While several European countries have already sent rescue teams to Turkey after the terrible earthquake that devastated the south-east of the country and northern Syria, B-FAST will only be there at the end of the week. Some denounce the Belgian slowness to bring aid, while the humanitarian situation on the spot is disastrous.
Belgian media is asking these questions now: Why does Belgium no longer send “search and rescue” aid but only medical aid? Does B-Fast still live up to its name or has it become B-Slow?
B-Fast or B-Slow?
Belgium is preparing to send an emergency medical team (Emergency Medical Team, from B-Fast) to Turkey, the Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday evening. “Our country will set up a field hospital and send personnel to provide the necessary medical assistance to the local population and relieve the pressure on Turkish hospitals,” Belgian authorities said.
A first reconnaissance team takes off this Wednesday from the military airport of Melsbroek. Their mission? Identify the places where the hospital can be set up. A second team will leave this weekend to set up the temporary care facility, which should be operational by next Thursday at the latest. The equipment, distributed in several dozen containers, will be transported by Defense planes.
Some observers and citizens wonder why Belgium is slow to provide urgent aid, while other countries, such as the Netherlands, already left on Monday. In the political class too, Belgian slowness challenges. “It is shameful that Belgian aid to Turkey, a NATO ally, is taking so long to be put in place. The government is held accountable. I asked the chairman of the Defense Committee for the government to come and explain it and for us to discuss it,” laments Theo Francken, N-VA federal deputy.
Death toll currently in earthquake rises to 9,057 people while the number of wounded reached to 52,000.
Vandenbroucke: “We offer different, but also very useful aid”
On the government side, the criticisms are considered unjustified. “You should know that our country no longer has search and rescue teams and this is precisely what Turkey needs at the moment”, explains the spokesperson for Caroline Gennez (Vooruit), of the Cooperation Development. “There are also many other European countries that are already providing this aid. As part of this European coordination, it was therefore decided to specialize in a certain area”.
And to continue: “We will be particularly needed too in the coming weeks. Many teams are also needed after the disaster. All the infrastructure is in ruins and we also have to take care of the injured in the longer term”.
Frank Vandenbroucke also responded to criticism on VRT on Tuesday evening. The Minister of Health agrees with his socialist colleague. “The Kurdish authorities were also asking for longer-term aid, such as the setting up of a field hospital, and it is to this request that we have responded. So we offer different aid from that of the Netherlands, for example,” he continues.
The fact that B-FAST falls under the responsibility of several political cabinets (Foreign Affairs, Interior, Defense, Public Health, Budget and Development Cooperation) has possibly delayed things. “In this case, no”, replies Vandenbroucke, who specifies that Belgium is releasing 8 million euros for this humanitarian operation.
Until a few years ago, B-Fast enjoyed an international reputation in terms of “search and rescue”. But, according to Het Nieuwsblad, the budget cuts made by the Michel I government reduced B-Fast to nothing. According to the Flemish newspaper, Belgium has not had an international license since 2019 for this kind of mission abroad. In reality, Belgium cannot in principle even set up a field hospital, for lack of authorization from the World Health Organization, even if in an emergency like this, this does not constitute a obstacle. "B-Fast only exists de facto on paper," says another well-informed source.
This is why Belgium was unable to send a team to Beirut in 2020, after the explosion that devastated the port. It is no longer authorized to carry out “search and rescue” operations outside national borders. “Informally, however, it comes back to us that this situation owes to the unraveling of civil protection undertaken by the former Minister of the Interior Jan Jambon (N-VA). B-Fast, which has often distinguished itself by its professionalism in the most difficult theaters of operation, is no longer operational in terms of emergency”, we can still read in Le Soir.