When multiple earthquakes first struck Turkey on February 6, the death toll, according to the Turkish government after a month, reached 48,448. Unofficial sources estimate that the real number is much higher. Around 200,000 people were still waiting to be rescued from under buildings that had collapsed, according to a prediction from early February by geophysical engineer Professor Ovgun Ahmet Ercan.
The death toll was reportedly high not only because of corruption in the construction sector but also because of the government's lack of timely aid to survivors. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to send rescue aid promptly to the earthquake-stricken area. Survivors were ignored for days. After the first earthquake, even access to Twitter was restricted for over 9 hours. More than a month later, survivors are still saying that they have not received enough help. Millions are homeless, in tents, struggling to survive.
The government, it appears, had allowed corrupt builders to erect unsafe buildings all over Turkey. The authorities and the corrupt construction sector there are therefore complicit in the deaths and destruction caused by the earthquakes.
A most alarming problem is the wellbeing of children. Many have been orphaned; some are missing. The orphaned children are extremely vulnerable: they are at risk of human trafficking, organ harvesting and sexual abuse -- and Islamist indoctrination.
One missing child is three-year-old Ali Kemal Akpınar from the Antakya district of Hatay. According to news report from February 10, Ali Kemal's parents were still looking for the boy, who they think could be at a local hospital.
Another missing child is a 15-year-old refugee from Syria, Hatice al Husso, who was trapped with her parents and siblings under the rubble of their home in the city of Adiyaman the day the earthquake struck. She was rescued 20 hours later, taken to a local hospital; since then, she has been missing.
Six-year-old Neval Akgöl, rescued from the rubble of her home in Hatay's Antakya district on February 6, was allegedly put into an ambulance. Her family searched for her for weeks until, on February 25, her body was found through a DNA match in a "cemetery of the nameless," with the registration number "50". According to a news report, her body would be taken from there and buried in a place of her family's choosing.
Other children have also reportedly gone missing. The apartment where 9-year-old Berkcan Akdağ lived, in the town of Antakya, collapsed in the February 6 earthquake. His father and sister lost their lives. His mother, who was rescued from the rubble 36 hours later, is still looking for him.
Ten-year-old Mukaddes Erva Aktaş, after being pulled out from the rubble of her home in the city of Maras, was taken to a hospital. She is still missing.
Unaccompanied children are vulnerable to Islamic radicals known for leading indoctrination centers where children are abused. The newspaper Cumhuriyet reported on February 23 that a doctor from Ankara, who has been volunteering to help find missing children since the first day of the earthquake, claimed that the number of missing children was approaching 1,000.
Erdogan's government has reportedly been obstructing the genuine humanitarian aid provided by his political opposition, and instead, along with his pro-regime media, reportedly has been promoting Islamist groups such as the Islamist Ensar Foundation and calling them non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Ensar Foundation staffers have been exposed for raping students. "The foundation's record of child abuse goes back for more than a decade," Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil reported.
The newspaper Birgun noted on March 8 that a radical Islamic group known as Menzil Jamaat announced that they were "hosting" 1,100 earthquake-affected children in their village in Adıyaman, and shared on social media the images of some of those children making the "takbir" sign with their hands. "Takbir" in Islam refers to a proclamation of the greatness of Allah, "Allahu akbar". The hand gesture is used by pro-jihad Islamists, including ISIS.
Meanwhile, Turkey's General Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as Diyanet, prepared a special section on its website for fatwas (opinions by a recognized authority on a point of Islamic law) about the earthquakes. It was in answer to the question, "Can children of earthquake victims be adopted?"
The fatwa stated that it is not right to treat adopted children like one's own children and that "accordingly, the relationship between the adopter and the adopted child does not create a barrier to marriage."
After negative reactions on social media, Diyanet deleted its fatwa on the website, but defended it in a subsequent statement. Referring to Al-Ahzab verse in the Quran (33:4), "Nor does He [Allah] regard your adopted children as your real children," Diyanet claimed that its statement concerning adopted children has been "taken out of context."
"Islam orders every child to maintain ties with his own family as much as possible... and it does not find it right when someone other than the parents of the child sees [the child] as their own child in every respect."
Such fatwas simply make orphaned children even more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The Association of Children and Women First (ACWF) has been monitoring the situation. The organization has filed criminal complaints, alleging that some children who survived the earthquakes were handed over to radical Islamist groups (often referred to as "tarikat" [tariqat] or "cemaat" [jamaat] in Turkish) and called on Turkey's Ministry of Family and Social Services to protect those children and manage the process transparently.
The ACWF issued an announcement on February 17:
"Experts in the field who are following the [rescue] activities state that there are unaccompanied children affected by the earthquake in the region as the search and rescue efforts are ongoing....
