Legislative Council: Thursday, March 09, 2023


Turkiye-Syria Earthquake

The Hon. T.T. NGO (16:48): I move:

That this council—

1. Notes with concern the severe earthquake that has occurred in Turkiye and Syria, and the huge loss of life and injury suffered by people living in affected regions;

2. Notes with concern the high level of destruction that these earthquakes will have caused to people's homes and livelihoods;

3. Recognises the enormous emotional toll that will be felt by South Australians who originate from Turkiye and Syria, especially those who have relatives and friends living in affected regions;

4. Stands with our Turkish, Syrian, Kurdish, and other communities in South Australia with ties to affected regions; and

5. Calls on the federal government to provide urgent humanitarian relief through DFAT and relevant aid organisations as soon as possible.

Words are hard to find as we contemplate the devastation caused by the earthquakes that ravaged Turkiye and Syria on 6 February 2023. The full magnitude of this crisis is still unfolding, but many facts are clear. This is the deadliest earthquake in Syria since 1822, which was over 200 years ago, and records reflect that it is the deadliest earthquake in the area that is now Turkiye since the year 526, which was 1,497 years ago. More than 52,000 people have lost their lives and that number will rise as many missing people remain unaccounted for.

A UN development expert estimates that more than 1.5 million people across the two countries are now homeless. The problem of homelessness is made worse by the fact that many of the structures left standing in the affected areas are not safe to inhabit. Many people who have lost their homes are sleeping wherever they can—in tents beside the rubble of their ruined homes, in stadiums, in public buildings, in train carriages, and worse.

The suffering of the people of Turkiye and Syria—their grief and trauma—is unthinkable. The world watched in horror as video footage emerged of cities crumbling to the ground as the first 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit and when a 7.7 magnitude tremor followed hours later. One survivor was quoted in an article in The Australian as saying:

Buildings collapsed within seconds, but the tremor continued for a minute, gaining power. It was terrifying…everybody was screaming and wailing. In the centre every street is a wasteland, a cloud of concrete and dust and smoke.

Images of the affected regions show entire city blocks reduced to nothing more than piles of rubble. The cracks that formed in the ground are now visible from space. Before rescue efforts concluded, rescuers found people who had survived for as long as 11½ days trapped in collapsed buildings. Weeks on from the earthquake, the number of identified victims continues to rise, but the death toll will never tell the full story of this tragedy.

Many survivors lost every single member of their family. Among the survivors who lost their whole family, many of them are young children. Turkiye Vice-President, Fuat Oktay, confirmed that many hundreds of children pulled from collapsed buildings have been left without any surviving parents. Only a small number of these children have been returned to other family members.

There are still hundreds of children in hospitals, too young to tell their own stories, with no parents or family to be found. Many of these children, once their physical health recovers, will never have the opportunity to know the names their families gave them because they are too young to tell their rescuers who they are.

For the affected areas, the way forward is not easy. Deeply complicating the situation in Syria, the effects of 12 years of war and terrorism mean the country is not properly equipped to manage this crisis. Agencies simply do not have what they need in terms of resources and equipment to complete recovery and rebuilding operations.

This was also a massive problem for rescue efforts in Syria. Many rescue teams said they lacked advanced search equipment, leaving them forced to carefully dig through the rubble with shovels and their bare hands. Alaa Moubarak, the head of civil defence in Jableh, a city in one of the worst affected parts of north-west Syria, was quoted as saying: 'If we had this kind of equipment, we would have saved hundreds of lives, if not more.'

There have been many reports about supplies being slow to arrive, especially in Syria. As the rescue teams now focus on tackling an extreme humanitarian disaster, the European Union's health agency is warning of disease outbreaks. Syria had already reported thousands of cases of cholera back in September 2022 and, due to the earthquake, the planned vaccination campaign has been delayed. Health risks are increased as survivors move to temporary shelter with conditions of crowding and poor hygiene. In addition to all of this, survivors are suffering enormous trauma, stress and depression, and the aftershocks and tremors have made this even worse.

According to the United Nations food program, the third and most recent quake frightened aid workers, who were distributing food to hundreds of thousands of people in north-west Syria and Turkiye. It has been reported that some aid workers are sleeping in their cars in freezing winter temperatures, while trying to support survivors who have lost everything.

To all those who have left the safety of their own homes and travelled to this devastated region of our world to help, we say thank you: thank you for your courage, your empathy and for working so hard to make whatever difference you can to the lives of survivors. This motion calls on the federal government to provide urgent humanitarian aid. The Australian government did act quickly and provide an initial $10 million, as well as on-the-ground assistance with the ongoing recovery process.

In the midst of such a severe disaster, relief efforts must continue, and I call on the Australian government and governments throughout the world to maintain ongoing support and assistance. Now more than ever the division of communities must cease in the name of humanity. All funds and humanitarian aid must go directly to the affected areas, regardless of the survivors' ethnicities and nationalities.

To the communities that have been touched by this disaster, to survivors who remain in the affected regions and to those who have been displaced, our Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish friends, on behalf of members of this parliament, as well as the people of South Australia, I offer our deepest condolences and our heartfelt sympathy. To our South Australian Turkish, Syrian, Kurdish and other communities who have lost friends and relatives in this tragedy, you are in our thoughts as we all continue to process the horror and sadness brought about by these devastating events. I commend this motion to the chamber.

The Hon. I. PNEVMATIKOS (16:58): I rise today in support of the motion of the Hon. Tung Ngo regarding the devastating earthquakes that have recently hit southern Turkiye and northern Syria. These earthquakes have been described by the World Health Organization as the gravest natural disaster to hit the region in 100 years. This will not come as a surprise to any of us in this chamber who have watched and witnessed the coverage over the past weeks of the destruction and devastation suffered by the Turkish and Syrian people.

The death toll has continued to rise, surpassing 45,000 people as of yesterday. That number is alongside the millions who will be displaced by this catastrophe. In Turkiye alone, an estimated 1.9 million people are living in tents and other temporary shelters. Up to five million people may now be homeless in Syria. Many survivors have been left homeless in near-freezing, subzero winter temperatures, without sufficient shelter, food and water or sanitation. This puts them at risk of a secondary health crisis, with outbreaks of cholera, respiratory illnesses, and physical and mental trauma and disability.

Additionally, the disaster has resulted in many disruptions to basic water, fuel, electricity and communication supplies. This is particularly overwhelming for Syrian communities, many of which had already been in critical need of humanitarian aid due to the pre-existing crisis caused by a 12-year long civil war and an ongoing cholera outbreak.

People in Turkiye and Syria have been left with nothing. They have lost their family and loved ones, they have lost homes, possessions and communities, places of worship and places of history. Our Turkish and Syrian communities in Australia, who waited to hear from loved ones, have also experienced a great emotional toll in these last few weeks. The scale of human devastation born from this tragedy is far-reaching and immense.

The recovery efforts of both our federal and state government have been commendable. The federal government has now committed $18 million to aid and assistance, as well as deploying 72 specialist search and rescue Australian Defence Force troops. Three and a half million will specifically go towards delivering health services and safe housing to the most vulnerable demographics in Syria: women and children. Additionally, our state government was the first of any state to make a donation, pledging $200,000 to UNICEF.

As part of the international community, we must stay committed to supporting Turkiye and Syria in their rescue and recovery, to ensure the wellbeing of those who survived. Our continual support, along with other contributing nations, will be vital in rebuilding these communities that have lost so much.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. L.A. Henderson