After hours in a super-chilled car, the first thing that strikes me as I arrive in a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq is the searing August heat. And the dust. The air itself is a physical presence; you can feel it weighing you down. How did refugees from Syria walk miles to get to the Iraqi border? A few steps from the car is enough for me. It’s no wonder that the refugees came with few possessions. How could they have managed to carry even small bundles in such harsh conditions? How did the families with toddlers and pregnant women withstand the trek?
When Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fully reopened the border with Syria on August 15th, more than 30,000 refugees poured into Iraq in the first couple of days; over 20,000 more have streamed in since. Why are they fleeing? Few refugees from the northeast corner of Syria report having witnessed or experienced directly the violence of war. Of course, they worry that the conflict will reach their doorstep. But, more importantly, they tell us they are fleeing because life inside Syria is now impossible. The economy has collapsed, and there are shortages of the basic commodities needed to survive. Food and fuel, when available, are priced beyond the means of the average Syrian. Essential services -- water, electricity, health care -- are no longer available. Even those who are not directly threatened by the weapons-bearers’ machinery of death are forced to flee because the war has brought devastation to all aspects of life inside Syria, and it is impossible to stay.
A week after the refugee movement began here, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees announced that his agency registered its one millionth Syrian refugee child. I don’t know where that child was registered, but given the number of children at the camps I’ve seen, it certainly could have been in Iraq. It’s extremely hard to see children suffer. We came across a dying infant in our tour of one camp, a baby of 45 days being fed on over-diluted infant formula, obviously suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. The family had not sought medical attention for the child and after much cajoling, a colleague managed to get the mother and baby into an ambulance. Perhaps the child will survive, perhaps not. As we move on, I am overwhelmed by the thought: how much suffering must this family already have endured that the imperative to seek help for their dying infant has been displaced by other concerns? There are many other well-nourished children in the camps too. When I asked if I could take a picture of a woman and her child, she responded jokingly that her chubby babe had a face as round as mine. The protection of children, youth, and women is of paramount concern. UNHCR, UNICEF, and other agencies are working hard to get mechanisms and infrastructure in place to ensure these vulnerable groups receive the attention they deserve.
The Kurdistan Regional Government and humanitarian agencies are making heroic efforts to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees. A new refugee camp in Erbil province, constructed in under a week, now houses 15,000 people and counting. Other new camps are being established throughout the three provinces of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region to cope with the burgeoning number of refugees, but even that is not enough. Over half of the 200,000 refugees now inside Iraq do not live in camps; they live with families, sometimes friends or relatives. They rent their own rooms if they are able. Some, sadly, live roughly in Iraq’s Kurdish cities and towns. And they are met largely with kindness and generosity by Iraqi Kurds who often have personal memories of what it means to be a refugee. The challenge of meeting the needs of the thousands of people inside and outside of the camps is staggering, and it is a small wonder that the Kurdistan Regional Government and humanitarian relief agencies are crying for assistance.
It makes me proud to know that the United States is doing its part to help, shouldering a significant portion of the financial burden of humanitarian relief efforts. We are contributing more than $45 million to help international relief organizations assist Syrian refugees inside Iraq. In all, the United States is providing over $1 billion in humanitarian aid to help persons affected by the conflict in Syria. When a UN-charted flight arrived in Erbil carrying tents and emergency food supplies a few days ago, those boxes bore the flag of the United States of America. You can see video of that flight here. When relief workers meet Syrian refugees who have walked miles to arrive at the Iraqi border, the first thing they do is offer emergency food. The high energy bars that hungry and tired refugees will have in their hands will bear the USAID logo on the wrapper. They will be welcomed to safety with a gift from the American people.
About the Author: Ned Nyman serves as Senior Refugee Coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.