. The conflict stability and security fund will provide an uplift to the opposition Syrian civil defence, commonly known as the White Helmets, to support their emergency response operations across north-west Syria. We are also providing support to Syria through the International Medical Corps, Save the Children and, of course, the United Nations agencies.

We will continue to stand by the people of Turkey and Syria. We will deliver aid to those in need, wherever they are, and as we do so, we will work with our allies and partners around the world to ensure the most effective humanitarian response. I undertake to keep the House updated on the situation in Turkey and Syria as it evolves. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, the devastation in Turkey and Syria is clearly heartbreaking, with thousands losing loved ones in the most shocking of ways. Our thoughts and sympathy must go out to all those so deeply affected, in particular the diaspora community here in the United Kingdom. As the Minister reminded us on Monday, the death toll of this terrible disaster was rising at a huge rate—by the hour, he said. At that point, the reported casualty figure was 2,000; this morning, the Disasters Emergency Committee reported that at least 9,000 people have been killed across the two countries, anticipating that the figures will continue to rise. President Erdoğan announced later that the death toll in Turkey had reached 8,754. Combined with the 2,470 known deaths in Syria, that brings the total official death toll to 11,224.

Of course, it is anticipated that, sadly, these figures will continue to rise. Many people are trapped under rubble and search and rescue operations are still continuing. More than 5,770 buildings have collapsed in Turkey and 4,000 have collapsed in north-western Syria—that was the estimate from last night. Information from rural areas, however, may not have been received due to the damage to communications and road infrastructure. The WHO has suggested that the final toll could rise as high as 20,000. A similar-sized earthquake in the region in 1999 killed at least 17,000.

This afternoon, the Disasters Emergency Committee announced it was launching the DEC Turkey-Syria earthquake appeal tomorrow through TV and broadcast appeals. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us this afternoon how the Government will ensure support for that appeal, both in funding and in promotion.

The Turkish Interior Minister has issued an international assistance call and stated that Turkey has mobilised state emergency teams. On Monday, the Minister gave us a detailed report on how our international search and rescue teams had been deployed and commenced life-saving activity within the crucial 72 hours. Can he tell us whether we plan to send any further search and rescue resources, beyond what is in the Statement, in particular heavy-lifting equipment, helicopters, et cetera? Clearly, the demand is huge. Anyone listening to the BBC this morning would have heard the terrible reports about the need for shelter, energy, water and sanitation. There are reports that cholera is already spreading in Syria. The terrible conditions and the question of how bodies are stored and buried also need to be addressed.

DEC reports that its humanitarian directors indicated that at least 10 of its members have the presence and ability to implement a response in Turkey, either directly or through partners, and 13 of its members have indicated that they have capacity to respond in Syria. Several DEC agencies have already begun responses using existing resources. We want to hear how the Government can support additional services.

This disaster highlights the desperate need to improve humanitarian access to Syria from Turkey, particularly after last month’s renewal of the UN Security Council mandate on cross-border aid secured only one crossing for six months. I also mentioned on Monday that many NGOs are deeply concerned about Syria, in particular on access and control of different areas. Ismail Alabdullah from the White Helmets spoke to the BBC from within Syria, near the border with Turkey, to appeal for international assistance. He said:

“We need help. We need the international community to do something, to help us, to support us. North-west Syria now is a disaster area. We need help from everyone to save our people.”

On Monday, the Minister said that the FCDO was working directly with the United Nations and that he hoped to speak to the UN co-ordinator, Mohamed Haji, later that day about Syria. I hope he accepts the need to drive humanitarian access up the international agenda and open new flows of aid to north-western Syria. I thank the Minister for his regular updates to me and, I am sure, other noble Lords on the situation. I understand from them that he was able to speak to Mohamed Haji earlier today. I hope he can tell us the outcome of those discussions and what more positive steps we are taking as a nation to help those people in Turkey and Syria.

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, regarding our sympathies being with those directly affected. This is also an extremely concerning time for the diaspora community. Is the FCDO offering any guidance and support to the diaspora community on how to access information about those it may be concerned about? I will not be alone in this House in having friends in the area who have already struggled with communications. We have all seen the images of the pure hell of the area, with whole villages and communities razed to the ground. Part of the communications and infrastructure network has also been affected.

