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After Trials of Winter, Syrian Refugees Face Difficult Summer

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This post originally appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog.

The last time I visited Domiz camp in northern Iraq was in October, when the Syrian refugee population there was about 17,000. People were frantically trying to prepare for the coming winter. There were shortages of food, fuel, warm clothing, and medical care for cold-weather illnesses. Every refugee I spoke to expressed concern about their children, in particular, making it through the winter.

This week, my Refugees International colleague and I made our return to Domiz. The cold weather has long since passed, but Iraq’s long, hot summer will begin soon, and that will bring its own hardships.

The population of Domiz has more than doubled in the past four months, and in that time the camp has been expanded three times. Unfortunately, services can’t keep up with the pace of arrivals. There are not enough tents, or enough land to pitch them on, and individual tents are being shared by two, three, and even four families.

The camp was initially set-up to hold 5,000 people, but new refugees have been crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan by the thousands every week, and the scramble to register them and provide basic shelter has taken precedence over almost everything else. One side effect is that Domiz, now almost one year old, still has no camp-wide sanitation system. Or at least, no system that actually functions.

This week, we asked a number of Syrian refugees in Domiz about the most difficult aspects of life there. Almost all of them mentioned sanitation, and their worries that summer will bring disease on a massive scale.

Outside a battered tent with a worn teddy bear hanging over the entrance, we chatted with half a dozen young men who had been in the camp – some for just a few weeks, one for a whole year. Behind them on a grassy open field, pools of sewage had collected. Trash of all sorts was floating in the water, and as we talked a small boy cheerfully jumped and splashed in the puddles.

The young men were blunt in their assessment: there is no regular trash pickup, there is no sanitation system outside the few original sectors of the camp, many latrines are not connected to a disposal system, and recent rains have created pools and streams of sewage that have been sitting for days. When the weather heats up, these pools will become breeding sites for cholera, typhoid, and malaria. Even now in early spring, as the day got warmer most of the camp began to smell like an open sewer.

As the temperature climbs, people here will need more water to drink and keep their living spaces sanitary – and they will need an equal amount to run air coolers that keep their tents habitable in summer. But water distribution has been unreliable in many parts of the camp. The young men pointed far across the field to a barely visible figure, who was lugging a plastic jerrycan toward a cement house. The house’s owner provides water to the refugees periodically, but one man can only do so much. The young men told us that they resorted to renting a bathroom in the nearby town, in order to avoid the camp’s overburdened and unsanitary system.

On our first visit to Domiz last fall, everyone knew how important it was to prepare for the effects of winter weather, but funding arrived too slowly and families suffered needlessly. Now it looks like summer could unfold in the exact same way. Aid agencies know what to do and how to do it, but they can’t act without money and manpower. So it is vital that donors – whether in the U.S., Europe, or the Gulf – fulfill their aid pledges now.