Will Europe be hit by a new wave of migrants after the earthquake in Turkey?

Politics - March 7, 2023

The recent earthquake, among the strongest in the region for more than a century, which devastated the border region between Turkey and Syria, destroying millions of lives and causing considerable material damage in both countries, could also “hit” Europe in the form of a significant new influx of migrants. Will Europe be hit by a new wave of Syrian migrants trying to reach the EU for a better life?

For Syrians, the natural disaster has overlapped with the drama of war, which has been going on for over a decade and has already generated the worst migration crisis in Europe in decades. For Turkey, known as a sought-after tourist destination for many Europeans, the earthquake will also have economic consequences in the future as many EU citizens have started to cancel their holidays for the 2023 season.

The 7.8-magnitude quake, which struck early on the 6th of February, killed nearly 50,000 people and injured more than 100,000 others in Turkey and Syria. Since then, a total of no fewer than 8,550 aftershocks have followed, including some in Hatay province and 10 other Turkish cities. These aftershocks caused even more destruction. Some of the aftershocks from the 6th of February earthquake had a magnitude of more than 6, according to representatives of the Turkish disaster authority, AFAD. According to statistics cited by Reuters, some 2.4 million people have been displaced and the total number of people directly affected by the powerful quake is estimated to exceed 24 million.  Nearly 100 aftershocks, with magnitudes of up to 6.4, occurred in just days after the powerful earthquake, and many cities in both Turkey and Syria were devastated. Many survivors have been left homeless and exposed to freezing winter temperatures.

EU responds promptly to requests from earthquake-hit Turkey and Syria

The EU responded immediately to Turkey’s request by activating the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism. Twenty-one EU countries, as well as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia, deployed search and rescue teams to Turkey within hours of the earthquake. The EU has also mobilised its strategic reserves to provide temporary accommodation (tents and beds). The EU’s Copernicus satellite system has been activated to provide emergency mapping services. In response, the Syrian authorities and the World Food Programme in Syria have requested the activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Ten EU countries have already provided tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, blankets, food and winter clothing to the Syrian population. It should be noted that to cover the most urgent needs, such as cash for shelter and non-food items, water and sanitation, health and search and rescue, the EU has provided €3.5 million in humanitarian assistance.

In Syria, the natural disaster has overlaid the drama of the decade-long war, becoming an almost unbearable burden for the Syrian authorities. In addition to hunger, people have to endure the cold of winter and the risk of epidemics is imminent. The people in the north-west of the country are affected, as are Syrian migrants in Turkey – a country also hard hit by the earthquake and home to a large number of Syrian migrants fleeing the war. As a result, many Syrians who had sought refuge in the Turkish region of Gaziantep are now homeless in the aftermath of the earthquake.  Vehicles carrying the bodies of hundreds of Syrians killed in the quake crossed north-western Syria from Turkey a few days after the disaster – via the only crossing point currently open between the two countries, Bab al-Hawa – so that they could be buried in their home country.

While humanitarian aid arrives in large quantities in Turkey, it is much more difficult to get it to Syria, especially in rebel-held areas in the north-west of the country. In 2014, humanitarian aid could reach rebel-held areas through four border crossings, but under pressure from China and Russia, only the Bab-al-Hawa crossing in the north of the country on the border with Turkey remained operational.

This single border crossing between Syria and Turkey, approved by the UN for the transport of humanitarian aid to Syria, was, however, unusable in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake due to damage to the surrounding roads, UN officials said. The crossing has been the only link that civil war-torn Syria has had to humanitarian aid in the past decade. 

Isolated and bombed by forces loyal to the dictatorial Assad regime and Russia, and more recently hit by the earthquake, 90% of the 4.4 million people living in the opposition-controlled territory bordering Turkey are dependent on international humanitarian aid. Today, most of this aid, including aid for disaster victims, passes through Damascus, the Syrian capital, which is under the control of the Assad regime, which controls the regions that do and do not receive aid.  

Major “constraints” are restricting the entry of “huge quantities of supplies” for northern Syria, hit by devastating earthquakes, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official said, according to AFP.

“Today, the earthquake is again attracting attention, but the world has forgotten about Syria,” Michael Ryan, WHO director for emergencies, told a news conference in Dubai. In addition to food shortages, Syria faces a “second disaster” due to a lack of medical supplies, he warned.

According to the UN, more than 90% of Syria’s population lives below the poverty line. The conflict in Syria has killed nearly half a million people and devastated the country’s infrastructure. Millions more have taken the legal or illegal migration route because of the conflict.

In 2021, according to official statistics, Turkey was hosting around 3.6 million refugees from the civil war in Syria and facing a continuous influx of migrants from other Asian countries as well. The government in Ankara said at the time that it could no longer cope with the situation and accused the European Union of not providing enough aid, especially financial aid. In other words, Syrian migrants have become bargaining chips for Turkey, which, after agreeing to take in some 4 million migrants, most of them ethnic Syrians, has reassessed its negotiating position with the European Union, threatening that if its demands are not met, it will no longer abide by the 2016 agreement with the EU and open the gates to them to Europe via Greece. 

Turkey had concluded an agreement with the European Union in 2016 following the Syrian migrant crisis in 2015, under which refugees in Turkey receive EU aid to improve their living conditions. The EU Refugee Instrument in Turkey manages a sum of €6 billion. The first tranche funded projects that ran until mid-2021 and the second funds projects that will run until mid-2025.

The living conditions of migrants in refugee camps in Turkey have improved, which has meant that in 2020, the number of illegal arrivals in Europe on the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route – Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia – was almost 98% lower than in 2015. But the figures rose in 2021 and 2022 amid the Covid 19 pandemic and the global economic crisis.

In addition, Turkey’s military threats to Syria have been constant concerns about creating waves of migrants to Europe. In October 2019, several European leaders meeting in Luxembourg expressed concern that a new wave of migrants could emerge due to the situation in Syria, where Turkey is threatening to launch a military operation. In a joint text sent to EU interior ministers, Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria highlighted the “dramatic increase in the number of migrants arriving on the Eastern Mediterranean route”, with “alarming signs of an emerging crisis”.

“But imagine you are a refugee in Turkey, you are Syrian, there is a risk that one day you will be transported to the north-east of Syria without being asked for your opinion, it is a factor that can generate an influx into Europe,” Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, who is in charge of immigration, explained to the press at the time.

Over four million Syrians have fled the war in 10 years

The Syrian revolution, which has become a war with international involvement, has claimed 594,000 victims in 10 years, including 22,000 children. A total number of 2.1 million civilians have been wounded and maimed for life, and 80,000 civilians have died under torture in Assad regime prisons. According to official figures, in the first four years since the outbreak of war in Syria, more than four million Syrians have fled the war and persecution of the Assad regime, taking the migration route, and have become refugees in neighbouring countries, making the conflict in Syria “UNHCR’s biggest refugee crisis in 25 years”.

“This is the largest refugee population from a conflict in a generation. It is a population that deserves the support of the whole world, but instead lives in squalor and sinks into abject poverty,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in 2015.