Lacking food, water and work: Life in the Iraqi Kurdistan refugee camps

Sitting on a thin mattress inside a ramshackle structure on a muddy hilltop, elderly Abu Fares told me how he came to live in poverty in Iraq’s relatively prosperous northern Kurdistan region.

For the past 11 months, he and his wife – along with around 200 families – have been eking out a living in makeshift shelters on the outskirts of the overcrowded Domiz refugee camp near the city of Dohuk.

They are among tens of thousands who fled here amid the armed conflict in Syria – in their case leaving behind their home some 250km away in Qamishli, a city tucked into Syria’s north-eastern corner, near the border with Turkey.

Before sitting down to listen to Abu Fares, we left our mud-caked shoes outside the fragile home they had erected themselves. Once inside, sweet tea was brought and poured. His wife, Um Fares, looked glum amidst a cloud of her own cigarette smoke. Then her one good eye noticed the mud on my trousers. “Let me wash them for you”, she says, “You look like my son”.

I was taken aback by her generosity, distracting me briefly from my conversation with Abu Fares. He had been detailing some hardships – inadequate water, food, toilets – of life in this “irregular area” outside the camp. His neighbour Mohamed, from Amoude, also near Syria’s border with Turkey, wanted gravel put on the muddy ‘road’. He feared a vehicle may slide into the temporary homes.

Dohuk is the main city in the governerate that borders north-eastern Syria. The area hosts the majority of the 200,000-plus Syrian refugees now living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The overcrowded Domiz refugee camp now houses some 45,000 Syrians.

This refugee camp is fast becoming a city with its own economy. I passed hairdressing salons, a falafel shop and a boutique for women getting married. The residents of Domiz camp are free to come and go as they please, and many have found work in nearby Dohuk and elsewhere.

But now it is full to overflowing and those like Abu Fares, housed outside of the perimeter, live in harsh conditions.

With a population of only around 4 million the pressure on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is increasing. From a promising start, and boosted by a strong economy and Kurdish solidarity, the response from the Kurdistan Regional Government has grown more tepid with the passage of time.

The regional government closed the border with Syria from May to mid-August 2013, when some 50,000 mostly Kurdish Syrians walked across in the space of a fortnight. It tightened the border again in mid-September.

Syrian refugees said that the armed Syrian Kurdish group, Yekineyen Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units) or YPG, is discouraging Syrians from crossing the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. We’re also looking into reports of non-Kurdish Syrians having been refused entry by the regional government, and several alleged cases of people having been sent back to Syria.

It is a similar story in the other two governorates, Erbil and Sulaimaniya, which were meant to accommodate a greater number of the refugees.

Kawergosk camp near Erbil city sprang up last August to house the incoming refugees. Within 12 hours, I was told, land was obtained and a day later electricity lines were laid. Bulldozers, security forces and volunteers joined in digging and putting up tents, and in came the refugees. One representative of an aid organization said that at Kawergosk the Regional Government had facilitated “the fastest and most effective refugee response” he had seen in 20 years of such work worldwide.

A Syrian Kurd working for another aid organization in Kawergosk praised the “fantastic” response while two others said they aimed to stay forever in “Kurdistan”. I didn’t hear anyone say they were in “Iraq” or “northern Iraq” and there are only Kurdistan, not Iraqi, flags flying.

But from this promising start some felt that much more could be done.

“Kurdistan’s response should not be compared favourably with Syria’s other neighbours,” a senior NGO worker said, “but rather unfavourably given all those advantages it has.”

Like Abu Fares and his family at Domiz, many refugees from Syria have been less impressed with conditions in Kurdistan.

In November, rainfall on the hilly terrain around Kawergosk camp flooded many tents, leaving more than 200 families uprooted once again.

At Darashakran camp, also in Erbil, men muttered about the lack of work. “If you work you have honour”, Imad from Qamishli said, “If not, you have no dignity.”

I heard similar comments at Arbat transit camp, out east in Sulaimaniya near the border with Iran. “We didn’t come here just to sit”, said one, while others there complained that Syrian workers were often paid much less than others.

Women at Arbat also complained that Iraqi Kurdish security officials there forbad them from leaving the camp unless accompanied by a male relative, although a regional government official told us later that this should not be the case. Many refugee schoolchildren have been unable to study due to a lack of facilities.

The regional government’s actions have sparked further gripes. Freedom of movement and access to residency permits have both been restricted partly due to security concerns, making travel and access to employment harder for Syrians and limiting their self-reliance.

In the meantime, the Kurdistan flags will fly above the camps and the refugees will feel safe there. But whether conditions will improve for Abu and Um Fares and the many like them – and whether more will be allowed to come, or how long they will stay – no one knows.

Neil Sammonds is Amnesty's Syria researcher. He tweets @neilsai

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