9 February 2023

Canberrans step up to help in the wake of devastating earthquakes

| James Coleman
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Turkish Embassy in Canberra

Turkish ambassador to Canberra Ufuk Gezer. Photo: Turkish Embassy in Canberra.

An official portal has opened for Canberrans to gift money to help earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, but not everyone is convinced the donations will go where they’re needed most.

More than 12,000 people have been confirmed dead in both countries after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook the southeast of Turkey, near the border with Syria, on the morning of Monday, 6 February. This was followed by a 7.5 magnitude aftershock in central Turkey around lunchtime.

The death toll is expected to surge as search teams and emergency aid services claw through the rubble for a dwindling number of survivors.

Thousands of kilometres away at the Turkish Embassy in Canberra, newly appointed ambassador Ufuk Gezer says it’s a very difficult time for staff.

“One of my colleagues, who was our ambassador to Bangladesh, is currently trapped under the rubble,” he says.

“And relatives of another colleague are still trapped, waiting to be saved. It’s touching almost all of us here on a very personal basis.”

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Mr Gezer presented his credentials to Governor-General David Hurley on the morning of Wednesday, 8 February, after arriving in Australia two weeks ago as ambassador-designate.

He then met with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday to hear news Australia is dispatching a 72-strong search and rescue team to complement Turkey’s force of 13,000 emergency workers and 3000 supplied by other international partners.

This is in addition to Monday’s commitment of $10 million for humanitarian aid to be distributed to those most in need through the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies.

“We are extremely touched by the generosity and compassionate approach shown by our Australian friends,” Mr Gezer says.

In response to the groundswell of support, the Embassy has now opened a bank account where locals can donate Australian dollars to the disaster relief effort.

“Someone is raising funds, another is collecting donations – people are trying to do something,” he says.


Turkey earthquake damage. Photo: Public Domain.

“Even this morning, we had someone from Azerbaijan come into the Embassy with a bunch of flowers and a wad of cash. People are really trying to help in any way they can.”

The money will be transferred to the Turkish government’s Disaster Management Authority (AFAD), which will use it to construct temporary shelters in shipping containers, and distribute food and supplies such as tents and blankets.

“You name it, they need it. Everything is in high demand.”

But not everyone is convinced this is the best way to support aid efforts.

A member of the former Turkish Australian Cultural and Social Activities ACT organisation – who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of government repercussions – told Region she has her doubts, based on what she claims happened after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit the capital of Istanbul in 1999 when 17,000 people lost their lives.

“Will the money go to the people who have suffered in the earthquake or to the Turkish government’s election campaign, as it did then?” she asks.

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After the earthquake, the government instigated what’s become known as the ‘quake tax’ or ‘special communications tax’ to be spent on disaster prevention and the development of emergency services. In 2020, revenue from this was nearly 73 billion liras ($5.6 billion), but only 18 per cent had been spent on ‘urban transformation projects’. The government has also never publicly explained how the money is spent.

“They have been collecting this from building owners countrywide for years,” Region’s source said.

“Where is it when it’s needed most?”

Her questions come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces criticism for lack of preparation for the disaster and the slow rescue response.

“If there is one person responsible for this, it is Erdogan,” leader of the main opposition party Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

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The president declared a three-month state of emergency across 10 provinces within hours of the latest quake, scheduled to end just before elections on 14 May, when the 68-year-old will attempt to stay in power after 20 years.

“This is a time for unity, solidarity,” the president said.

“In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.”

Canberra’s Embassy maintains the donation campaign will be conducted in an “absolutely transparent manner”.

“All the donations to be collected in the Embassy’s Earthquake Relief Fund will be transferred to a specific account opened by the Turkish Disaster Management Authority (AFAD) for the single purpose of use in the relief efforts in areas affected by the earthquake,” Mr Gezer said.

The Australian Red Cross and World Vision have also launched online appeals.

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