In Response to the Recent Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, SPSSI Calls on Policymakers to Effect Meaningful Change Now So That Future Lives May Be Saved
This statement was approved by SPSSI’s Executive Committee on March 3, 2023.
SPSSI stands in solidarity with the people of Turkey and Syria, who have been and continue to be affected by the devastating earthquakes of February 6, 2023.
As of this writing, more than 50,000 people have lost their lives and nearly 26 million people have been directly affected by these devastating earthquakes in Southeast Turkey and Northwestern Syria. The effects of this catastrophe are compounded by more than a decade of conflict, war, and displacement in Syria; state capitalism that has profited from the construction business in Turkey; decades of state violence against Kurdish and Alawites people in the region; as well as a decimated economy and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the effects of this catastrophe grow due to harsh winter conditions and the mismanagement of the disaster by the Turkish government.
We are reminded of Ignacio Martín-Baró’s teachings of Liberation Psychology, in which he states, “… it is not enough to direct our attention to the post-traumatic situation, … we can and must orient our analysis toward the pre-traumatic situation, including an analysis of trauma as the normal consequence of a social system's way of functioning” (1994, p.123). We are also reminded that natural disasters are human-made because humans choose how to respond to them, and in some instances, humans make choices that bring on and/or exacerbate “natural” disasters (e.g., in the case of global warming and a changing climate) (SPSSI, 2022). Disasters, natural and otherwise, expose the world’s largest inequities because they become moments of truth: Who will live and who will die? Who will have a home to return to? Who will receive aid or refuge? Which peoples and places will receive media attention and public sympathy and which peoples and places will be ignored? We see a throughline from Hurricanes Katrina, Irma, and Maria, the Flint Water Crisis, and the toxic chemical spill in Ohio on February 3 to the earthquakes near the Turkey-Syria border. We are heartbroken.
SPSSI is a membership association of psychologists and other social scientists who share a common interest in global social justice. We are scholars, activists, and advocates who are interested in investing in the well-being of our communities, creating strong institutions that serve the interests of the people, and we strive for global peace and justice. SPSSI’s leadership calls on policymakers in Turkey and Syria and in the international community to reckon with the terrible social and human consequences of past policy decisions, and to use this moment to make critically needed changes to natural disaster preparedness and response policy. We ask this in solidarity with our colleagues who live and work in Syria and Turkey and the psychologists, social workers, activists, and human rights advocates who are on the ground, providing humanitarian assistance, psychosocial support, immediate relief and basic needs to the people who survived the earthquakes.
How the Psychological Study of Social Issues Can Help Build Understanding on This Topic
The current situation is of relevance and interest to our membership, whose scholarship is intersectional, and focuses on structural violence, conflict, climate injustice, displacement, and homelessness, among other issues. As scholars, activists, educators, and advocates, we cannot help but ask the questions below as a way of holding local, state-level, and international policymakers accountable:
- What range of disasters can we expect where we live? What does the history show? What does the science say? Why was Turkey not prepared for these earthquakes given that the country is an earthquake hotspot? Why were most buildings and infrastructure not up to code in the region? Why did the government not invest in more resilient infrastructure?
- What is the government’s response to disaster management where we live? In the case of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes, why was the earthquake response so slow? Why was the national disaster management authority of Turkey short-staffed and unprepared? Why did the government block civilian efforts to help?
- What is the role of the international community (e.g., the United Nations, NGOs, IGOs) in disaster relief? How is humanitarian aid distributed to people who survive disasters, and how are funds managed by organizations in disaster relief? Who do these organizations report to? Why did the Turkish government first urgently request international help, then send the international teams back before they finished their work?
- What common tools do civilians employ in times of disaster, conflict, and war, and how do authoritarian regimes respond to the use of such tools? Why did Turkey block the most common social media platforms during the most critical hours of the rescue operations while people under the rubble were sharing their locations? Why was the censorship of critical voices more urgent than saving lives?
- How can citizens demand justice, transparency, and accountability without being censored? Why did the Turkish government define a “state of emergency” as including suspension of citizens’ rights to file legal complaints and lawsuits for three months? And why did they invoke it in this case?
- How and why do people in positions of power incite violence in times of crises? Why were the people of the region—a majority of whom are Kurdish and Alawites minorities, and Syrian refugees—portrayed as looters in the media (Esses, Medianu, & Lawson, 2013)? Why were the police violent against the survivors who they deemed looters, and contributing to the chaos? Why were certain areas with ethnic minority and refugee populations neglected in rescue and relief efforts (Kurtis et al., 2017; Zoeteweij-Turhan, 2018)?
- What is the role of education and educational institutions in times of crisis and disaster? Why did the Turkish government suspend in-person education for the rest of the school year and transition to online education even in areas that were not directly affected by the earthquakes (Acar & Coskan, 2020)? What does this mean for college students whose mental health has already been negatively influenced by remote learning during the pandemic?
- How do we include citizens’ voices in planning the buildings, roads, and cities that they live in? What kinds of civic action and involvement do we need? How do we build solidarity locally and globally?
These questions are of particular importance to us as we live in an age of climate change, and an increasing number of increasingly devastating disasters are expected to generate vulnerabilities and precarity for the world’s populations.
Acar, Y.G. & Coskan, C. (2020). Academic activism and its impact on individual-level mobilization, sources of learning, and the future of academia in Turkey. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 30(4), 388-404.
Baró, M. (1994). War and the psychological trauma of Salvadoran children. In Writings for A Liberation Psychology. (pp. 122-136). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Esses, V.M., Medianu, S., & Lawson, A.S. (2013). Uncertainty, threat, and the role of the media in promoting the dehumanization of immigrants and refugees. Journal of Social Issues, 69(3), 518-536. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12027
Kurtis, T., Yalçinkaya, N.S., & Adams, G. (2017). Silence in official representations of history: Implications for national identity and intergroup relations. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 5(2), 608-629. doi:10.5964/jspp.v5i2.714
Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) (2022, December 20). Following COP27, as the World’s Nations Enter 2023, SPSSI Urges Tangible Progress to Remedy Climate Injustice. https://www.spssi.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=2827&nodeID=1
Zoeteweij-Turhan, M.H. (2018). Turkey: Between hospitality and hostility. Forced Migration Review, 57, 54-56. www.fmreview.org/syria2018.