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The ‘town’ of refugees who fled Assad’s Syria

Monday, December 2, 2013

The following article of Meg’s account of her recent visit to one of the camps set up in Iraqi Kurdistan for refugees from the Syrian conflict was carried by the Yorkshire Post, with an abridged version carried in the Sheffield Telegraph.

Dohuk, one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three big cities, is a bustling thriving town. Colourful houses nestle into the hill side, block after block of new flats line the roads and the skyline is full of cranes. With increasing oil revenues the pace of development is breathtaking. Yet barely a 15 minute drive from the town centre is the Domiz refugee camp, one of 13 in Kurdistan and the largest of the four in the Dohuk province.

Situated about 60km from the Syrian border, the camp is now ‘home’ to 75,000 Syrian refugees. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It stretches far away to the horizon, more like a medium sized town. With few expecting the refugees to go home soon, many structures are semi permanent, built with breeze blocks with plastic sheeting or cloth for roofs.  All the refugees have to be registered locally to obtain an identity card which enables them to access services.

I walked up the hill through the camp on a pitted and uneven road - no more than flattened mud. Dusty when dry it soon turns to mud in the rain. In November it is still warm, like a British summer day, but soon it will get cold followed by snow. Staying warm will be a problem. Someone had set up a stall by the side of the road selling brightly coloured fur lined children’s wellingtons.

During the day the camp is bustling, but with few lights at night it can be a scary place. A section of the camp is fenced off where the most vulnerable children live to protect them from exploitation. Child labour is a problem with some going into town to earn money for their families.

Around 13,000 children live in the camp, and the four existing schools struggle to provide enough places for them. A typical class has around 24 children, and when I entered I found they were learning English. The teacher asked "How are you?" and in loud confident voices the children chanted "I am fine thank you." Of course they are not fine. Children playing around the camp are clean, they smile and wave like children anywhere. But they left their homes, possibly after suffering bombing and the loss of family members. Some will not know where their father and brothers are, whether alive or dead.

Surprisingly none of the children were begging, just greeting us with a wary curiosity. With my basic Arabic I spoke to two young sisters, asking their names and telling them mine. A colleague took a photograph of us, and when I showed them the result their serious faces broke out in smiles and they ran to tell their friends.

Near the camp entrance in a prominent location is the child protection unit. This facility sports a UKAID logo, the name the Government now uses to show it has been funded from our International Development Department. The unit is run by UNICEF and they are about to launch a telephone number - effectively a childline - that children can ring with any problem. Information about the number will be spread through the children watching drama, a well-used technique used in the children’s centres to pass on information.

Dohuk’s Governor told me later that another 75,000 refugees are living in the province among the host community. Some of the refugees have family connections with the area, whilst those who are highly qualified such as engineers and doctors find jobs and move their families into permanent accommodation.

The Kurdistan region has been at pains to welcome Syrian refugees, supplying much of the finance themselves. The UN High Commission for Refugees has described the hospitality and support to the refugees provided by the Kurdistan Government and the people of Iraq as extraordinary.

But it is a huge burden for a region that is still engaged in developing its own services. Many local Kurdish schools have to do double shifts to accommodate all the children who want to attend. Politicians I spoke to in Iraq believe that Bashir Assad has managed to buy himself at least a further year with his response to UN demands about chemical weapons. Many fear that without intervention the conflict could go on much longer.

The Domiz camp with its shops, breeze block shelters and developing economy may turn into another of the long lasting camps that litter the Middle East. Or it may become another suburb of the city of Dohuk, with a population able and willing to become part of the region. In the meantime the challenges are huge improving living conditions, providing health, education and work for the displaced, traumatised population. Britain has already committed 500 million of its aid budget to Syrian refugees in Syria and the surrounding region. Before the war ends I fear it will need to be much more.

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