Britain must plan for rebuilding in Turkey and Syria as well as immediate humanitarian aid
The news is devastating. This huge earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria has killed thousands and the numbers continue to rise. In 1999, an earthquake of a similar magnitude in Turkey killed 17,000.
The international community has quickly responded but without a formal request from Syria to activate the European Union’s civil protection mechanism, the support it can give there is very limited.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is urging the international community to urgently increase critical funding for the Syria humanitarian response plan, which they say is “already severely underfunded with less than 50 per cent of the required $4bn” in place.
Whilst the immediate response from the international community to humanitarian crises can be strong, it can all too quickly look away
When shocking events like this happen, the world wants to help. It demonstrates the importance of the United Kingdom having a well-funded crisis reserve that can provide crucial emergency aid.
A total of £30m has been allocated to the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget for 2022-23 for the current crisis reserve fund. As far as we are aware, none of the reserve has been spent to date this financial year. Changes to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) accounting practices mean it is difficult to make direct comparisons, but it is interesting to note that the same fund in 2018/19 had a budget of £500m.
Crucially, we must also start planning now for what needs to happen in the months and years ahead.
The International Development Committee is currently working on an inquiry on UK aid for refugee host countries with a focus on Lebanon and Jordan. We are learning that whilst the immediate response from the international community to humanitarian crises can be strong, it can all too quickly look away as the immediate shocks dissipate and leave host communities to pick-up the pieces and struggle on in the longer term.
Agencies on the ground have highlighted the vulnerability of the local population, living in areas which already host a high number of displaced families. The IRC has been working in Syria since 2012.
Tanya Evans, the Syria country director at IRC said: “This earthquake is yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable populations already struggling after years of conflict. It is a crisis within multiple crises – temperatures are plummeting to below zero leaving thousands exposed.”
Millions of Syrians caught up in yesterday’s disaster will already have been displaced to camps or makeshift settlements because of the conflict. Many will already lack access to basic water, health or electricity services. The earthquake will compound the issues of a population who have seen their humanitarian needs grow for the last 12 years.
The International Development Committee, which I chair, swapped letters over the course of September to December 2022 with James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Andrew Mitchell, the minister for development, to highlight the importance of UK aid funding for humanitarian actors in Syria (specifically the White Helmets and Syrian American Medical Society).
Before this earthquake, Andrew Mitchell replied to a letter from my committee in December stating: “I assure you that the Syria crisis remains one of the UK’s top priorities” and “With humanitarian needs the highest they have ever been in Syria the UK remains at the forefront of the international response.”
Fragile health systems and water, sanitation and hygiene concerns were highlighted as the main humanitarian issues affecting Syria in the correspondence at that time (alongside acknowledgment of the impacts on the civilian population of attacks from Assad’s Russian-backed regime). The government needs to be held accountable for stating that its position on Syria is “one of the UK’s top priorities”. The government should back its commitment with cash to help support the disaster relief response in Syria.
In the committee session on 17 January, H.E Rami Mortada, Lebanon Ambassador to the UK, told us: “… today there is donor fatigue, frankly—we need to admit it—and there are new priorities on the global stage, so the Syria crisis is not a priority any more. We have even seen this in the UK. If you look at the 2015 development strategy in the UK, it committed to helping countries hosting Syrian refugees; we haven’t seen that in the updated document, which went out this year. So you feel that there is fatigue.”
The people of the UK are generous in their support for emergency appeals. The UK government must provide immediate additional emergency aid too. But we must also be realistic about longer term future needs and learn from our responses to past disasters. We must ensure that our response provides not only adequate support to meet the immediate humanitarian needs but also sufficient support to build for longer term stability in the region. The process of rebuilding starts now.
Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Committee.
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