As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, indicated, the human cost is rapidly growing and is now more than 11,200 in southern Turkey and northern Syria, with more than 23 million lives affected. Without question, the UK population will respond to the DEC appeal; the public in this country respond when there are awful disasters such as this. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will trigger the UK aid match? They did so with regard to the Pakistan floods and, of course, the Ukrainian appeal. I would be grateful if the Minister could make a rapid announcement on a UK aid match from the Government, matching the generosity of the British public.

The European Union has provided a commitment for €3.5 million through the EU civil protection mechanism in response to a formal appeal from Syria. What is the UK government mechanism for support? As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, indicated, the people of northern Syria have been afflicted by conflict, and it is an area where control is divided between the Government and rebel groups. There is already concern that the Assad regime may use this politically, but the people will need humanitarian assistance. So what are the mechanisms by which the UK will work with our international partners on delivering assistance? I understand that it has been the Government’s approach not to provide equipment that could be used internally in Syria. There are grounds for exceptions to be made for this. Are the Government actively considering that in an urgent way?

We pay tribute to the work of those providing humanitarian assistance already. Beyond support for the White Helmets, what is the FCDO advice for British charities and NGOs that wish to be active in this part of Syria? I know this is a very delicate situation, but what clear advice has been provided?

We know the reality in this region: 4.1 million are already dependent on humanitarian assistance, the majority of whom are women and children, in a harsh winter and with a cholera outbreak. With regard to healthcare, medication, food, shelter and essential provisions, if the British public want to contribute to specific organisations beyond the DEC, what is the advice as to whom and how?

I pay tribute to the crisis response and recovery unit at Crown Agents, which does sterling work on Ukraine and across the area. I know the Minister knows Crown Agents extremely well. It supports supply chain organisations, shelter response, heaters, latrine units and, specifically, water and sanitation for girls and women. How are the Government supporting Crown Agents, which I think is held in the highest esteem in the world for tackling logistical difficulties in very complex areas? Are the Government ensuring that it is equipped as it should be to provide this assistance? I hope the Minister can respond positively.

My Lords, as I am sure all noble Lords do, I fully associate myself with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The situation in Turkey and Syria continues to worsen, exacerbated by both hard-to-access areas and the weather conditions; snow and rain are hindering progress.

I turn to some of the specific points. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, for their strong support. This underlines the importance of being at one when these crises hit. Of course, I will continue to update your Lordships’ House on a regular basis, as I said I would 48 hours ago, as things evolve and emerge. Tragically, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, the figures continue to increase. From both official statistics and the reality on the ground, as conveyed to us through reports and, importantly, some of the calls I have had—which I will come on to in a moment—it is very clear that this number will continue to increase.

There is always the odd bit of hope. I am sure that many noble Lords saw on the front pages of our newspapers that young girl in Afrin—a source of hope. The tragedy was that she was born under the rubble and the rest of her family have died. Who knows how many such cases we will come across?

On the calls I have been making, I spoke yesterday to the head of the White Helmets, Raed al-Saleh. I join the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in commending their incredible work, which we are again seeing unfold on our screens. As I announced then, we immediately stood up another £800,000. I conveyed that to Raed al-Saleh and his team and asked him to identify specific needs and requirements in Syria.

I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said about accessibility. As I said a couple of days ago, that remains a priority. There is one sanctioned humanitarian corridor, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, alluded to. I have been in contact with our senior ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, Dame Barbara Woodward, to see what further pressure can be exerted on the likes of Russia to open up corridors. This is about saving people’s lives. It is important that Russia now recognises, notwithstanding the immense differences that we have because of its illegal war in Ukraine, that lives will be saved through accessibility into Ukraine. I assure noble Lords of our best efforts in working with both our key partners at the UN and partners such as the United States and the European Union to apply further pressure in that respect.

I turn to some of the specific questions. Both noble Lords asked about the DEC appeal. I do not want to pre-empt any announcement, but I assure noble Lords that, as we have done previously, we are working closely in a co-ordinated fashion. When those announcements are finalised, I will update noble Lords. I reassure them that we very much stand by the DEC appeal in terms of both logistics and financial support, as we have done previously. The details of that are still to be determined, but I will update the House accordingly.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about Crown Agents. It is a key partner and I associate myself totally with what he said. I have not yet seen the specifics of some of the requirements, but I will update the noble Lord on that.

