The Syria refugee crisis is a truly regional emergency. International attention has concentrated on the vast number of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, but in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I), the Government and local communities have been generously assisting thousands of Syrian refugees since the crisis began.
Yesterday I had an opportunity to see first-hand the tremendous effort being made by the Kurdish Authorities and local people to provide for a fast growing refugee population. I witnessed the good work of my NRC colleagues and our UN and NGO partners, but I also saw the gaps in the provision of shelter, education, water, and sanitation facilities. There is still a great deal of work to be done.
Until one week ago, there were roughly 155,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, the vast majority in the north of the country. About 55,000 refugees – enough to fill Yankee Stadium – live in and around Domiz camp, the first site that was developed to accommodate refugees from Syria.
Today Domiz is terribly overcrowded. I’m told that there have been improvements in recent months, but water and sanitation facilities are still particularly poor, and in some parts of Domiz camp dozens of households share one latrine.
Thousands of refugees in Domiz live in poor quality tents and self-built shelters, which are ill equipped for the hot summers and the cold winters. Two thirds of the Syrian refugees in the KR-I have been living outside of camps in urban areas and local communities, and many of them are not receiving any assistance at all.
The challenge of providing aid and protection to 155,000 refugees has been compounded this week by the arrival of over 40,000 Syrians in just the past six days.
Refugees that I spoke to described extreme violence in northern Syria, including armed clashes and massacres in recent weeks. Two and a half years of conflict have also made it nearly impossible to find the most basic necessities; items like food, clean water, and fuel are simply not available.
The size and speed of this influx has taken everyone by surprise. Last, week, as refugees began rushing over the border, there were only tents available for a fraction of the new arrivals. Food and water were distributed by the Kurdish authorities and humanitarian organizations, but a lack of available shelter supplies meant that many refugees had to improvise – finding shade and shelter where they could.
Assistance is ramping up quickly and today shelter has been found in new camps with tents, warehouses and school buildings for roughly 23,000 new arrivals. Kawergosk Camp – which didn’t exist a week ago – now has accommodation for 15,000 people, while materials for new tents are on their way to two new camps.
It has been an impressive effort, and yet, there are still more than 20,000 new arrivals that can’t be accommodated in these new sites.
On the border, refugees continue to arrive by the thousands.
The security situation inside Syria is deteriorating, and we must expect that the numbers of new refugees – in Iraq, and throughout the region – will continue to grow. We need to be prepared to respond faster and more effectively to the sudden arrival of large numbers of refugees. We need to begin looking for more sustainable ways to shelter and support refugees in the medium-term, and we need to provide more creative support to host governments and communities, so that they are able –and willing – to maintain open borders and open arms.
More than that, all of us – the UN, NGOs, and all parties to the conflict – need to find better ways to get aid inside Syria, to people who need it most. We have a duty to provide quality care for refugees, but we have an equal duty to provide protection and assistance closer to the source, and prevent displacement where we can.