Caught in the Middle: The Ongoing Plight of Displaced Refugees

Daryl Grisgraber, prior to working at Refugees International, worked at a local NGO in Cairo where she managed projects providing refugees with legal assistance and psychosocial services. She also spent six years at Amnesty International USA where she handled several aspects of the organization’s refugee program including legal support to asylum seekers, advocacy on domestic and international refugee policy, and crisis response development.

Marc Hanson joined Refugees International in June 2011 and is responsible for advancing RI’s advocacy agenda with the U.S. government. Mr. Hanson covered foreign policy, economics, budget and tax policy as legislative assistant with Congressman Sam Farr (CA – Monterey). Previously, he was community-political organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) where he led a legislative campaign to expand the labor rights of low-wage home healthcare workers.

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EPIC: The last time we interviewed Refugees International was in 2007, when the civil war forced millions of Iraqis to flee their homes. Six years later, how many Iraqis remain displaced, either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees outside Iraq?

Daryl: There are still more than one million Iraqi IDPs. In Jordan, a quarter of a million Iraqi refugees remain. Syria still has close to 480,000. Keep in mind, as Iraqis leave Syria and go back to Iraq, there are still Iraqis fleeing Iraq for Syria. Lebanon still has 100,000 as well.

EPIC: Even now—with Syria’s civil war—Iraqis are fleeing into Syria?

Daryl: Yes, about 40,000 of them in the past year.

EPIC: In order of magnitude and urgency, what do you see as the top humanitarian priorities in the region right now? How do you feel the international response has been so far?

Daryl: Syrians. I think Iraqis are still the next highest priority.

Marc: With regard to the international response to the Syrians, what’s interesting is that the UN made a 6-month appeal. We’re five months into that appeal and they’ve raised under 40% of the requested funds. At the time that the appeal was made it was the largest appeal on record, $1.5 billion. Then in late January the UN hosted a donor conference in Kuwait, where they raised, in pledges, the highest amount of money ($900 million) ever pledged. But only a fraction of the money pledged by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, $300 million each, has come through. Because we’re now at the tail end, there’s going to be a new appeal, but it’s very hard to tell what’s going to happen. If you got less than half of this appeal, what will you get in the next one, and the next one? For the international community to fail so miserably on meeting the humanitarian needs of the victims of a war that is generating daily headlines…it’s pretty striking. Then you have the cases in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, where the international community is showing up with around $20-30 million for each. However, the actual need for funds is far closer to hundreds of millions of dollars. Turkey estimates that they’re a billion dollars in as far as its expenditure is concerned. But they’re spending that much money and they’re getting almost nothing from the international community. With Iraqi Kurdistan, they have been told, “You’ve got your oil money. You’re on the hook to take care of the Syrian Kurds.”

EPIC: So Turkey has spent as much as a billion dollars already. Is there an estimate as to how much the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has spent to date?

Daryl: Yes, they were talking about $10 million just for the next camp, which to me implies that the first camp has to cost in the tens of millions, if not the hundreds, because it’s been there for almost a year now. And then of course there’s the urban response as well, which is modest. So I think hundreds of millions is a safe guess.

EPIC: What has the Baghdad response been to the crisis, and what might be behind the way that they’re responding? How has Erbil been responding?

Daryl: There are three major border crossings between Syria and Iraq; one is in Iraqi Kurdistan and the other two are down in the south. The NGOs that are not based in Iraqi Kurdistan don’t focus on the region. The international NGOs tend to be based in the Baghdad area. The problem is, you’ve got almost 200,000 Syrians in Iraq as a whole, and 95% of them are in Iraqi Kurdistan.

EPIC: So if 95% of Syrians in Iraq are in Iraqi Kurdistan, what is the rough estimate between urban based and camp based refugees?

Marc: There is one camp of 40,000, and there are about 150,000 Syrians in total up there. So it’s a third in camp and two thirds outside, more or less.

EPIC: So is the KRG more welcoming?

Marc: Northern Iraq appears to be allowing a lot of people through. When we were there recently, one of the things I was struck by was the number of young men; people between 20-30 years old. Lots of them had just come out over the last two weeks. These men were saying that there is no longer neutrality in Syria. People are just taking
shots at you.

Daryl: I think they are getting more people into Iraqi Kurdistan because Kurds are going to the Kurdish area: they feel comfortable there. The KRG is saying, “These are our people so, come on in,” and they seem to be doing all they possibly can, even on an individual basis, to support the Syrians.

Marc: On the support front, what we gleaned is that Baghdad is not being particularly supportive, and part of the reason why the international system is having a hard time supporting the refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan is because the international system relies on cooperation and coordination with the host country’s government. So clearly it’s a challenging environment when Baghdad and Erbil aren’t getting along. Our understanding was that around September a lot of the oil money stopped being transferred from Baghdad to Erbil. Obviously the longer that goes on, the fewer resources the KRG has to provide to its own citizens, as well as to care for the refugees. If the money doesn’t come soon, then the needs for the refugees will continue to get exacerbated.

