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Iraqi Kurdistan Region Struggles To Cope With Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees have been flowing into the Iraqi Kurdistan region, making the need for international assistance more pressing than ever.
A Syrian refugee, who fled the violence in Syria, is seen at the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi of province Dohuk July 25, 2012. The number of refugees that have fled to Iraq's Kurdistan region is in excess of 11,000 refugees, and they are settled in the region's three provinces: Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya. As for the Domiz refugee camp, the number of refugee families reached 696 families, equivalent to 2,800 people, but on the other side of the camp, where young refugees are, the number of refu

With the continuously deteriorating security and political situation in Syria, and the growing fighting between government and opposition forces, many Syrian citizens — particularly Syria's Kurds — have been forced to seek refuge in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. This resulted in a wave of displacement that local authorities in Kurdistan did not expect.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) set up the Domiz camp — which is the only camp for displaced Syrians in the Kurdistan region — to accommodate nearly 10,000 refugees. Yet, with the massive influx [of refugees], the KRG has been forced to continuously expand the camp, while the number of displaced reached 40,000.

In 2004, nearly 4,000 Syrian refugees moved to the camp located in the city of Dohuk, as clashes between the Syrian regime’s forces and Syrian Kurds erupted in the city of Qamishli. These clashes were called the Qamishli events, and resulted in the deaths of a number of demonstrators, and hundreds of arrests by the Syrian regime.

On Monday, June 10, while hosting the French ambassador to Iraq, Denys Gauer, Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani called on the international community and UN organizations to provide Syrian refugees and displaced persons in the Kurdistan region with international aid and donations.

The presidential statement quoted Barzani as saying that the international community, UN organizations and European countries did not provide Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan region with assistance, and that Barzani asked him to encourage the international community to help the Syrian refugees present in the Kurdistan region.

Dindar Zebari, deputy head of the KRG's Department of Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor in a statement that there are more than 145,000 Syrian refugees and displaced persons who are temporarily residing in the three main provinces of the Kurdistan region — Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk.

Zebari explained that there are more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Dohuk province — on the border with Syria and Turkey — more than 30,000 in Erbil, and nearly 15,000 in Salaimaniyah.

Zebari confirmed that the only support they have received was provided by the KRG. So far, it amounts to more than $20 million from the KRG budget.

He added, “More than $20 million was disbursed from the limited budget of the KRG in two payments; $10 million  several months ago, and another $10 million two weeks ago.”

The KRG receives 17% of the total federal budget of Iraq. In 2013, the Kurdistan region received nearly $18 billion.

According to unofficial statistics, the population in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region numbers more than 5 million.

Zebari noted that the local authorities’ support is designed to fulfill basic needs in the main camp in Domiz, the largest Syrian refugee camp in Iraq.

He added, "There is a plan to build two additional camps in both Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, where 15,000 refugees can be resettled in each camp.”

Zebari confirmed, “There is a need for international support, and we, in the KRG, call on the UN and the UNHCR to include the Kurdistan region [among those countries that are recipients of] international donations to be delivered to Syrian refugees.”

He added, “The Iraqi authorities in the federal government have not yet agreed to disburse specific funds to Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan region.”

On international support, Zebari said, “There are conditional international donations for some countries neighboring Syria. Yet, so far there are no international donations to the Kurdistan region and to assist Syrian Kurds who are present in the Kurdistan region. What is available is support by local authorities, while the burden and responsibility fall upon the international community, the UN, and the federal government.”

The Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s citizens complain about the rising number of Syrian refugees in the region, amid an increase in beggars, particularly in major cities.

Zebari added, “I think it is difficult for the Kurdistan region and its three provinces to host an additional number of refugees, yet the border is still open, and displacement continues.”

The Iraqi Kurdistan Region had decided to resettle Syrian refugees there and give them the right to work, and the freedom of movement and education, with the support of the KRG.

Speaking about the shortages in the provision of assistance to Syrian refugees, Zebari explained, “There is a shortage regarding camp management and basic needs. According to expectations, the number of refugees in Iraq will probably reach nearly 300,000 people by the end of the year. I think that the largest percentage [of these refugees], i.e., 95%, are present in the Kurdistan region, and they are a burden on the Kurdistan region and its residents.”

On June 2, an Iraqi official said that more than 7,000 Syrian refugees have returned to the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal in the past few weeks, after the security situation improved there.

Zebari explained that only those refugees in the Qaim district of Anbar were returning, not those in the Kurdistan region. This is because there are complicated procedures and conditions to enter into Iraqi territory, and the Iraqi government requires refugees to obtain a temporary residence permit, which forces those who cannot obtain one to return. This does not happen to refugees in the Kurdistan region.

He stressed, “For the Kurdistan region, there is more openness and a sense of humanitarian responsibility to protect and support the Syrian people. Our border is open, and refugees and displaced persons enter on a daily basis.”

The vast majority of Syrian refugees and displaced people in the Kurdistan region reside in the cities, and among the Kurdistan region’s citizens. On the support provided to these refugees, Zebari said, “Arabic schools in certain areas were open to Syrian families, and support was offered to certain hospitals in areas where [refugees] are present. The ministries of education, higher education, and public health were given instructions to meet the requirements of Syrian refugees in the cities.”

Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in print journalism and radio, he has published several reports in local and world media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).

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