I am trying to find my note on the UN—this shows just how much of a live issue this is. The DEC appeal has just been launched. I will not go into detail on that because it is still being worked out, but we will look at match funding; indeed, as I left the FCDO today, that was one of the issues that were still being determined.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, pointed to the EU contribution of £3.5 million. The UK has stood up £8 million, which will focus specifically, as we announced earlier today, on a package of life-saving support to cover both Turkey and Syria. The humanitarian package includes immediate extra support, covering thousands of tents, blankets and hygiene-kit specifics, as the noble Lord outlined, as well as equipment to help address urgent medical needs and the offer of a world-class UK field clinic. It is important that in Turkey we co-ordinate this through the Turkish agency, which we are doing, and that in Syria we work through the UN. My right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Development Minister had a very constructive call with Martin Griffiths.

I can also inform noble Lords that today I had a good call with the UN co-ordinator, Muhannad Hadi; unfortunately, he painted a very bleak picture, but there is some hope. Senior representatives of the United Nations, including Martin Griffiths, will be going to Damascus to plead the importance of humanitarian relief. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about direct support, I asked Muhannad Hadi what could be done so that we could relay that information. He said that he would provide specific information to me; as soon as I have it to hand, I will share it with noble Lords.

I stress that our agencies, NGOs and charities that work in the UK have incredible reach. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent, through their networks, are providing important support; I am sure that, as partners are identified through the DEC appeal, they will provide other opportunities for key partners working on the ground. Of course, we continue to work in a very co-ordinated fashion with them.

I will make a quick point on engagement. I am sure all noble Lords acknowledge the strength of the message sent by His Majesty the King to the President of Turkey. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister also spoke to President Erdoğan yesterday. The Foreign Secretary and I have both sent messages to the Foreign Minister of Turkey, while the Turkish ambassador is in the FCDO as I speak and meeting the Minister for Europe. He conveyed his sincere thanks for the outpouring of support that he has seen, not just from the important and valued British-Turkish diaspora but across all communities. I am sure that will continue to be the case.

I will continue to update noble Lords as the details are finalised, but we are very actively engaged on this agenda through international agencies and directly through the UN teams, working with key partners. I can report that the team that I announced, made up of 77 search and rescue specialists, is now on the ground and working with other teams there. A UK medical team has also been dispatched and has arrived in Gaziantep, where it will meet the Turkish Ministry of Health to establish other key priorities.

My Lords, like all noble Lords, I am absolutely heartbroken, particularly because I have so many good friends in Britain who have already travelled to Istanbul. Some are trying to access Syria. I am deeply touched by the powerful contributions of my noble friend Lord Collins and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and I thank the Minister for keeping us up to date.

I have two questions. A huge amount of effort is already under way within the various communities. How can the Minister and the Government ensure that those British efforts are directed in one direction, so that they can be maximised? The sending of tonnes of food and clothes is being arranged. Can we ensure that there is some collaboration with the Turkish embassy, Turkish Airlines, et cetera?

My other point is to ask the Minister whether he has sought meetings with other Muslim countries in the region, particularly Qatar, given that it has just created some massive, good-quality tents. Can some of those be donated to Turkey, especially in light of the fact that Qatar already has really good experience of creating high-class clinics, as it did in Pakistan some years ago? My prayers and condolences are with the people of Turkey. I hope that we will all, individually and collectively, do everything within our ability and capacity to ensure that Turkey is helped.

My Lords, on the second point, as the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, I will very shortly travel to the Gulf and this will be one of the key areas of my discussions. Equally, I know that those near neighbours are responding.

The noble Baroness talked about co-ordination. We are speaking directly with the Turkish authorities, as well as with the ambassador here, to see how we can best co-ordinate efforts. I have already indicated certain NGOs that can be worked with. Undoubtedly, the Turkish authorities are overwhelmed. Specific lines have now been set up for British relatives who are in Turkey; those are directly with the Foreign Office and consular offices are available 24/7. On people looking for family support, as was pointed out in our previous discussion by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, that is a matter for the Turkish authorities directly but we are looking at how we can disseminate that information.

Finally, I add a note of caution. As we have seen, the Turkish Government have stated clearly that only vehicles which carry aid teams and aid materials will be allowed to enter certain cities deemed to be inside the disaster areas. That should be borne in mind.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the DEC should be congratulated for getting off the mark much faster than usual? This is going to be very reassuring to all those who have donated. I recall from my time with some of the DEC members that there was a healthy tension—not to say competition—between them early on in these events. Can the Minister give the House an idea of how briefings are provided without showing any restraint or regulation? How does one keep in contact, especially when there is duplication of food and materials?