EPIC: Domiz camp in northern Iraq, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, now has 35,000 Syrian refugees and is severely overcrowded. Tell us about what you witnessed and experienced visiting Syrian refugees at Domiz camp.

Marc: People who have come into northern Iraq over the last three months are finding far more challenging conditions than the folks who had come over earlier. The camp has gone through roughly seven phases of development. When you look at the first and second phases, you’re looking at places that have designated cooking areas for each family, bathrooms for each family, and a water/sanitation system that is actually keeping up with the people who live there. You get to phases three, four, and five, and you’re getting shared bathrooms, shared cooking areas, a lot less quality services. At phases six and seven, there are these new transit areas that are emerging all over the place and they haven’t been able to put in a water or sanitation system. Now you have the position where the KRG hasn’t given away tents or tent space in months. They’re moving people into “shared tent” situations. It’s just unbelievably overcrowded. A camp originally set up for 5,000–7,000 people is now at 30,000-40,000 people. From one day to the next you could actually see the edges of the camp change because of all the additional tents that people had brought themselves.

Daryl: We met a family with 27 people living in one room. There was a mom and a mob of children, some of whom were incredibly small, going up to mid-teenage years, and then a handful of young men. They had been there almost a year. It seemed like they had enough to eat, and they’d been in one of the earlier phases of the camp so the housing was ok. But they had these two kids with them that were orphans, and one of them had a disability. The woman had brought them over with her, and they’d been with her this whole time. She called us over and said to us, “These are not my children; they are orphan kids that I’m taking care of. What do I do with them?” She had been there for almost a year and no one had talked to her about it.

EPIC: How many unaccompanied children do there appear to be

Daryl: Quite a lot. We didn’t get an actual number, but UNICEF has its own child protection office in the camp, and there are quite a few unaccompanied kids. I think other families are absorbing them, but there are a lot of them.

EPIC: Can you tell me what you saw in terms of the government response in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the response of NGOs and IGOs in urban areas?

Daryl: The government response is, on paper, quite good. Once people register they get a residence permit, which gives them full access to all national services. So that’s exactly the way an urban response is supposed to work. That said, a lot of the services are underdeveloped and overburdened, so they’re serving both Iraqis and Syrians equally inadequately. One interesting example is that there’s a department for the prevention of violence against women. This is a great sounding service, and it has shelters, but it can’t handle more than half a dozen beneficiaries at a time. So if Syrians were to go there they would have to wait in line along with everyone else, and there are plenty of Iraqis that have been in line for a couple of years, so it’s a great response on paper but it’s just not working out that well because everything is under-resourced. The local NGOs that work in the urban areas are also fairly limited in what they can do. They do some distributions of food, but they occur sporadically and only when they can raise the money for it.

Marc: The KRG is allowing Syrian refugees to work. We asked two young men who had jobs painting cars if they got paid less than Iraqis, and they said yes, but in the same breath they said that they’re happy to have the job.

Daryl: They don’t get work permits, but it seemed like anyone who can find work is welcome to do it and nobody makes an issue of it. Even in the places where we were the service workers seemed to be Syrians.

Marc: We met with a Member of Parliament and I asked, “Are you sensing that for electoral reasons, you’re going to have to say ‘enough is enough, we can’t have anymore Syrian refugees,’ or ‘we can’t extend any more services,’ or ‘we have to limit the services that are available’?” And he said, “Quite the contrary. If anything, we’re being pushed by Iraqi Kurds to be more generous. They’re saying that the KRG needs to provide more assistance, more money, do more for these refugees.”

EPIC: What percentage of the refugee population in Iraqi Kurdistan do you sense is nonKurdish?

Daryl: There are just a handful of Arab Syrians who ended up in Iraqi Kurdistan. There is absolutely no official policy that the Arabs may not come, and the KRG will let them in if they do come, but they’re really just not showing up.

EPIC: If you guys could touch a bit on Turkey. What did you see when you were in Turkey, and how did it compare and contrast with the situation in Iraq?

Daryl: We did see one of the shipping container camps, one of the better ones, and it was pretty impressive. There were TVs and refrigerators, a laundry room and a women’s center. It was amazing. The tent camps are rumored to not be quite as good, but nonetheless my impression is that they’re considerably better than what we saw in Domiz. The Turkish government is running everything on its own and wants to be setting that example for the world. The urban populations in Turkey didn’t have any services until very recently. The only benefit really given is access to the national health care system. So those services are still developing, but Turkey is recognizing the need for assessing the urban population. It was a step up from what we saw in Iraq, certainly.

Marc: There is access to school, though we understand that the enrollment isn’t as high as the Turkish authorities would like. Sixty percent of children are attending schools. The educators are Syrian, but the kids take one or two hours a week of Turkish. The Syrians in the cities are capable businessmen, doctors, engineers, lawyers, community leaders, etc., and the Turkish authorities have been finding ways to tap into their expertise and their willingness to work together.

