Analysis: The Syrian urban refugee problem in northern Iraq
ERBIL, 24 July 2013 (IRIN) - On an empty plot of land in northern Iraq next to a beauty salon and opposite a hotel on Erbil's busy Shoresh Street, Mohammed Hassan sits on a patch of crumpled purple carpet with his wife and their two-year-old son.
Above their heads is a sloping roof of cardboard and blankets, draped over sticks. It offers scant shade from the searing midday sun and their faces are flushed.
Gesturing to a pair of metal crutches on the floor, 24-year-old Hassan peels back his left trouser leg to reveal a reddened, scarred stump.
"I was hit by a bomb in Aleppo," he said, matter-of-factly. "I had the amputation surgery there and then we decided to leave to come to Iraq. There was nothing left and too much violence."
Hassan, who travelled with his brother and family in a group of 11, has joined 153,000 Syrians who have fled across the border to the northern semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Many have settled at Domiz Camp, around 60km from the border.
But beyond the gates of Domiz, there are an estimated 100,000 Syrian refugees living in towns and cities, around one third of whom live in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil.
More than two years into the Syrian crisis, the cost of rent in Erbil is soaring due to demand from both refugees and expatriate oil workers, and savings and job opportunities are dwindling. As a result, some refugees are being pushed out onto the streets - creating an urban refugee problem that aid agencies warn needs an urgent response before it gets out of hand.
Close to the city of Duhok, Domiz Camp was initially planned for 25,000 people but is now home to more than 60,000, testing sanitation and other services to the limit.
Due to the overcrowded conditions at Domiz, even those in the most desperate conditions in Erbil say they do not want to go back to the camp.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in some ways enables this by offering its Syrian refugees renewable six-month work and residency permits. This gives the new arrivals permission to work, access to public health care and education, and freedom of movement, so they are legally allowed to settle in regular communities.
Many of the Syrians arriving in Kurdistan are professionals and most have found work, enabling them to pay for accommodation, or they have found lodgings with friends and family.
Begging for scraps
But according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in Erbil alone there are around 650 families living rough in partly-constructed buildings and makeshift shelters. Many more are sharing rooms in small apartments, bed-hopping between shifts.
"We have people living in unfinished houses, with no doors, walls, windows or roofs, and sometimes there are three families in each room," explained Wiyra Jawhar Ahmed, the manager of the Protection Assistance Reintegration Centre (PARC) in Erbil, run by Swedish NGO Qandil, but mainly funded by UNHCR.
"They are collecting rotten food from outside shops and begging at restaurants for scraps. They are also being in some cases exploited by people here who are giving them work but for very low wages," he added.
Hassan's brother, whose wife and five children occupy a similar stick and blanket shelter 100m away, has found work on a construction site. But Hassan, who was also a labourer in Syria, says he cannot work because of his leg.
For now he is relying on charity from host communities, who on the whole have responded generously to TV and radio campaigns by supporting the refugees with food and bedding.
A KRG official acknowledged that some of the urban refugees may have been equally vulnerable in Syria, but he said they still had the same right to assistance as other refugees.
A new refugee camp was supposed to have opened just outside Erbil in May to accommodate people like Hassan and his family, but funding and planning bottlenecks mean it is not likely to be ready until September.
In the meantime, UNHCR, in conjunction with Qandil, is compiling a database of the most vulnerable urban refugees to whom one-time cash payments of US$225 (paid in two separate installments) are being made available.
So far, of the 250 Erbil refugee families classified as "extremely vulnerable", due to physical disability, chronic illness and other problems, 156 have received money to help pay for healthcare and other basic needs.
Acknowledging this is only a temporary stop-gap, Qandil's Ahmed told IRIN: "It is critical that we get these families into a camp as soon as possible so we can provide them with food, shelter and health care."
He added: "We already have other groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs) here, many from the disputed Nineveh Province, and there are growing tensions with people begging."
Rizgar Mustafa, mayor of Khabat, the district where the new camp will be located, blamed a lack of money for the delayed opening. He said the central government of Iraq in Baghdad had failed to support KRG and that international donor funding had also been slow to arrive.
"There is an assumption that Kurdistan is rich in oil and therefore rich in resources so we can provide for the refugees ourselves," he sighed.
Kurdistan's economy is booming, thanks to a raft of new oil discoveries and a rush of foreign investment, but the oil industry itself is yet to earn money for KRG, amid a long-running dispute about revenue rights with the central government in Baghdad. Kurdistan's current oil production - around 200,000 barrels per day - is one tenth of Nigeria's.
As such, Khabat said, KRG needs donor funding like any other country dealing with the spillover of the Syrian crisis: "The voice of our government is not as strong as that of Turkey and other established states and we have not received the same response as other places," he said.
As of 22 July, the aid operation in Iraq had received 22 percent of needed funding, compared to 22 percent in Egypt, 25 percent in Turkey, 36 percent in Lebanon and 45 percent in Jordan, according to the latest funding update
But funding is just one part of the picture. Both KRG and UNHCR have come in for criticism for how they have responded to Iraq's urban refugees.
In a report published last month, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) warned that while Iraqi Kurdistan started with a "positive, durable approach" to protect and integrate Syrian refugees, the lack of funding and political and technical support was "presenting substantial economic and social challenges".
Sara Eliasi, a protection and advocacy adviser with NRC, told IRIN: "The government was very willing to receive these refugees but they didn't necessarily envisage or understand the implications and the commitment that it would imply.
"They didn't prepare and they didn't plan for it and unfortunately the international community and international NGOs did not come in and fill that gap and provide a strategic approach."
Prioritizing urban refugees
One UNHCR staff member admitted privately: "Urban refugees were not seen as a priority, even though they numbered far more than those in camps, but now we are all working together on a new strategy going forward to address the issues."
Aurvasi Patel, acting head of UNHCR's North of Iraq office, said: "In consultation with the Kurdish authorities, we implemented a joint response to the refugees living in camps as a strategic priority.
"However, in recognition of the fact that the needs get bigger and that the non-camp refugees were as vulnerable as those living in camps, we started to proportionally direct assistance to ensure an equal response."
Since mid-May, according to UNHCR, the main river crossing point into Iraqi Kurdistan at Peshkapor has been largely restricted.
Dindar Zebari, a senior KRG Foreign Ministry representative, denied the unofficial crossing was totally closed but admitted security had been enhanced.
"There must be clear evidence; those who are crossing the border are very much in need of protection and support," he said.
Al-Qa'im border crossing, controlled by the central government based in Baghdad, has been closed for months.
The closures have sparked outrage from rights groups but officials at Domiz camp have quietly welcomed the time to catch up with camp extension plans that had been constantly on the back foot due to the sheer volume of daily arrivals.
The new camp, known as Dara Shakran, is about 30 minutes' drive north of Erbil and will have an initial capacity of around 10,000, though the final details are still being worked out.
Mayor Mustafa insisted the camp will have no fences and is aimed at providing basic services, not containing the refugees. But some urban refugees may want to stay put.
Community workers have warned this may test the patience of host communities that are increasingly unhappy about the rise in begging and other harmful coping responses such as sex work.
Hassan's sister-in-law, Sharda, a mother of five with the youngest just three months, told IRIN: "If my husband has work here in Erbil, then I won't go to the camp."