Fears of Child Trafficking in Turkey Grow as Earthquake Leaves Scores of Orphans

A girl walks near a tent beside collapsed buildings on February 13, 2023 in Hatay, Turkey.
Burak Kara/Getty Images

A Turkish charity organization filed a criminal complaint on Friday in the name of orphans and lost children it claimed have been victims of human trafficking in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit the country and Syria on February 6.

The group, Önce Çocuklar ve Kadınlar Derneği (“The Children and Women First Association”), alleged that cults and other nefarious actors were capitalizing on the large number of abandoned, orphaned, or otherwise unaccompanied children the Turkish government has yet to take in its custody in the wake of the earthquakes.

Turkish officials have identified more than a dozen infants and potentially thousands of children who will need to be rehomed following the earthquakes. They have struggled to identify many of them, as they are found without identification and often cannot fully identify themselves. As Turkey struggles to identify the children, desperate parents in the most devastated communities search shelters and rubble for their missing children, hoping they survived.

Turkey and northwest Syria experienced a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in the early morning hours of February 6, when a vast majority of people in the region were indoors, still asleep or keeping out of the bitter winter cold. The initial earthquake has been followed by thousands of aftershocks, some close to or surpassing the 7-magnitude threshold. At least one aftershock registered at 7.5 magnitude:

As of Friday, Turkish and Syrian authorities have confirmed over 44,000 deaths in the earthquakes, more than 38,000 of them in Turkey. Much of northwest Syria is not under the control of dictator Bashar Assad, falling instead to Syrian Kurdish organizations and jihadist militias, making it much more difficult to assess the total damage there. According to the Qatari outlet Al Jazeera, seismologists have documented 4,700 aftershocks in the past week and a half, and they continue to occur even as rescuers continue to search for survivors.

The Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet reported the legal action in support of children on Thursday, in response to growing fears nationwide that vulnerable children will be taken in by unspecified cults or trafficked. The government of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the issue by publishing a statement clarifying that only the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policies is legally entitled to take in unaccompanied child earthquake victims. Any other organization claiming to be taking in children is, at best, suspect, the government affirmed.

According to a statement published by the Children and Women First Association, it had identified members of “religious sects” and other unauthorized institutions presenting themselves as relatives of unaccompanied children and taking them from shelters or other government areas.

“According to reports from the field, there are instances of our children rescued from the wreckage who were not registered with official institutions so they were not documented,” the group claimed. Some of those children, it alleged, were handed over to “people who say that the children are relatives, cults or organized mafias.”

The Turkish aid group did not name any offending institution or offer any evidence in their statement, reserving that information, presumably, for the formal criminal complaint.

“We expect an immediate explanation from the Ministry of Family and Social Services on the subject. We will not allow the tragedy of our minors to be abused by cults, or the abuse of our minors,” Children and Women First asserted:

The group announced on Friday that it had filed its criminal complaint in Antalya.

Concerns about the unidentified children surviving the earthquakes have swelled in the past week, in part as a result of cases of children going missing in past earthquakes. The hardest-hit communities, Turkish newspaper reports described last week, feature desperate parents wandering the rubble with photos of their children in the hopes of finding them. The International Association for the Research and Abuse Prevention of Missing Children recalled last week that reports of unknown actors taking away surviving children had surfaced in past earthquakes. Individuals who find lost children, the group emphasized, should bring them to government authorities and never hand them over to anyone else, even people claiming to be family.

At press time, aside from the official statement that only the government’s Family Ministry is allowed to take in child earthquake victims, the government has yet to offer any new updates at press time. Erdogan’s government did, however, publish a statement reminding the public of the rules to adopt Turkish children and emphasizing that all adoptions must go through the Turkish government and require the consent of the parents or guardians of the child. Those seeking to adopt a child in Turkey must also be over the age of 30 and be a male-female couple married for at least five years:

The earthquakes struck a particularly vulnerable population in eastern Turkey, hitting major cities Diyarbakir and Gaziantep and leaving entire communities in rubble. As a result, reuniting families has been a particular challenge for rescuers, who have found children in unrecognizable rubble who often cannot explain where they lived or communicate well with rescuers. Among those rescued are more than a dozen babies whose parents are presumed dead; identifying next of kin will likely take weeks in some cases. As of last week, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, 16 children from newborn age to age one were transferred to Ankara for medical treatment, with no information as to their identities.

Ten days after the earthquake struck, rescuers continued to find people alive under wreckage in affected sites. On Thursday night, aid workers found a 12-year-old boy in Hatay province who had reportedly survived ten days with no food, water, or medical attention.

Among the living, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF estimates that millions of children need “urgent humanitarian support” in both Turkey and Syria as a result of the natural disaster.

“While the total number of children affected remains unclear, 5.4 million children live in the 10 provinces of Türkiye hit by the earthquakes, and more than 3.6 million children are affected in Syria,” UNICEF explained in a report on the situation this week. “Many families have lost their homes and are now living in temporary shelters, often in freezing conditions and with snow and rain adding to their suffering.”

As of Tuesday, Turkey’s Family and Social Services Ministry confirmed it had documented 1,362 unidentified children from the quake zone. Of those, Hurriyet reported, 369 children had been returned to family, nearly 800 remain in hospitals, and, of the total number of children, 291 of them are yet to be identified.

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