My Lords, I applaud the efforts of the DEC. It has stood up aid during the recent challenges and disasters which have engulfed the world, including last summer in Pakistan. This also underlines the strong generosity of the British people in supporting these contacts. On co-ordination—if I understood the noble Earl correctly—the DEC provides a strong framework. It is being briefed regularly and has meetings with FCDO officials.

My Lords, geology, as we have found yet again, is no respecter of national boundaries and nor is the disease which follows such events. Can my noble friend the Minister outline how we will use the expertise in this country to help our friends and colleagues in Turkey and Syria deal with the disease that will inevitably follow this terrible disaster?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that it is for exactly that reason that we have dispatched a UK medical team, which is analysing what the exact requirements are. We are also meeting the Turkish ministry of health and the World Health Organization to determine the direct impacts. As I have said, we have offered health facilities directly to the Turkish authorities to see how and where they can be best utilised.

My Lords, I am pleased the Minister indicated that he has just left a meeting that considered the question of match funding for money raised through the Disasters Emergency Committee. When might we expect a decision to be announced?

My Lords, can my noble friend provide a little more information about the aid and support the UK is sending to those in the middle of the search and rescue operation?

My Lords, my noble friend rightly raises the importance of the type of aid; it is not just about standing up aid. The specific initial requirements, which we have responded to, are search and rescue expertise. We have deployed experts and specialists, along with rescue dogs and equipment. The second requirement from the Turkish authorities has been on health. As I have already said, we are looking at this and making assessments to stand that up. There will be a requirement for more medium and long-term support. We are directly co-ordinating with AFAD, the Turkish relief agency, which is co-ordinating all international efforts. I think that over 70 countries have now responded. It is important to see which countries have which strengths and equities, so they can be directly and correctly deployed across Turkey and Syria.

My Lords, an area of development assistance the UK traditionally does best is humanitarian assistance. As the Minister has outlined, our response in the face of this disaster will be quick and impressive. The press is alive with rumours of cuts in ODA. Can the Minister assure the House that humanitarian assistance in particular will be protected so that, when there are future disasters, the UK response will be equally nimble and large?

My Lords, over many years and under successive Governments, the United Kingdom has prided itself on its humanitarian response; it defines who and what we are as a nation. When people are in need, we should respond accordingly. As the noble Lord, who speaks with great insight and from experience, says, we need to respond to humanitarian crises as they occur in a dynamic way—and long may that continue.

My Lords, when such disasters strike, anywhere in the world, the British public are very good at responding to these appeals. In previous situations—flooding in Pakistan and earthquakes elsewhere—I have seen a lot of small groups collecting money for these purposes. How can we make sure that every single penny collected goes to the people we are collecting for?

My Lords, several noble Lords have asked about the DEC appeal. The Government’s advice will always be that aid should be given through recognised agencies. The DEC appeal provides the vehicle to ensure a structured and co-ordinated response and that the money reaches those it is intended to reach, as the noble Lord pointed out.

Will we ensure that women have sanitary products, contraceptive pills, et cetera as part of what we offer in responding to this disaster?

As I alluded to, we have health teams on the ground and they will specify the requirements. But the issue of vulnerable communities, women and girls is of course an important part of any humanitarian response.

My Lords, on 23 April 2019, two British citizens, Daniel and Amelie Linsey, were killed in a terrorist attack in Sri Lanka. At the time, there was great difficulty in bringing their bodies back, and the Foreign Secretary then said he recognised that the Foreign Office had a weakness in its procedures. The Linseys were dual citizens, and the United States Embassy was much more efficient and helpful. In the end, the bodies had to be repatriated to America because the Linsey family could not wait for the British Foreign Office to facilitate the return of the bodies. At the time, there was talk of reviewing the whole systems and procedures for British nationals dying abroad and the bodies being returned. Given the very sad recent events in Turkey and Syria, have those changes been implemented?

My Lords, I will of course follow up the specific case my noble friend raises and determine exactly what the issue is. But in my experience over several years at the Foreign Office—now the FCDO—it has always prioritised repatriating British citizens during tragedies such as the one sadly unfolding in Syria and Turkey. Thankfully, according to my current report, we have not received any specific reports of British nationals being among the casualties. However, I will certainly take back my noble friend’s point about the importance of prioritising this issue and ensuring that we are able to return the bodies of the deceased. If there is further information to share in that respect, I will write to my noble friend.