How Turkey’s “Construction Amnesties” Created a Ticking Time Bomb

In 2018, Turkish president Erdoğan boasted that an “amnesty” allowing builders to ignore safety codes had “solved the housing problems of 144,556 people.” In last month’s earthquake, tens of thousands of those people were crushed to death.

An aerial view of collapsed buildings in Islahiye, Turkey, on February 21, 2023. (Halil Fidan / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In front of a collapsed apartment block in the eastern Turkish city of Islahiye, a pile of rubble grows day by day. Rescue workers — most of them volunteers, many of them foreign — are depositing the bits and pieces of people’s lives that need to be removed to get to the bodies. Books, dresses, chairs, toy bikes. One apartment block has collapsed and spilled onto the street, blending with the pile of debris. Large-scale detritus — staircases, walls, columns, ceilings, floors — mingle with the more mundane. The wedding photos, the teddy bears.

A man named Mehmet Ali takes my hand. He is frantic — in a green camouflage jacket his eyes bulge from under the rim of a thick knit cap. He tries to tell me something, but his words are jumbled. “Columns,” he says. “Metal.” Where words fail, he gestures at the pile of rubble in front of us and then pulls me toward it. He gestures for me to squat down and look at the detritus.

Each column, more than a meter wide, is supported by just a few pieces of rebar — an average of six per square meter. Mehmet Ali reaches down and pulls off a piece of the column with his fingers. When he makes a fist, it crumbles in his hand.

“My children are in there,” he says: his son, his wife, and their young daughter, who was just four years old. Atop the enormous pile of rubble, an Iranian search team works to extract a family of eight, crushed by the weight of their home. It is the seventh day after the earthquake, and the rescue workers have only made it from the sixth to the fourth floor of the building. In the two hours that we stand in front of the building, they manage to extract one body, that of a middle-aged man, in a blue shirt and gray sweatpants. His wife and six children — the police say — are still buried. When they pull him out, his brother, waiting on the street, yells.

Mehmet Ali says his son and his family were in the apartment under this large family’s own. He has been at the site every day for a week, he says, struck practically silent in disbelief. His shock, it is clear, is beginning to distill into anger. Day after day, he waits for his children, staring at the pieces of the shoddily constructed building that killed them.

“That’s it, that’s all,” he manages to say, pointing at a marble staircase that has just one piece of metal woven through each rung, “That’s all that was holding it up.” A police officer puts a hand on his shoulder. “That’s enough, Uncle,” he says and guides him away.

The Turkish government helmed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been widely criticized in the wake of two earthquakes — 7.8 and 7.6 in magnitude — that struck southeastern Turkey on February 6. More than forty-seven thousand people have died and millions of people have been displaced, though experts estimate the number of dead to be far higher, closer to two hundred thousand. The scale of the destruction and the number of dead, they say, is directly linked to government policies that allowed developers to skirt building codes, as well as a delayed official response.

Search-and-rescue teams as well as aid were late in coming, and the president did not mount a coordinated response until three days after the earthquake. Many victims, including those in Islahiye, said that they could hear people trapped under the rubble in the first days after the quake. By the time heavy equipment came, almost a week later, there was silence. In Islahiye, victims’ families waited six days for a winch strong enough to lift the heavy concrete trapping their relatives.

The government has blamed the delayed response on the sheer scale of the disaster — any country, they say, would have struggled to respond. However, experts say that the government itself is directly responsible for the number of collapsed buildings and the number of people dead in their destroyed homes. For the past forty years, and especially since the rise of the AKP in 2002, the government has championed a policy called imar affi or imar barisi — construction amnesties — that allows builders to officially register structures not built to code for a fee. The lottery-like system is often “opened” for a designated period in politically sensitive moments, such as before an election. The last time the imar barisi system was open for applications was before local elections in 2018.

At that time, president Erdoğan boasted of the success of the program in the city of Kahramanmaraş, one of the areas hardest hit by the quake.

“With the construction amnesty, we have solved the [housing] problems of 144,556 people in Maraş,” Erdoğan said at a meeting in that city in 2018.

Tens of thousands of those people are now dead.

Deadly Amnesty

Construction amnesty was officially introduced in 1984 under the government of Kenan Evren, who came to power in a military coup in 1980. The practice unofficially dates to the late 1940s, however. Evren’s government was a conservative, nationalist military junta that focused primarily on two things — “restoring order” to Turkey by eliminating leftist and Marxist elements (as Evren said in a military address after he came to power), and the privatization of the Turkish economy.

Evren’s government promoted “market-based” solutions in contrast to the more Keynesian system that had dominated Turkey since its founding. Like many governments around the world in the 1980s — including in the United States under Ronald Reagan — the Turkish authorities under Evren aimed to minimize the role of the state in the economy. Washington, for its part, was a tacit backer of Evren’s government despite widespread human rights abuses.

