Quake fallout inflames migrant tensions in Turkey disaster zone

AFP , Thursday 16 Feb 2023

A Turkish volunteer runs down a pile of rubble, dragging a Syrian man with a bloodied face as anger builds and migrant tensions soar across quake-shattered regions.

Earthquake in Turkey
Greek and Turkish rescuers are at work to extract bodies of victims from the rubble of a collapsed building in Antakya, south of Hatay, on February 15, 2023, nine days after a 7,8-magnitude struck the country s southeast. AFP


"He was stealing!" the volunteer screams, echoing looting charges levelled against migrants across the ruins of Antakya and other cities flattened by last week's quake.

The 7.8-magnitude tremor killed nearly 40,000 people in southeast Turkey and parts of Syria, laying waste to a region filled with families that fled the 12-year Syrian war.

It also seems to have inflamed resentment against foreigners in Turkey, home to the world's largest population of people fleeing conflict zones.

Turkey has accepted around five million people -- including nearly four million from Syria -- helping the European Union stem a crisis in 2015-16.

But that generosity reached its limit when Turkey's economy imploded and the cost of supporting refugees became a concern in late 2021.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political rivals began pledging to send Syrians back home heading into a crucial election set for May 14.

While the status of that vote now looks uncertain, with the entire nation focused on quake relief work, AFP reporters in Syrian border regions witnessed vivid examples of flaring migrant tensions.

"While Turkish people are trying to save lives, the Syrians are searching for money, for gold," claimed Baki Evren, 43, walking around the collapsed buildings of Islahiye, a town in a multi-ethnic region filled with migrants.

Beacon of tolerance

"When the Syrians first came to Turkey after the war, they gave them tents, air conditioners," he added. "They provided them with better opportunities.

"We received heaters only yesterday," eight days after the quake.

Much of the anger centres around accusations of looting and theft.

The quake flattened thousands of buildings, spilling people's possessions out on the streets.

Turkey has imposed a state of emergency across the quake zone, allowing the army to intervene and the police to take extra security steps.

But resources are scarce and nerves are fraying in places such as Antakya, an ancient crossroads of civilisations that became a beacon of cultural and religious tolerance in Turkey.

Minutes after the Turkish search and rescue volunteer hauled away the bloodied Syrian, a man in a neon first-aid jacket accosted another migrant who was holding a half-filled plastic bag.

As a small crowd rushed in to hurl accusations at the alleged looter, a young Turkish woman stepped in to defend the Syrian.

"He is my employee," the woman interjected. "He has permission to go and collect my things."

A security officer who arrived at the scene confirmed the woman's story.

But this did not appease Ibrahim Igir, one of the men in the irate crowd.

"While people are screaming under the ruins, these bastards are stealing their property," he alleged.

'All your fault'

Ahmad Dervis, a 28-year-old Syrian father with two daughters in a stroller and a 19-year-old wife, struggled to understand the resentment.

"The earthquake hit all of us. We are all suffering," said Dervis, who left Syria's Idlib province in 2011 and now lives in a tent city in Islahiye.

He recalled how a group of his Syrian friends were queueing to receive state assistance after the earthquake.

"And some (Turks) began shouting and saying: 'This was all your fault'. What have we done?" he wondered.

"Whatever happens, they blame us."

Ahmad Salami, a 31-year-old with five children who came from Syria's Hama, said he spent the first days in the rubble looking to save lives -- not steal.

"I pulled out 20 people from the rubble -- 11 Turks and nine Syrians -- on the first day," he said.

'We live together'

Dervis said the earthquake should help build understanding between the Syrians and the Turks.

"Back in Syria, we saw the war, the planes and shattered buildings. We have stayed in tents before," he said.

"Now they (Turks) should understand us better with this quake. Not all of them, but many Turks do not understand us."

Salami sounded despondent at the building anger.

"Go see what I have. They gave me one blanket and food. That's enough for me, I don't want more," he said, surrounded by Syrian children playing in tents, and locals loading furniture onto pickups from damaged buildings.

"I don't say all Syrians are good. There are bad people, too. We live together, Turks and Syrians."

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