Domiz camp in Iraq's Kurdistan Region, March 2013. Photo by Thomas McGee.

Duhok, Kurdistan Region, Iraq — Somehow the children who had toys to play with were a more depressing sight than those with none at all. I watched as a girl, about three or four years old, dragged a pathetic block of now-grey polystyrene through the dust by short string, as if taking a pet for a walk. ‘It’s difficult to separate her from it,’ said the girl’s mother. ‘In fact, she will walk around the camp for hours with it. At least it keeps her happy.’

Such is the existence for many of the now more than one million Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries.

insight generic INSIGHT: Iraqi Kurdistan’s Syrian Refugees   Between Rock and Hard PlaceWhile the media regularly cover the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, more than a tenth of the total figure are now in Iraq. Of these, approximately 90 percent are hosted in the Kurdistan Region (Northern Iraq). ‘Especially worrying’ and ‘critically overcrowded’ are expressions used by UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, to describe conditions in Domiz, the region’s largest camp near Dohuk city. At a press briefing earlier this month, Adrian Edwards stated that 800-900 people are currently crossing the Syrian border into Iraq’s Kurdistan Region daily.

“The Regional Government in [Iraqi] Kurdistan… must balance the humanitarian duty to provide a more substantive welcome to its brethren from Syria against the political concern of not incentivizing the de-population of Syria’s Kurdish areas.” – Thomas McGee

My recent return visit to Domiz confirmed the dire situation. What had been considered the main route through the camp in August 2012 was now unidentifiable due to the chaotic expansion of tents, including beyond the official perimeter fence. The camp demographic has also changed. Many of the earliest arrivals were youths fleeing to avoid military recruitment or people from Syria’s North-Eastern governorate of Hassaka, where the local economy had practically shut down. More recently there has been an increase in families who had been living in Syria’s largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Displaced when their homes there were damaged by conflict, they often came to Domiz after they had become too big a burden for (sometimes distant) relatives who had hosted them for several months in Hassaka.

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Children play with make-shift toys on a street at Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, March 2013. Photo by Thomas McGee.

Back in the camp, UNHCR has installed large water tanks to supply what has become a town of tents and prefab units (housing more than 36,000 individuals). The single make-shift shop that used to supply the camp with basic necessities has now been joined by an array of barber salons, mobile phone accessory stores, and even a bakery selling Syrian-style bread. However, alongside these few slightly more substantial structures, tents still provide shelter to the majority of Domiz’s inhabitants. Parents complain bitterly about the difficulty of finding activities to keep their children occupied. ‘If they play outside, I fear they will get sick from the dust and unhygienic sanitation’, said one mother. ‘Yet, all day in the tent is also hard. Even the best natured children will get bored and frustrated. In Syria my four children only ever used to fight on long car journeys. Now, not a day goes by without a falling out of some kind. I don’t know if it’s due to the violence they witnessed in Syria, or because of our new environment here,’ she said.

Furthermore, it seems that each change of season brings with it a new misery and challenges for the residents of Domiz. In August of last year, the dry heat – extreme by Syrian standards – and dust-storms made daily life highly challenging. More recently, activists’ posts on a Facebook page dedicated to the Syrian Kurdish refugee camps in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region documented the mixed emotions brought by January’s snow.

Rain – whenever it comes – is a disaster. The camp remains swamp-like for days at a time and with few facilities to dry damp clothing, people are left cold and stranded. In addition to these problems, tents are currently in short supply due to the limited surface area of the camp (allocated for a 20,000-25,000 persons capacity). Being without shelter or forced to share tents with unknown families presents clear protection concerns, particularly for women and children. UNHCR estimates that almost 3,500 families do not have their own shelters, and the agency is pushing for a solution through the opening of new camps in the region.

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Snow-covered tents at Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, January 2013. Photo by Nesim Haci.

The Regional Government in Kurdistan, which has maintained an open-border policy for asylum seekers from Syria, is now faced with a dilemma. It must balance the humanitarian duty to provide a more substantive welcome to its brethren from Syria against the political concern of not incentivizing the de-population of Syria’s Kurdish areas.

Some members of the refugee community acknowledge a similar conflict of personal and collective interests. Twenty six-year-old Rebwer, for example, recalls how his brother calls him frequently from Qamishli in Syria to ask about the situation in the Kurdistan Region. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ he explains. ‘I know that the thought of Kurds living better across the border is what gives him hope and keeps him strong. So I cannot describe to him our terrible daily conditions here. I’m sure he has heard about the camp, but I just tell him that Kurdistan is beautiful. This is no a lie, it is beautiful, but this is not our Kurdistan. We have brought with us our problems from Syria, and one day we must return to our Kurdistan in Syria.’

Rebwar worries that if people like his brother decide to leave Syria, too, there will be nobody left to defend their lands. ‘If we become a nation of refugees, how can we expect to secure our rights in the future Syria?’

This post was authored exclusively for Middle East Voices.

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 INSIGHT: Iraqi Kurdistan’s Syrian Refugees   Between Rock and Hard Place

Thomas McGee

Thomas McGee is a scholar at the University of Exeter (UK), Center for Kurdish Studies.