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Q+A: In Northern Iraq, the ‘Other Side’ of a Refugee Crisis

In early October, the United Nations High Committee on Refugees (UNHCR) opened a new camp in northern Iraq, Darashakran, to deal with spillover from packed Domiz refugee camp. The influx comes after the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria was opened to a flood of refugees in August. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

While attention centers on refugees on the Turkish and Jordanian borders, the refugee crisis is taking a toll on an Iraqi Kurdish government wanting to take care of its fellow Kurds, but worried the influx will deplete its resources and oversaturate its job and housing markets. (There are about 2 million Kurds in Syria.) UNHCR’s regional spokesman Peter Kessler, who has just returned from the Domiz and Gawilan camps in Iraq, explains the dilemma.

Syria Deeply: Is the Kurdish government more willing to help these refugees because they’re Kurdish?

Peter Kessler: There are a number of Kurdish NGOs functioning there. At the same time, there is a real concern among authorities that Iraq could became a magnet for more people coming across the border at a time where Iraq is experiencing terrorist attacks on a regular basis, so there’s a lot of concern about opening the border to people who might cross and cause a burden to society or pose a security threat. That’s why the government is balking at allowing refugees to build cinderblock houses or going for more advanced shelter options like providing roofing frames for people in dilapidated houses.

We need to work with the authorities to get beyond that, but we also need to understand their concerns about problems with absorption capacity and their employment market being overwhelmed by an influx from Syria. There’s a great deal of affinity for people as long as they’re in camps, but there’s real concern about the urban refugees.

SD: What were the stories you heard from Syrians living in and around Domiz? Do they live differently from refugees in other camps and urban areas?

PK: People have an inability to provide for their families, and that was the case for a number of people I spoke to in Domiz and Gawilan, as well as some of the urban refugees in northern Iraq. People had fled from as far away as Damascus when the Iraq border opened to them in August. They just didn’t see any hope. Some have left one or two family members behind to look after their property. Most are Kurdish, but some Arabs have arrived and other minority groups as well.

There are in excess of 100,000 urban refugees in northern Iraq, living in really difficult conditions. In Domiz town, I saw people living in abandoned houses with no roofs, and they had stretched plastic to form makeshift roofs. UNHCR would like to provide some kind of system where we can give them a hard roof made of corrugated iron or other materials. So far the authorities are very [determined] that the refugee influx not set in too much and become more protected or stabilized [through things like stable housing], and that’s a real concern for Syrians because the shelter situation is very dramatic in the run-up to winter.

People have limited materials over their head: people I saw were using blankets as doors. They need better security, which starts with more secure doors. They’re using an empty room in the house as a toilet. It’s probably worse for people in urban areas than for people in camps. We have to think more long term, and the host governments in Iraq and the region need to think more long term, because having people in tents will not be sustainable. We need containerized shelters to get the population into shelter that’s warmer.

I met one woman who was very upset that her daughter wasn’t going to school. This was in a camp. She was concerned that there was no school set up in the camp and she said the daughter was very clever and wanted to go, but there was nothing. The Kurdish government in Iraq has done an incredible job setting up camps, but there remain gaps in areas like school construction and sanitation.

SD: Have Kurdish refugees taken a backseat to those at Zaatari and in other larger, more publicized camps and cities?

PK: Zaatari is the poster child for the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s got incredible services, access to tae kwon do classes, FIFA soccer coaches coming in, ambassadors, commissioners and royalty coming through on a regular basis from around the world. It’s a very difficult situation for the refugees there, but there are a lot of resources being put into Zaatari.

The engagement of the Kurdistan authorities in the camps in northern Iraq is phenomenal. They are very active. but this is definitely an overlooked side of the refugee situation. You have refugees who need long-term medical care for things like epilepsy, radiology, other chronic illnesses. Also, there’s a nascent NGO community developing, but things like water treatment are not [yet] being properly followed up, which is why you have things like diarrhea.

The mainly Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq seem more open and friendly [than elsewhere]. I met one woman in Domiz town who was telling us how last winter, when they were living in Hassakeh, they got so cold and desperate that they had to burn their clothes to stay alive.

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