"It is also seen that those children were handed over to people who introduced themselves as their families.... [T]here are cases where children who were rescued from the rubble were not notified to the official institutions and recorded [by institutions].
"In addition, according to the bulletins given to our association... it is reported that unaccompanied children are not handed over to authorized state institutions, but to people who say that the children are relatives, tariqats or organ mafia."
The ACWF added that it was expecting an immediate response from the Ministry of Family and Social Services on the matter.
The announcement concluded:
"We will not allow the tragedy of our little ones to be abused by tariqats, nor will we allow our little ones to be abused. Tariqats and jamaats are a disaster for our children as big as an earthquake. Our children are not alone."
The ACWF has been struggling to help protect these vulnerable children. The Turkish service of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported on February 23 that nine children whose fathers died in the earthquake in the city of Antep in southeast Turkey were taken with their mothers to the city of Sakarya in the west of the country. They were then separated from their mothers and resettled in a "Quran school" run by Islamic radicals known as the Ismailağa jamaat. The ACWF filed a criminal complaint about the incident, and announced on February 24 that the children had finally been taken from the jamaat by Turkey's Ministry of Family and Social Services.
Hediye Gökçe Baykal, an attorney in the ACWF, told Gatestone:
"Those children may face various threats. Every day a new claim emerges that unaccompanied children are taken by certain [Islamist] jamaats and tariqats. We are also extremely worried that the missing children could be kidnapped to be used for organ mafia, human trafficking, or other criminal purposes.
"There are issues such as the disappearance of the children during their transportation to the hospitals. Some families are still searching for their children on social media. A person disguised as a police officer was caught trying to kidnap a child. Allegations are that some children were placed in some houses collectively. We filed a criminal complaint following the allegation that 60 children were placed in such houses. We have also directly received notifications [about similar incidents]. We have called on prosecutors to investigate these charges.
"There are also allegations that children are placed in some associations, and in some cases, in private associations, and aid is collected for them. The prosecutors should investigate.
"The Ministry of Family and Social Policies must first determine the identity of the children. The identified children should be handed over to their families immediately. Protecting children who have lost their families is solely the duty of the Ministry of Family and Social Services in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Child Protection Law and other relevant legislation. It is unacceptable to deliver these children to third parties, individuals, institutions, or associations other than the Ministry. Adoption and foster family institutions should also be done lawfully in line with the Ministry's rigorous and meticulous investigations."
The ACWF continues its efforts to help locate the missing children. In a Twitter post on March 12, the association announced that they were looking for the three-year-old Furkan Alp Alsan, who had been pulled out from the rubble of his house in Adıyaman and taken to a hospital. The ACWF is urging people who have seen Furkan to contact his father or the association.
Baykal also called on international children's rights organizations to support the efforts to locate missing children and help them reunite with their families in accordance with international law.
"Although the Ministry is the only authorized institution regarding children affected by the earthquakes, the follow-up and protection of these children should be assisted meticulously by national and international organizations and non-governmental organizations. As the Children and Women First Association, we carry out the necessary legal process regarding the follow-up of children. International organizations should also shoulder this struggle within the framework of their fields of activity. There is a great trauma experienced by our children, we must do our best to help them get rid of this trauma as soon as possible and prevent them from encountering greater traumas.
"The basic rule in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is 'follow the best interests of the child.' In this respect, national and international organizations play a major role. As an association, we will not give up on our children, and we will follow and find every child until they reunite with their families or are placed in a safe environment."
Children have been affected the worst by the earthquakes in Turkey. International organizations specializing in children's rights and countering human trafficking immediately need to prioritize investigations and aid in Turkey's earthquake-stricken areas and cooperate with Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policies, human rights organizations and lawyers in Turkey such as Association of Children and Women First, to help rescue the missing, unaccompanied, and orphaned children there.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. She is also a research fellow for the Philos Project.
On March 9, 2023, Baykal, said to Gatestone:
"Information regarding the number of missing or orphaned children is constantly changing. The website of Turkey's Ministry of Family and Social Policies claims that the 'number of unidentified children is 79.' However, Turkey's General Directorate of Security announced that 213 children could not be identified in the earthquake zone. Fifty-one of these children are said to be under the care and supervision in the institutions of the Ministry of Family and Social Services and 162 unidentified children are said to be treated in the institutions of the Ministry of Health.
"One-hundred-thirty-seven of these children are between the ages of 0-1, and the DNA samples of these children continue to be taken. And 55 children are reported to be missing. As the Children and Women First Association, we continue our investigations in the earthquake-stricken area. We continue to receive information [about missing or unidentified children]."