Daryl: There’s quite a lot of discrepancy between regions as far as what kind of services the urban refugees get. We saw urban Syrian refugees whose living situation was just as miserable as anything we saw in Domiz, just in different ways. Turkey is very much developing its urban response right now, but there are still people with very deep needs there.

EPIC: Is the international community helping Turkey any more than Iraq due to its global alliances?

Daryl: Not really, because Turkey also has more resources. We’re going a bit over two years now with the ugly part of the crisis, and Turkey was originally saying, “We don’t want help, we can handle this ourselves,” and so no one helped them. At some point they said, “Well, we’re getting to the point where we will accept some aid,” but they didn’t come out and ask for it. About a year ago they did finally come out and say, “We really need some help with this.” Yet there has been virtually no response. I think they were very proud of the fact that they could do it on their own for a long time, but they need some help now and they are acknowledging that.

EPIC: In terms of kids and education, I am curious about what you saw in Domiz and the urban-based population of Iraq. Is there a sense of what percentage of Syrian refugee kids are going to school in Iraq

Daryl: When we visited the camp in October there was one school that served about 3,000 kids. This time around there was another whole school, so now you have 6,000 kids, 7,500 if they really overcrowd it. But there were 20,000 kids in the camp, so less than half of them are in school. The urban situation is actually tougher because most of the schools are in Kurdish. There are some Arabic schools, but they’re expensive and not very conveniently placed, so a lot of the kids just aren’t in school. The Syrians there have not had the same kind of success as in Turkey with setting up their own schools and getting projects together to help themselves, so I think it’s safe to say that most of the urban refugee kids in northern Iraq are not going to school. The university system is rumored to have started accepting Syrian refugees, though.

EPIC: What were your impressions of the Iraqi civil society organizations?

Daryl: They seemed good. There were just so few of them, and they seemed distinctly under-resourced. Everyone we spoke to said it was a constant struggle to keep funds coming in.

Marc: What’s interesting is you have the KRG as the main payer, and then you have these international organizations showing up saying, “This isn’t meeting the standard,” or “you need to do this better, this plan is bad,” or “we need to do registration this way,” etc. But they’re not showing up with the checkbook to pay for the services, so it clearly causes a great deal of tension in the relationship. They are working to fix that, but it’s challenging.

EPIC: How is the Obama administration currently responding? What has been the US’ pledge, and how much has it come through on that

Marc: Better than last year, but not even close to sufficient. In the overall response, the US is the second largest donor behind Turkey. Turkey doesn’t show up on the big, international list of donors because they just fund it themselves and they don’t go through the UN system. The US is giving close to $400 million for the overall refugee and IDP response. As far as Iraq and Turkey go, the US hasn’t come through with much money at all. The US is part and parcel of the kind of failure of the international system to contribute adequately where the authorities have stepped up to be the main payer.

EPIC: So when you say $400 million, that’s money that wasn’t just pledged, it’s already been given?

Marc: Yes, it’s either been spent or it’s been obligated. $165 million is for inside Syria. A lot of that is food aid and USAID’s Office of Foreign Disasters Assistance money that goes into Syria. And the remaining $210–$220 million goes to the refugee response. The US has also provided economic support funds for Jordan to help defer the costs of supporting camp and non-camp refugees.

EPIC: Do you know how much of that support has been to Jordan

Marc: I think $200 million, and that’s bilateral so it would not be part of the roughly $385 million that we were just talking about. They are sizeable donations, but the crisis is just absolutely overwhelming.

EPIC: In terms of what ordinary Americans can do, what would be your message to them?

Marc: Engage with your member of Congress and let them know that there is domestic support for being a responsible member of the international community. When you deal with a war that’s displacing 3 million people and leaving nearly twice that number in significant need, the US has to lead the way. If we don’t, the rest of the world doesn’t generally show up. There are also organizations that are engaged in this, so sending funds to those groups will help.

EPIC: Is there anything that is already out there where people can go to and show that there is domestic support?

Marc: We don’t take a view on the political side, but the Casey-Rubio Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013 (S. 617) includes a provision to give the President authority to advance humanitarian activities in and outside of Syria. We hope that the bill will push the US agencies to really figure out more creative ways of getting aid into Syria. If the aid could get in consistently to Syria, people would stay more or less where they are, but what’s going on now is that the conflict has caused sort of a generalized state of paralysis. Food prices are going up, so a lot doctors and other people with means have left. One of the things we heard was that if you could provide a salary for the doctors, they might stay longer and you might even get some doctors to return. But no doctor is going to ask somebody who has just dug their child out of a bombed out house to pay them for their services, so they’re not collecting any money and they can only last for so long. We want to engage them as humanitarian organizations that are abiding by and working in accordance with the humanitarian principles of impartiality and caring for whoever has the need.

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