Concern over Syrian refugees at Al Qaem as Iraq's crisis deepens

Briefing Notes, 20 June 2014

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 20 June 2014, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With forced displacement in Iraq now estimated at a million people so far this year UNHCR is also concerned about the safety of Syrian refugees at the Al Qaem camp in the west of the country.

Al-Qaem, also known as Al-Obaidi, lies in Iraq's Anbar province some 25 kilometres from the Syrian border. 1500 Syrian refugees are housed there in tents. A further 3,500 live outside the camp. Last night military clashes happened around one camp area, causing panic among the refugee population. The situation had calmed as of earlier this morning.

In view of the limited access UNHCR had earlier pre-positioned kerosene, diesel fuel and flour to make bread for the two months. We are also working with WFP and UNICEF to ensure food parcel delivery is not interrupted. Many refugees have asked to return to Syria, even though large parts of Syria remain contested. We are getting reports that many in the urban population have moved to safer communities outside Al Qaem.

Meanwhile the humanitarian needs of Iraq's wider newly displaced population continue to mount. Our aid operation is currently focused on the north of the country. Many of the displaced have found temporary shelter with friends and relatives, in hotels, schools, mosques, parks and unfinished buildings. An increasing number with no other options are seeking shelter in camps that are either in the process of being opened or in the planning stages. Twice this week, we have sent tents and other relief items with a convoy into Sinjar a poor and remote region of Ninewa province where some 30,000 people fleeing Tal Afar and elsewhere have gathered in recent days.

UNHCR and its partners have conducted assessments with close to 2,700 households in the urban areas of Erbil and Duhok. Seventy per cent of these IDP families told us they intend to return to Mosul soon because they are running out of money. Some have resorted to selling personal items to pay for shelter. Others have already left, and our colleagues monitoring checkpoints between provinces report movement in both directions.

We continue to ramp up our response to support these and others in need, distributing tents, mattresses, blankets, water containers and hygiene kits, kitchen sets and stoves for some 14,000 people sheltering in transit camps and urban locations. To date, UNHCR has provided aid to displaced people in the Khazair transit camp in Erbil governorate, the Garmawa camp and Zummar and Shekhan cities in Duhok governorate, to Sinjar in Ninewa governorate, to Sulymaniah city and Khanaqin town in Diyala governorate.

With fighting currently underway in different parts of the country, the displacement crisis could escalate further. Alongside our sister agencies and NGO partners in Iraq, UNHCR is revising its requirements and will soon issue a new appeal to cover the needs of a million displaced Iraqis displaced in 2014.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Baghdad, Ned Colt on mobile, +964 780 917 4173

  • In Erbil, Catherine Robinson on mobile, +964 771 99 45 693

  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120

  • In Geneva, Ariane Rummery on mobile +41 79 200 7617

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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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