What a difference six months makes

I first visited Domiz refugee camp in May 2013. Situated near the city of Dohuk in northern Iraq, and spread out over 1.5 million square meters of land which once housed an army base, the camp accommodates around 45,000 Syrian Kurds who have escaped from the conflict in their homeland, the border of which is just 70 kilometers away.

That first visit was a profoundly depressing one. In a report written for UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, I observed that the camp was “critically congested,” and noted that “while UNHCR has advocated for the allocation of additional land by the government, this has for the most part not occurred.” The report went on to say that “the camp is below standards in many sectors and the living situation in many parts of Domiz is unacceptable.”

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Other commentators were equally critical. According to a journalist who visited the camp in April 2013, “respiratory problems are a major concern. People are very exposed to the cold because they live in uninsulated tents. And due to overpopulation, it is easy for diseases to spread from one person to another.” 

Going back to Domiz at the end of November 2013 for Refugees International, it was immediately apparent that some important improvements were being made to the camp. Contractors were busy building wide roads, separate from the pathways used by the refugees as they move from one part of the camp to another. A new drainage and sanitation system was being installed, designed to prevent Domiz from flooding and to ensure that household and human waste does not contaminate the camp. Three new schools have been built, while the authorities have released extra land, alleviating the overcrowding in a camp that was originally designed for just 20,000 people.   

But perhaps the most important improvements have been made by the refugees themselves. Recognizing that the armed conflict in Syria is unlikely to come to a speedy end, and that they may be obliged to remain in northern Iraq for some time, the displaced Kurds are doing what they can to make life in the camp more comfortable and civilized.

The tents that once housed the refugees are gradually being replaced by sturdier brick, timber, and iron sheet structures. More shops are being opened, offering a wider range of goods than was previously the case. Restaurants and tea shops are proliferating, giving Domiz the feel of a small town, rather than a large refugee settlement. The refugees are also trying to ensure that they remain warm and dry during the cold Kurdistan winter, insulating their homes to the extent possible and stocking up on stoves, kerosene, quilts, and blankets.

Despite these improvements, life in the camp remains extremely tough. Women do not feel secure and the younger Syrians lack child-friendly spaces where they can play. The refugees do not enjoy using the shared washing facilities that have been provided for them. Shelter standards appear to be increasingly disparate, the gap between richer and poorer refugees widening. And the sympathy of the local population is diminishing, with crimes being attributed to the refugees, even if they are not responsible for them.

I asked Erdogan Kalkan, a veteran UNHCR staff member and a Kurd from neighboring Turkey, what more could be done to improve the camp. “We are finally getting the hardware right,” he said, referring to the significant amount of construction that has taken place in camp over the past few months. “Now we need to focus on the software, providing refugees with better cultural and social programs, recreational facilities and educational opportunities.” “If we can do that,” he said, “then Domiz will begin to look even less like a camp and more like a city.”

Crisp is senior director for Policy and Advocacy at Refugees International, a DC-based non-profit organization that works to end displacement crises worldwide and accepts no government or UN funding.