Syrian refugees began fleeing the insecurity of their home country and entering Iraq in March 2011. According to UN estimates, as of October 2013 there are nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees registered there. However, most estimates indicate that the actual number is much higher – particularly in northern Iraq, where an estimated 50,000 refugees crossed the border into the Kurdish region in August 2013 alone.
Iraqi host communities are trying to meet the needs of their Syrian guests, but this influx has created massive pressures on basic social services and has stretched the limits of already scarce resources.
In camps, the lack of infrastructure, including places for children to play and outlets for productive youth activities, contribute to refugees’ frustration. The harsh weather conditions in winter and lack of weatherized shelter options increase the suffering of displaced Syrians.
Since 2003, Mercy Corps has provided humanitarian and development assistance to 5 million Iraqis affected by war, violence and displacement. We currently work in all 18 governorates, partnering closely with local communities, civil society organizations and local governments. Our goals are to strengthen Iraqi civil society and the capacity of local government, and to promote sustainable development.
Now, we're also helping Syrian refugees in northern Iraq by distributing supplies to withstand cold and wet winters, providing psychosocial assistance to children and youth who are suffering from traumatic experiences, and helping those who live outside of camps regain a livelihood, income and dignity.
Providing livelihood assistance
It is essential to help refugees support themselves. Jobs are hard to come by and most Syrian refugees do not speak the local dialect of Kurdish, which makes it difficult to integrate into society and find work opportunities.
Sixty percent of Syrians in Iraq do not live in camps, but in scattered cities across the region. Our recent assessment revealed that these refugees came from disadvantaged backgrounds in Syria; they usually have no savings to help them cover the expense of fleeing home and settling in a new place. They have received little humanitarian aid since arriving in Iraq.
We are providing training, cash assistance and creating jobs for the most vulnerable of these urban refugees. Refugees receive assistance through business and life skills courses, vocational training and cash assistance for small business development. Kurdish language training will help Syrians integrate into the local economy. Mercy Corps will identify business owners in local communities who demonstrate interest in hiring refugees and help qualified candidates take advantage of these opportunities.
Supporting refugee children and youth
More than half of all Syrian refugees in Iraq are children under 18. Mercy Corps is responding to the immediate needs of these refugee children and youth through psychosocial programming that helps mitigate the impact of protracted conflict.
Working with our partners, we provide positive social and educational experiences and programming to refugee children and youth through newly established Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) in Arbat camp. We are also building a new playground where youth can safely gather to engage in recreational activities, find positive ways to express their feelings, and make new friends.
Mercy Corps renovating and equipping the space by installing safe and insulating flooring, providing indoor/outdoor toys and installing an outdoor fence and safe pathways for children to move between the indoor play space and the outdoor playground.
Providing supplies to survive harsh winter
In August 2013, a large influx of Syrian refugees crossed into Iraq, and the needs of those new arrivals are more immediate as they are settling in to local communities.
Since many people arrived with few belongings, Mercy Corps has been focusing on emergency winterization and providing supplies essential to survival. We have distributed winterization and welcome kits that include blankets, heaters, fuel, weatherproofing kits for shelters and kitchen kits. Because many people are unable to afford the expense of weatherproofed housing, such assistance is particularly crucial.