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Syrian refugees pour into Kurdistan

20 September 2013

christian aid/sarah malian

Daily struggle for existence: Hayat Abdel Nasser (right), whose name means "life" or "existence", fled Homs, in Syria, with her family of six children, when her home was destroyed by fighting. She then fled Hasakah, in Syria, when fighting also broke out there, and is staying in a makeshift refugee camp in Arbat, northern Iraq

Daily struggle for existence: Hayat Abdel Nasser (right), whose name means "life" or "existence", fled Homs, in Syria, with her family of six childr...

TO reach the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, refugees from Syria must first cross a desolate four-kilometre no man's land. Aid workers report that some children travel barefoot. Since 15 August, when the Kurdistan regional government suddenly opened access to a temporary pontoon bridge, 50,000 people have entered the region. This is the largest single exodus from Syria since the conflict in the country began two years ago.

On Monday, Saman Majed from REACH, an Iraqi charity and partner of Christian Aid, described how refugees were arriving with almost nothing, some having been attacked by the bandits that were thriving in the lawless conditions over the border.

"You can just see that they are very poor and they bring little things with them, like a small bag," he said. "They have exhausted their capital. I saw them, their skin was burned [from the sun]. . . One of the women I met said, 'We have been robbed by people; they stole everything from us.' . . . The main problem for these people is there is no authority at all between the provinces or the government. . . So there are many, many new bandits, robbers, working. It's a good environment for crime."

Refugees had told Mr Majed that they were crossing into Iraq to escape violence between fighting factions, and economic turmoil. People were "abusing the situation, and increasing prices".

The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that fewer than half of the 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq live in camps. Most prefer urban areas where they can work. Mr Majed expressed concern for those living in tents, without protection, in the winter to come.

"We cannot cover five per cent of these people," he said. "Without quick assistance they will get a difficulty in these cases, especially the people who are living in the transit camps, because of the rainy season, and people without any facilities or services. It's very bad."

With money from Christian Aid, REACH has reached more than 7000 refugees with food, jerry cans for water, sanitary products, and other essential items. Mr Majed suggested that relations between the refugees and the host community were "mainly good". The latter were organising campaigns to collect materials and food.

Last month, the head of the UNHCR, António Guterres, said that the influx into the Kurdistan region represented "a huge strain on the economy and infrastructure here", and praised the generosity of the government. The region was "an anchor of peace and stability in a very troubled part of the world". He warned that relief agencies were "dramatically underfunded". To date, just 40 per cent of the UNHCR's appeal for $4.4 billion to fund relief operations in the region has been funded.

Lebanon is currently hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, a total of 742,209. It is estimated that by Christmas a third of the popu-

lation will be refugees (News, 19 July). On Monday, Haifa Ungapen, a consultant working with Christian Aid in Beirut, described a "huge catastrophic humanitarian crisis".

"I am not going to say that the international community has not been generous, they have been, and the people and individuals have really responded well, but there is a need for more," she said.

She described how refugees had arrived in places that were already poor: "As time goes by, this tension is building up. Not because the people resent each other, but because they have very little, and they feel that the resources are not enough, and economically the situation is getting harder on both sides."

There are now more than two million Syrian refugees. The UNHCR estimates that by the end of the year this number will rise to 3.45 million. This week, the agency reported a sharp increase in the number arriving in Southern Europe.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 4600 Syrians have arrived in Italy by sea, two-thirds of whom landed in August. On Tuesday, it warned that Syrians fleeing to Bulgaria faced "dire" reception centres that were overcrowded and unsafe.

The Anglican Alliance reported on Monday that Anglican agencies are supporting more than 1.3 million people affected by the Syrian crisis. Most are workingwith ACT Alliance, a coalition of more than 130 churches and affiliated organisations, or other partners.

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