Construction amnesty was one of the programs introduced to this end. It allowed the government to curry both favor and profit — owners of illegal structures became legal landowners, while the government collected a handsome sum from its new supporters.

This practice continued through the end of the Evren government and into the 1990s, when the government was controlled by a more democratic government led by the True Path Party (DYP) and the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP). In total, from the 1950s until the rise of the AKP in 2002, construction amnesty was implemented an estimated eight times.

Then came the earthquake of 1999. On August 17, 1999, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck the Turkish province of Izmit, to the east of Istanbul on the Marmara Sea. As they did in Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, and Gaziantep in February, buildings pancaked, tumbling in on themselves and killing over eighteen thousand people. The army was dispatched, and both Turkish and foreign search-and-rescue teams reached the area within forty-eight hours. But that response, too, was widely condemned as insufficient.

Particularly critical of the government’s response was the young, Islamist former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When he visited the earthquake zone, he asked, “where is the state” and told reporters that he found the state response “very weak.” He said that the country should “come together” in the wake of such a tragedy. The visibility and support he gained from this response were central to the rise of his party, the AKP, in 2001, and his eventually becoming prime minister in 2003.

President Erdoğan and the AKP came to power amid an economic crisis with promises of economic reform. As a result of an International Monetary Fund package secured by the AKP government worth tens of billions of dollars, the government pushed for privatization and the expansion of the Turkish economy, especially in the realm of construction. Large holding companies, including Cengiz Holding and Limak Holding, linked to the government, undertook large-scale construction projects under a tender system that has come to control much of the Turkish economy. The AKP government, in the name of economic expansion and development, created an economy and country that prioritized the interests of builders over the rights and lives of tenants.

The Turkish government introduced strict building codes following the 1999 quake, but because of this building boom and because of the continuing practice of construction amnesty, many buildings did not meet the standards. Between 2002 (when the AKP came to power) and the earthquake this year, construction amnesty was offered to the public nine times.

These programs were often introduced shortly before elections, such as in 2018, prior to tightly contested local elections. In total, the government collected an estimated $19 billion (or about 300 million Turkish lira) in amnesty fees.

On May 15, 2018, an article was added to the construction amnesty law introduced in the 1980s that said that over 50 percent of buildings in Turkey were not up to code. Therefore, the government would, until the end of that year, accept amnesty payments from builders totaling 3 percent of a property’s value for residences and 5 percent for commercial buildings. This led to a surge in the official registration of illegal structures.

The main opposition also supported the program — it was immensely popular. However, politicians from smaller opposition parties, seismologists, and building engineers warned of the program’s dangers.

“There has never been such a disgraceful zoning amnesty,” opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) member Garo Paylan said in a speech in 2018, calling the law a “plague.” He said the law would affect fifty million people in thirteen million buildings. For every shoddily built ten-story building that collapsed in an earthquake, he said, at least one hundred people would be trapped beneath it. “Who will bear the responsibility for this?” he asked.

After the implementation of this law, President Erdoğan visited Kahramanmaraş and boasted about giving homes to hundreds of thousands of citizens. According to the now opposition-led Istanbul municipality, 294,166 amnesty certificates were issued in 2018 to buildings in the ten provinces affected by the earthquake.

“Our citizens were living in a time bomb,” said Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM) deputy secretary general Buğra Gökçe. Fifty-nine thousand building registration certificates were issued in Adana, fifty-six thousand in Hatay, forty-thousand in Gaziantep, and thirty-nine thousand in Kahramanmaraş, he said.

Now, many of those illegal buildings have been transformed into mass graves.

The Wailing Falls Quiet

Down the road from Mehmet Ali’s daughter’s apartment, another building had collapsed. Volunteers, miners, and rescue workers climbed and milled over it. It looked like an anthill, the volunteer workers desperately trying to reach its core. The air stank of death.

Down every street, down every corner, there was a new tragedy at a scale almost impossible to comprehend. This building had been seven stories tall, one taller than the height allowed by the earthquake codes, and a few years prior a new market had been built on the ground floor. To make room for the food, contractors had gotten rid of columns and support beams. According to bystanders and people rescued from under the rubble, the entire building had collapsed in the first few seconds of the earthquake, almost instantaneously.

The building, according to family members there, had been built in 1998 by a company called Tekin Insaat, before the new earthquake regulation standards. It had been granted legal status by construction amnesty. The company built several more buildings in the neighborhood over the past two decades, including an almost-new building next to the complex now reduced to a pile of rubble. Signs on its side advertised new, modern, luxury apartments. Cracks ran through the walls of the building, just a few years old, while entire sections of its facade had fallen onto the street. A “Tekin Insaat” sign proudly emblazoned the top of the building, while the contents of a home hung, like wounded flesh, out of its side.

People wailed; the air smelled of rotting flesh and buzzed with the commotion of volunteers trying to dig into the rubble. But, a week after the earthquake, no more sound came from inside the ruins of the building. Everyone there had died, crushed under too-weak walls made legal by a stroke of the president’s pen.