Published February 8, 2023

Canadian aid workers heading to Turkey as Ottawa mulls whether to send relief team

Canada has announced $10 million in aid

By Tyler Griffin and Jessica Smith

Canadian humanitarian aid workers were en route to Turkey on Wednesday in the wake of a devastating earthquake, while the federal government continued to mull whether to send a disaster relief team.

The earthquake, which razed thousands of buildings in Turkey and Syria on Monday, has become one of the deadliest quakes worldwide in more than a decade as the death toll neared 12,000 and kept rising.

Toronto-based humanitarian aid organization GlobalMedic said it will have Canadian teams on the ground in Turkey later in the day to assist with search and rescue efforts as well as emergency relief for those affected by the quake.

"(There's) a lot of work to be done and we're really focusing on the basics. Let's get you clean drinking water. Let's get you fed. Let's figure out where we can get you shelter. Let's help you with some medical care. Let's help you with giving the critical infrastructure to provide that medical care," said Rahul Singh, executive director of GlobalMedic.

Search teams from more than two dozen countries – including the United States, Britain, China, Russia, Israel, Germany and India – have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel in Syria and Turkey. They include structural engineers, soldiers, paramedics and handlers with trained search dogs to help locate and rescue survivors.

Canada has announced $10 million in aid and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that the federal government is still determining how best to help.

"From the very beginning we've been talking with our diplomatic staff, our counterparts over there, working with the international community on getting as much help as needed the right way," he said.

"We are there to help, we're just looking at how to best do it."

Defence Minister Anita Anand said late Tuesday that the federal government has not ruled out sending a Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, to help with the recovery effort.

"All options are being considered. And from a defence perspective, we certainly are looking to (DART) as an option," she said. "But I will say that there are a number of possible routes here, and we just want to make sure that what we do provide is useful.''

In addition to the $10 million initial aid announced Tuesday, Ottawa will also match funds donated to Canadian Red Cross relief efforts up to $10-million, Trudeau said.

Ottawa's response has drawn criticism both at home and abroad, with critics deeming it inadequate or slow-moving as the death toll continued to rise.

Sima Acan, president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations, said it's "very sad" that the Canadian government has not yet committed to sending any search and rescue teams abroad.

"Just hearing that Canada is ready to help but not doing any help and it's been over 60 hours (since the earthquake), it is very upsetting," said Acan, who spoke to The Canadian Press from Istanbul, Turkey.

"We want the Canadian government to step up and (bring) help as fast as they can because Canada has an expertise and experience in (search and rescue) operations and we need those people … on the field to help search."

Acan, who arrived in Turkey in late January for a work trip, said she is concerned that it is already too late for most of those still trapped under buildings.

"Probably we lost the majority of those people who were under those big tons of heavy blocks and every minute counts," she said. "We are losing them."

Singh, with GlobalMedic, said the absence of an official team to support relief efforts on the ground indicates that Canada is not doing enough to respond.

"Canada's response is woefully inadequate and it's just a sign of bad governance. We have very poor government when it comes to foreign policy, and they have a horrific track record when it comes to disaster response," he said.

"The fact that we don't have Canadian teams that are certified and able to be deployed like the U.S. teams or British teams or any of the teams of our allies, it just speaks something about us as a country."

Singh also called Ottawa's $10-million relief fund "a drop in the bucket" and criticized its policy to match Red Cross donations as an inappropriate way to respond that will hurt smaller charities' ability to raise and deploy funds.

"This is a lot of money that's going away from smaller charities, that do really good work, into big charities," he said.

"If you put all your eggs in one basket, it's really hard to get a quick response and in a nation and crisis like the one in Turkey, you can't just have on team doing this."

In Vancouver, donations for those affected by the earthquake poured into a warehouse on Tuesday, but a volunteer organizer said the countries could most benefit from professional search and rescue teams.

"The next 72 hours is crucial," said Cansoy Gurocak, who was one of dozens of volunteers dealing with donations of food, clothing, tents, sleeping bags, diapers and other goods in a fundraising event that was quickly co-ordinated by the Canadian Turkish Educational and Cultural Foundation.

The donated goods were to be sent via a direct Turkish Airlines flight from Vancouver to Istanbul scheduled every two days.

Gurocak said he was grateful to hear the Canadian government has committed to providing $10 million for relief efforts, but said professional search and rescue personnel on the ground would make a more immediate impact.

The scale of destruction from the earthquake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense and spread over such a wide area, including places isolated by Syria's ongoing civil war, that many people were still awaiting help.

Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings or otherwise unable to access water, food, protection from the elements or medical attention was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope for more rescues.

Gurocak said that after search and rescue efforts, the next crucial step is building shelter for those displaced by the quake, then distributing donations of food and clothing.

To rebuild in the most hard-hit areas "will take years, not days, not weeks, not months."

But rescue efforts in smaller villages are all the more difficult with road infrastructure damaged or destroyed in the quake, while cold weather makes life more miserable for survivors, Gurocak said.

"Time is our enemy at the moment," he said.

— with files Darryl Greer and The Associated Press.

Banner image: Aerial photo shows the destruction in Hatay city centre, southern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, IHA

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.

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