Turkish Customs response to earthquakes
15th June 2023By Turkish Customs
The devastating earthquakes that hit the southeast of Türkiye on 6 February 2023 destroyed 13 cities, directly affecting approximately 16 million people. Immediately, a fourth-level state of alert was declared, triggering a call for international help. Around 7,800 humanitarian aid shipments from 120 different countries were sent in the three months that followed the earthquakes, as well as rescue teams, dogs and equipment. This article looks at how Turkish Customs facilitated the movements of goods and people, and the main challenges it faced.
National Disaster Response Plan
In Türkiye, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) is the institution working to prevent disasters and minimize disaster-related damage, plan and coordinate the post-disaster response, and promote cooperation among various government agencies. Affiliated to the Ministry of Interior, it developed a National Disaster Response Plan, together with relevant national institutions, including the Ministry of Trade and its Customs Service. Turkish Customs therefore attended meetings on the Plan’s implementation in order to determine the measures to be taken in line with pre-disaster/post-disaster scenarios. Many practical questions were addressed, such as how to work on a 24/7 basis, who the contact persons would be, which institutions to communicate with, and the fastest and easiest transport options. Turkish Customs also participated in activities organized at the international and regional level on disaster management, including table-top exercises in which teams discussed their roles and responses during an emergency, walking through example scenarios.
The National Disaster Response Plan establishes a Disaster International Support and Cooperation Group, which is primarily responsible for coordinating the distribution of aid to disaster victims. Within this Group, Turkish Customs’ role is to ensure fast clearance of international aid and direct it to the region of need, in coordination with other institutions. It must also ensure that there is communication with relief stakeholders at home and abroad so that they all understand what is considered to be relief goods and the related Customs processes.
In Türkiye, the import regulations provide that, in crisis situations, a bill of lading or packing list is required for relief items and these documents must include specific information on the goods (type, description, quantity, weight, vehicle licence plate, and name of the ship, or flight number). Importers can also make an oral declaration.
Immediately after the earthquakes, the list of goods granted the status of relief goods, as well as their import requirements, were communicated through many media, both in English and Turkish. The list of State institutions, organizations and associations working for the public interest that could receive relief goods and were granted tax exemptions was also published. All this information was provided by Turkish representations abroad in local languages as well.
Therefore, although Türkiye has not ratified Specific Annex J to the revised International Convention on the Simplification and Harmonization of Customs Procedures (RKC), which in chapter 5 on relief consignments invites States to authorize “lodging of a simplified Goods declaration or of a provisional or incomplete Goods declaration subject to completion of the declaration within a specified period”, its national Customs regulations facilitate the declaration process In the case of relief consignments.
All staff, especially the Customs personnel in the earthquake areas, worked hard to ensure that procedures were completed and humanitarian aid could be cleared as soon as possible without any disruption in transport. Turkish Customs staff in charge of clearance worked on a 24/7 basis in order to complete and facilitate the Customs clearance of relief consignments. Other personnel, such as experts from the exemptions department, were required to adopt flexible hours to assist whenever needed.
Controls on trade policy compliance, such as origin of goods, were not conducted on relief shipments. Moreover, regulatory border agencies agreed that inspection of goods under their remit would be simplified by suspending sampling and analysis activities. Examination of the goods was carried out by the personnel of the relevant institution at the Customs office, and the goods were sent right away to the zones affected by the earthquakes.
Information about the importation of crucial goods, such as prefabricated houses, containers, tents and food, was collected in advance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanks to the communication channels established with national and international organizations. The information was then sent to the relevant Customs office. If there was no Customs office at the place where the relief goods were to arrive, mobile Customs teams were sent to complete the Customs procedures.
Annex B9 to the Convention on Temporary Admission (Istanbul Convention) stipulates that temporary admission can be granted without a Customs document or security being required, but that the Customs authorities may ask for a simple inventory of the goods, together with an undertaking to re-export them. Türkiye has accepted the Annex, and its provisions were applied to the temporary admission of certain goods like tents, prefabricated houses, blankets, and vehicles, as well as medical and laboratory equipment, provided that the consignee of the goods was in the list published by the government.
Particular attention was paid to the importation of goods such as medical and surgical equipment which are subject to specific regulations and to the control of another national authority. Such goods were not delivered to any person or institution other than hospitals or health institutions. Similarly, medicines, medical consumables and medical goods brought in by doctors and health workers were allowed only if the list of goods was submitted to the Customs administration, and the simplified Customs procedures completed.
Although information on the import rules for relief goods was released immediately after the earthquakes, many individuals living abroad sent consignments to their friends and relatives. This created additional work for Turkish Customs staff. Whilst officers adjusted their working time to ensure a 24/7 service in the first few days, they found it more and more difficult to maintain this work pace as time went on. Staff working long hours on a given day were therefore asked to rest the following day.
Another challenge related to the clearance of shipments of medicines. Early on, discussions were held with the Ministry of Health, which carries out the compliance inspection of pharmaceutical products, on how to deal with the usual length of the inspection process and with the fact that the labelling and technical documentation of products would not be compliant with national translation requirements. As there was no issue in terms of stocks in the country for the goods concerned, it was decided to exclude medicines from the list of relief goods until otherwise advised by the Ministry of Health. Medicines and medical consumables were allowed only if brought in by the doctors of a rescue team, or sent to a health institution or a hospital. The decision created delays with the clearance of some mixed shipments which included medicines.
Conducting controls was also complex sometimes. Turkish Customs strove to facilitate Customs procedures due to the emergency faced, but also had to apply trade policy measures to certain goods. Some goods deemed as high risk and requiring further controls, as well as items that were not recognized as relief goods, were sometimes included in shipments declared as relief. Customs therefore had to be vigilant, and identify and separate goods in the same shipment.