On February 6, 2023, two major earthquakes at a magnitude of 7.8 struck ten provinces in Southeastern Türkiye and Northern Syria. The population of these ten provinces is around 14 million, of which over 2 million are young children under 8 years of age. In Northern Syria, there were already approximately 5.3 million previously displaced people who are heavily dependent on humanitarian aid, due to civil unrest which started in 2011.
For Syrians, this was a disaster within a disaster. The death toll in both countries continues to rise rapidly. As of 14 February, over 40,000 people are reported to be killed with an even greater number injured across the two countries, including children. The death toll in Northern Syria is unclear and, due to political blockades preventing these areas receiving aid, much more support is needed for this region. Thousands of children are either separated from their families or expected to be orphaned.
We are concerned with the impact of this crisis on people and on communities. We are extremely concerned that the wellbeing and safety of young children and their caregivers, particularly women and girls, affected by the earthquake is not receiving the critical attention and resources needed to mitigate the immediate and long-term effects of the crisis.
We call on governments, local authorities, and donors to direct funds and efforts to support all young children and families affected by the crisis, especially the most vulnerable, including women and girls, and those who are displaced.
- Access to psychosocial services and expanded investments in the five components of nurturing care (good health, adequate nutrition, opportunities for learning, safety, and security, and responsive care) as a core part of development assistance, emergency response, and humanitarian action. Partners have begun to collate open-source resources in Arabic and Turkish here.
- Evidence-based early childhood interventions, including parenting interventions, should be made readily accessible to all children and parents and caregivers of children aged 0–17 years, in group-based or individualized formats that consider the impact on recipients’ mental health.
- We also call for holistic, non-politicized and impartial aid to support children and families in Syria, including thorough support for local actors who are the first to respond on the ground and by provision of heavy equipment, trucks, medicine, fuel, and shelters that are necessary for young children’s survival and recovery. International support and funding is particularly needed in areas where local authorities lack funding to support the basic needs of families.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has affirmed the urgent need for psychological support in the crisis response. Survivors of natural disasters are at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety symptoms. Based on previous emergency settings, we know that children in Türkiye and Syria will likely suffer from family separation, toxic stress, trauma, and grief.
Rebuilding communities will take time, and most families and children will be displaced for a considerable period. Physical and psycho-social effects of the earthquake will have lifelong impacts. Such risks increase the chance of negative outcomes such as physical illness, mental health challenges, and poverty that may push families to make choices that ultimately harm their futures.
We also know that humanitarian crises such as this have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including a rise in violence, exploitation and abuse as families resort to negative coping mechanisms to survive. This can include the risk of child, early and forced marriage and unions, and increased burden of unpaid care work.
Young children are heavily dependent on their parents and caregivers for practical and emotional support. However, we know that parenting during extreme circumstances can be severely compromised due to caregivers experiencing their own stress, trauma, injury and profound losses. Direct impacts can be experienced particularly by young girls, who may be called upon to care for siblings, forcing them to miss or drop out of opportunities for early learning and play.
The impact of adversity can also have intergenerational impacts, passing toxic stress and trauma across generations. For these reasons it’s essential that children and caregivers receive responsive care and whole family support to mitigate against the adverse effects of loss, displacement and trauma. This must include targeted support particularly for female parents/caregivers, including adolescent mothers, recognising the risks of maternal depression and poor mental health outcomes for women and their children. This must be a priority for us all.
Additionally, the immediate and ongoing nutritional needs, particularly of pregnant and lactating women, adolescent mothers and children under five years must be met, given the particular vulnerability and long-term impacts of malnutrition on the health, development and wellbeing of these groups.
During this acute stage of the crisis, Syrian children face compounded adversity–in this case experiencing an earthquake on top of more than ten years of war–which needs to be addressed through proactive interventions. This is especially true in North West Syria, which was already one of the most vulnerable countries in the world before the earthquake with 90% of the population under the poverty line, limited access to basic needs, collapsed health systems with a heightened risk of communicable disease outbreaks, and more than 2.9 million people internally displaced.
In both Syria and Türkiye, a key priority is to ensure that all children and their families are safe, protected from violence and abuse, and receive gender-responsive, developmentally appropriate care and services to help them recover from the crisis. Government and local authorities, civil society organizations, and other responsible parties should follow all recommended protocols for safe family tracking and reunification to prevent trafficking and abuse of children, particularly girls.
In addition, affected children and their families require immediate support to address their practical, physical and mental health needs. A range of digital and paper-based resources are available to support caregivers in navigating the trauma and stress they, and their children, are experiencing. These include videos, leaflets, and booklets, social media and WhatsApp messages. The content of these messages should be made available to all families, including those without access to digital resources, and can be disseminated alongside existing relief supply chains, such as distributing leaflets alongside food packages and water.
Preparations for higher intensity and longer duration interventions should also start now to ensure a continuum of care and support from pregnancy through the transition to primary school. Evidence-based interventions that address toxic stress and trauma recovery will play a key role here for both children and their caregivers. Particular efforts should be made to identify children with any disabilities or developmental delays.
Accessibility of early childhood and parenting interventions may be hampered by the humanitarian context and it may be a challenge to reach families that are dispersed or living in an active conflict zone. Additionally, formal health, social welfare, early learning and other service delivery systems are likely to be degraded or destroyed by the earthquakes, necessitating the delivery of interventions through alternative mechanisms. In this instance, funding, training and support should be provided to on the ground groups setting up new support spaces for children, families and caregivers. These spaces should be supported to include toxic stress and trauma management support, and provide opportunities for children to play, given the known benefits of play for releasing stress, building resilience and re-establishing or strengthening caregiver-child relationships.
The selection, delivery, and monitoring of early childhood and parenting interventions should occur within the framework of established humanitarian coordination platforms to ensure that they are integrated into the wider humanitarian effort and are in line with the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. These include local coordination structures such as the Child Protection Area of Responsibility of the Global Protection Cluster and the IASC Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Reference Group (MHPSS). Monitoring must also consider gendered dimensions of the crisis, and collect sex, age, and disability disaggregated data.
Holistic and multisectoral early childhood development (ECD) strategies and services that address the components of nurturing care are critical to mitigate the current and long-term impact of the adversities young children are experiencing. As funding focused on ECD in humanitarian response has been insufficient, we urge the global community to recognize the unique needs of young children, make specific funding calls for ECD, and to provide additional support to the youngest children and their caregivers being reached across sectors.
The views expressed in this statement are those of the organizations and networks listed below. For the networks, the views expressed reflect the networks at-large and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of each individual member of the networks.
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