Refugee flow

As of mid-September 2015, Iraq was hosting 248,503 refugees from Syria. Most of these had fled from the governorates of Hassake in North-East Syria (58 percent), Aleppo (25 percent) and Damascus (9 percent). The vast majority of them (97 percent) reside in the three governorates of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Northern Iraq (KR-I), namely Erbil, Suleimaniah and Duhok. Thirty-eight percent of all Syrian refugees in Iraq are sheltered in 10 camps, a proportion higher than in Jordan and Turkey (around 20 per cent). The largest of these camps (Domiz-1 in the Duhok region) accommodates 41,000 persons. The remaining 62 percent of refugees live in urban areas among local communities. In August 2015, WFP decided to channel all available resources to over 48,000 refugees, but to reduce by almost half the monthly voucher value to all but 2 percent of the assisted refugees, who continue to receive US$19 per person per month to meet their food needs.

Iraq also hosts refugees and asylum-seekers of Palestinian (12,000 are assisted by the UNHCR), Iranian and Turkish origin, in the KR-I but also in Baghdad and other central governorates (of whom 34,000 are assisted by the UNHCR). Yet, a new upsurge of violence in the Anbar region and the fall of the town of Mosul and their neighbouring region to the hands of ISIS mid-2014 spurred massive internal displacements. The Syrian refugees, the Iraqi refugees, having forcibly returned from Syria, and some 1 million IDPs from previous conflicts (of whom 120,000 are assisted by the UNHCR) merged with an estimated 1.2 million people newly displaced due to ISIS advance through the country and to counter-attacks by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and various armed groups.

Refugee Status

Iraq is not part of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. It has, however, passed two laws pertaining to refugees: the 1971 Political Refugee Law that addresses political refugees only, and the Law No. 21 of the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, voted in 2009. The latter expands the definition of a refugee in line with the 1957 Convention. However, the country has no internationally recognised legal framework regarding refugees, and the assistance provided generally lacks consistency in terms of rights and entitlements.

Government’s approach

The government generally cooperates with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, and other persons of concern. Since the refugee crisis began in 2012, the KRG has granted residency permits to Syrian refugees that entail freedom of movement within the three Kurdish provinces, right to education free of charge in public schools on par with Iraqi nationals, as well as right to work. Refugees holding a residency permit are also granted free access to health services in the Kurdish region. Those without residency permits find free services in refugee camps. In July 2012, Government of Iraq’s Council of Ministers had decided to open border crossings to Syrian refugees, to establish camps and provide all required services and medical care to the refugees. The Government of Iraq formed a Relief Committee, chaired by the Minister of Migration, as well as support committees to facilitate procurement, camp constructions, and provision of health services.

However, the deterioration in the security situation and armed clashes between the ISF and ISIL over the past years has caused significant movement of civilians, further complicating the government’s coordination and relief efforts. There are no consistent admission criteria and the practice suggests that the admission decisions are based on security considerations rather than respect for the principle of non-refoulement as part of international customary law.

The Kurdistan regional government has significantly curbed movement across the areas it administers for security reasons. Non-residents of the Iraki Kurdistan Region are required to obtain permits that authorized limited stays in the area. These permits are generally renewable. Iraqi citizens who are not from the region, but who seek to obtain residency permits for areas controlled by the Kurdistan regional government required sponsorship from a resident in the region. Citizens (of any ethnicity, including Kurds) crossing into the region from the south are obligated to enter at checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection.

The impact of the crisis

As the crisis in Syria becomes more protracted, the large influx of refugees places a huge socio-economic burden especially on the resources, infrastructures and services of the northern governorates. This has had a detrimental effect on the living conditions of both those crossing the border and those receiving them. The Syrian crisis has had a particularly negative impact on Iraqi structural vulnerabilities. The influx of refugees has increased intolerably the demand on education facilities, sanitation, housing, and public transport. The arrival of Syrian refugees seems to have had a negative impact on local economies and labour markets, leading to a significant decline in job opportunities. Syrian refugees and IDPs today constitute about 23 per cent of the Kurdistan population. This entails a strain on employment and livelihood opportunities, as well as on services. Increased competition for housing outside the camps drove up costs and led to overcrowding and resorting to substandard accommodations. The increase in the numbers of refugees to KR-I during 2014 also significantly strained the Kurdish Government’s budget. At the same time, also some positive accounts of the influx of Syrian refugees have been reported in Erbil, where host community members describe how the arrival of Syrians has bolstered the labour market by bringing in new skills and capacities (brain-gain).

Refugees in host communities

Host community residents have generally welcomed Syrian refugees, often providing support in the form of food and clothing. In some cases, Syrian refugees are hosted within their houses until alternative accommodation is located. Syrian refugees often mention feeling welcomed and having good relations with their host community. In turn, host community members frequently demonstrate solidarity, speaking of an obligation to provide for the needs of Syrian refugees due to the past hospitality shown to Iraqi refugees in Syria displaced by previous conflicts in Iraq. Arriving Syrian families predominantly choose their final locations according to ethno-religious similarities with the host community. This partly mitigates the difficulties of integration, positively impacting on relations with host communities. The growing demands of those individuals and families crossing the border into Iraq, however, have influenced the relationship between host-communities and refugees. Assessment findings suggest that, in governorates accommodating large Syrian refugee populations, relations between Syrian refugee and host communities are more strained and tend to deteriorate over time. Although relations within assessed communities are generally reported as positive, it must be noted that conditions and perceptions vary from one governorate to another.

Institutional actors

The government generally cooperated with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to the more than 2 million refugees, IDPs, asylum seekers, and stateless residents in the country. In the absence of national systems, the UNHCR continues to undertake registration and refugee status determination of asylum-seekers. Since the beginning of the crisis, UNHCR has worked closely with the Government of Iraq (GoI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to coordinate the humanitarian response with sister UN Agencies and more than sixty organizations. In July 2015, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had reopened its office in Iraq after an absence of some years and based its main hub in Erbil, whilst the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) continues to maintain a coordination role through its Integrated Coordination Office of Humanitarian and Developmental Affairs (ICOHDA). At the beginning of the Anbar crisis the cluster coordination system was established in Baghdad and three clusters were formed. A Strategic Response Plan (SRP) was elaborated by the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) as a planning and fundraising tool to deal with the initial displacements, mostly affecting Central Iraq. Following the massive additional displacements of June, the full cluster response mechanism was established and the SRP updated in September 2014. Linkages between the SRP and the Refugee Response and Resilience Plan (3RP) were assured, particularly for the host community, which is impacted by both displaced communities. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as the Coordinator of the Social Cohesion and Livelihoods Cluster and the UNHCR partner in the 3RP leading on Resilience, will lead in planning and interventions aimed at the impacted community in 2015.

The UNHCR works in collaboration with the following Implementing partners: