Iraqi Kurdistan gets three hours to build for 5,000 refugees

Syrian refugees who fled into Iraqi Kurdistan said they were particularly victimized because of their Kurdish background.

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    Syrian refugees, who fled the violence in Syria, walk at a new refugee camp in the outskirts of the city of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region August 26, 2013.
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Trucks cut through the dry makeshift streets, spreading dust over the tops of the tents stretching through Kawergosk Refugee Camp near Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish province. Three weeks ago, this was empty land on the edge of a tiny town.

In the late afternoon of Aug. 15, Rezgar Mustafa, mayor of the Khabat district about 12 miles west of Arbil, got a call from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. He was told he had three hours to prepare for the arrival of about 5,000 Syrian refugees, mostly ethnic Kurds. 

Tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across Kurdistan's northern border with Syria in recent weeks. They initially amassed just over the border, but there was little in the way of readily available food and shelter there, so the International organization for Migration, in coordination with the Kurdish Regional government, brought them to the camp by bus by or drove themselves south in their own private vehicles.

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Since then, the camp has become home to about 15,000 Syrian refugees. An additional 5,000 refugees have been sent to a camp near Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan’s second largest city.

Mr. Mustafa said, “because it was an emergency, we had to work quickly. What is good is that here, it is close to services, so we can put a large number of people in this place.” Working round the clock, UNHCR was able to build out the gridwork of tents as the refugees arrived over a three-day period.

“We were working day and night, with the KRG and the Zervani [local police force] to establish the tents and get everything ready. The Zervani supported the UNHCR with helping with the tents and with the new arrivals," says Yousif Mahmood, a spokesman for UNHCR in Arbil. "We could do this quickly because we had very good support from the Kurdish government.”

It took approximately three days to set up the tents. As they worked, Mr. Mahmood says, “we witnessed hundreds of cars bringing the refugees.”

Approximately 1.3 million people live in Arbil Province, the most densely populated area of Kurdish Iraq. The concentration of Kurdish government resources and international organizations based in Arbil means the needs of the refugees can be addressed more quickly than on the border.

Many refugees at the camp said that their status as ethnic Kurds meant they were particularly singled out by revolutionaries and Islamic militias, even in Syria’s Kurdish region. Language and cultural ties have allowed the Kurdish region of Iraq to more readily absorb and aid these refugees.

Acknowledging that camp residents could be there for a long time, UNICEF is creating a school for the camp children and a health center, Mahmood says. But with the difficulties in counting family members, he added “it is hard to know in two weeks’ time exactly how many children there are."

Figures of any kind are hard to pin down, he says, noting that "Even the 15,000 people is an estimate.” 

The camp is already fitted with electricity to power air coolers for most of the tents, and some refugees have set up small shops within the camp.

Mustafa Sipan, a young ethnic Kurd who fled Damascus in June, said he receives “permission to leave for a few hours, to go into town to buy supplies,” like cigarettes, candy, water and juices, which he sells to fellow refugees. But sales are slow. “Money is hard to come by,” he says.

UNHCR does not expect the influx to slow. “The situation does not look any better in Syria, with the allegations of chemical weapons, so our expectations are that more are coming," Mahmood says. With the debate this week in Europe and the United States on the Syrian situation and potential military action, he added, “we will have a contingency plan on Saturday for what to do if more people cross the border. There is a warning that there will be strikes, so we are prepared for the worst case scenarios.”

Originally planned as a temporary camp, both the KRG and UNHCR have declared it a more permanent location. “We cannot give you any final end point – it will be there as long as the refugees need it. You see what is happening with Syria, things are not improving," Mahmood says.

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