Syrians falling through cracks as refugee crisis grinds on

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In one working-class suburb of Erbil, I visited Adel and his 31 relatives, who live in a cramped two-room rental. Adel’s family is barely scraping by, thanks to the kindness of neighbors and a lot of prayers. He and his immediate family of 11 fled Aleppo almost five months ago. After crossing the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, they sought out the United Nations Refugee Agency and registered so that aid agencies would be able to find them and provide assistance. At that time, they were given some sugar, lentils, and kerosene, along with half a dozen thin mattresses and blankets. But they have received nothing in the five months since.

Adel’s wife tells us there are no regular food distributions in the area, and that local shops no longer offer credit to Syrian Kurds. She says that organizations have come to their home three or four times to ask questions, take notes about what they need, and learn what their daily lives are like. None has returned with help.

One of Adel’s cousins, Jalal, arrived 15 days ago, along with his wife and their five-month old son. They brought only what they could carry from Syria, and at the border they were met by Kurdish Regional Government officials, who gave them food and brought them into Erbil. But since then, Jalal has had to rely on his family and their Iraqi neighbors, whose generous offers of food and other supplies continue to astound them. According to the documents Jalal received, it will be another seven weeks before he will be able to simply register as a refugee – a far cry from the immediate assistance he needs. In the meantime, aid agencies have said they cannot offer him any help.

In a way, Adel and his family are lucky. There are five young, healthy men in the group, and two of them have been able to find employment painting cars. Many other Syrian refugees in this region have exhausted their resources, compelling them to move to the overcrowded camp at Domiz. Adel says his neighbors are generous, supportive, and respectful, and because of them the family has enough food, but he is clearly humiliated at having to accept charity.

For two years now, this has been the situation for Syrian refugees across the region. Host countries have generally kept their borders open, and governments, the U.N., and international and local NGOs have worked to respond. But as the situation in northern Iraq makes clear, their work is being rendered inadequate by this unrelenting humanitarian catastrophe, and untold numbers of people are falling through the cracks. Funding here is scarce, the number of refugees is overwhelming, and every new wave of arrivals is more vulnerable than the last. There is also a limit to the goodwill of average Iraqis like Adel’s neighbors, who have spent the last two years supporting Syrian families with little outside help.

The international community must fulfill its aid pledges and work closely with local governments to identify and assist urban refugees in need. But more fundamentally, the Syrian conflict has to end now. Until then, it is hard to imagine any response that can adequately provide for Adel’s family and countless others.

Refugees International is a non-profit organization that works to end displacement and statelessness crises worldwide and accepts no government or U.N. funding.

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