I spent the past week in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I) meeting refugees that have recently arrived from Syria, and learning more about the challenges facing local authorities and humanitarian organizations that are scrambling to provide for the tens of thousands of refugees that have poured over the border in recent weeks.
En route to Iraq refugees have a 4.5km walk between Syria and the border crossing for the Kurdish Region of Iraq. They make the long walk in the heat, carrying their possessions. Small children and older people struggle with the distance.
Many of these people have already been displaced inside Syria. Refugees that I have spoken to said that they didn’t want to leave, but the conditions in Syria were becoming impossible. Many said they had no food, no clean water, no electricity, and no fuel. Their kids were suffering and acute violence was an everyday threat.
One refugee told me, “all of these children have seen violence, have seen death with their own eyes.”
KR-I has received about 60,000 new arrivals since August 15th. When the border reopened – after several months of closure – 33,000 crossed in just five days.
On Saturday we watched hundreds cross in a matter of hours. By the end of the day 1,278 new refugees had arrived.
No one was prepared for the numbers. At first, new arrivals were bussed to a site that is now Kawergosk camp, but the site rapidly filled up. Meanwhile over a thousand refugees continue to arrive daily.
Kawergosk camp, a site that did not exist before August 15, is housing about 15,000 new arrivals. The camp is a testament to the commitment of the KR-G. When the flood of refugees started to cross the border, they ordered the army to prepare the site and distribute water and food.
Today the site is simple, but orderly. There is electricity and basic facilities, and the army continues to distribute prepared food to thousands every day.
On September 4, NRC turned on the taps at two new water points so that refugees can access clean water.
As new arrivals continue to pour into the country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find adequate shelter. New sites are opening up in unlikely places.
The first is a youth center. The pool sits empty and the tennis court and basketball court have been transformed into communal spaces.
Last week my colleague and I visited Bardarash, a town that is housing between 3 and 4000 newly arrived refugees in two sports facilities.
Tennis and basketball courts are ringed with makeshift shelters – blankets tied to the fence to create some shade for refugees that haven’t yet received a tent.
The second site is in the football stadium. Tents are erected around the outer edges, but on the pitch itself there are hundreds of people in makeshift shelters. These conditions are intended to be temporary, but the government and humanitarian responders are struggling to keep up with the new arrivals.
Until the influx began in August, most donors were not prioritizing Iraq for funding or support. Many here – especially the older generation – have been refugees themselves, and they understand what it means to be forced out of your home by violence. They are rallying support for the refugees, but they can not be expected to provide this level of support indefinitely. The KR-G has shown incredible good will and has invested heavily in this response, but they are also asking for help – financial and technical support – to ensure that refugees get what they need and deserve.