UNHCR concerned for Syrian refugees in Iraq as number of arrivals arises

News Stories, 2 April 2013

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
Syrian refugee children play beside tents in Domiz refugee camp.

GENEVA, April 2 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday warned that with the Syria crisis now into its third year, and refugees continuing to cross borders to neighbouring countries in large numbers, pressure to accommodate refugees is growing.

"UNHCR is particularly concerned at the present situation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where refugees are arriving at a rate of 800-900 people per day double the rate of just three months ago," spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva. "The need for space for new camps, and to decongest existing camps is of paramount importance."

Edwards said the situation at Domiz camp, in north-west Iraq's Dohuk governorate, is especially worrying. "The Domiz camp is currently housing 35,000 Syrian refugees and is critically overcrowded. Thousands of families are sharing tents with newly arrived refugees as almost 3,500 families do not have their own shelters.

The crowding is in turn having an impact on sanitation, which is already below humanitarian standards. Congestion and warmer temperatures are increasing vulnerability to outbreaks of diseases as well as to tension between camp residents.

"The number of children below five years of age suffering from diarrhoea in the camp has doubled in recent weeks. Since February, on average nine children out of every 100 suffer from diarrhoea per week," Edwards said. "Additionally, there have been 62 cases of hepatitis A since the beginning of the year. UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO are conducting a joint assessment to address the observed increase."

UNHCR has been working with the government of Iraq and authorities in Kurdistan since last October with a view to ensuring the allocation of more space. Edwards said UNHCR was encouraged by a recent decision by the authorities of Erbil and Sulaymaniya to allocate more space. However, the space offered can accommodate only 25,000 people or one third of the need.

As of March 28, more than 121,000 Syrian refugees had registered in Iraq. More than 90 per cent are hosted in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Most new arrivals are families from Qamishli city, while others come from Al-Hassakeh, Aleppo and Damascus. While refugee camps have been established at Al Qa'im and Dohuk, more than 60 per cent of registered refugees in the Kurdistan Region are being hosted by Iraqi communities or are living in unfinished houses.

UNHCR has a permanent presence at both Domiz and Al Qa'im. "Together with partners and the government, we are responding to the needs of urban refugees and those living in the camps through support to the reception and registration mechanisms, distribution of emergency shelter and essential life sustaining items such as blankets, mattresses and kitchen sets, and help for people to access education, health and other activities," Edwards said.

Last year, almost 5,000 kits with core relief items were distributed to some 7,500 Syrian refugees in Domiz and Al Qa'im. Last winter, UNHCR, partner agencies and the government distributed 25,000 thermal blankets as well as heaters, kerosene and quilts.

Elsewhere in the region the flight of refugees from Syria is continuing. As of March 28, more than 1.21 million Syrians had been registered or were awaiting registration in the region.

Registration is a key tool through which refugees are identified, protected and assisted, and UNHCR has introduced extraordinary measures to expand registration capacities. These have included the establishment of new registration centres, double shifts and emergency procedures, resulting in a significant reduction of the waiting period.

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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