Over the past three months the Dohuk province has seen a major increase in the immigration of refugees from Syria and from other parts of Iraq – and authorities warn that it could cause a crisis in the area very soon. But this migration does not involve humans. Rather it involves an estimated 100,000 sheep and goats, fleeing both the violence and insecurity in Syria and unfavourable farming conditions elsewhere in Iraq.
Dohuk’s Veterinary Directorate estimates that the number of sheep and goats entering the province over the last three months now makes up around 13 percent of all the livestock in the area. There are an estimated 750,000 sheep and goats in the province already.
“This is the first time that we’ve received such a huge number of animals coming from Mosul and from the adjacent Syrian territories,” officials at the Directorate told NIQASH.
The director of Dohuk’s veterinary services, Diyar Tayeb, said there were two main reasons why livestock was flooding into the province. The first involved the violence in Syria which has seen Syrian merchants selling livestock very cheaply.
The second had to do with increasing desertification in some areas around the nearby city of Mosul; this was causing Bedouin sheep and goat herders to migrate towards Dohuk, which had more water.
The number of registered shepherds in the area has also increased, the director of the Bateel Veterinary Centre, Adel Anwar, told NIQASH, with the total now 41. Between them, these shepherds own 25,000 sheep and goats.
“We are trying to check the animals before they enter the Dohuk province,” Anwar explains. “And we are trying to provide the sheep and goats coming from Syria with extra feed, in the same way that we provide extra feed to local livestock.”
However because of this, Anwar adds, the migration of livestock is controversial: “The amount of feed allocated to Dohuk won’t be enough to cover the needs of the province’s original livestock as well as the new livestock. The livestock from Syria is going to be competing for food with local goats and sheep.”
Additionally the migrating shepherds are also causing problems. Because they are unaware of pastoral boundaries between villages and whose land they are on, they have been grazing illegally.
Anwar also had concerns about the migrating animals’ state of health. Dohuk’s livestock was regularly vaccinated but the incoming animals could be carrying disease.
This is one of the reasons that the head of the Kurdistan Organization of Animal Rights Protection (KOARP), Suleiman Tamer, believes that the Syrian livestock shouldn’t be allowed into the country.
“Syrian livestock have many diseases because they haven’t been provided with the necessary vaccines and veterinary treatment,” argues Tamer. “The cattle that these shepherds have arrived with, come into the country via smugglers on the Syrian border and we are very concerned that these animals may carry incurable and fatal diseases.”
Suleiman explained that the migration of livestock from one area to the other during the past few years had already caused the spread of viruses like hemorrhagic fever. In fact in 2010, Iraq’s Ministry of Health announced that two fatal cases and four further suspected cases of hemorrhagic fever had been caused by “consumption of contaminated meat sold by street traders.”
As it turns out, this is the second time there has been an influx of livestock like this into the area. The first one happened in 2008 when a drought in central and southern Iraq drove herders and merchants north to Dohuk. In fact, many of the herders and shepherds that arrived then have remained and settled in the province.
Subhi Khalif, who owns 2,250 sheep, was one of these. Four years ago he arrived at a village near the city of Sumel; Sumel is about 20 kilometres west of the provincial capital of Dohuk.
“We wanted to stay here because it is safe and there are lots of fertile pastures,” Khalif explains. “Here we can also move freely and go anywhere we want to. And we get government subsidies, in the form of feed and vaccines, from the veterinary and agricultural authorities in Dohuk.”
“A lot of the shepherds who came in 2008 never left,” agrees Ismat Abdi , a livestock merchant from the Sumel area. “And now new shepherds are coming too.”
“The livestock from Syria is having a direct impact here. It competes for feed from the government and now locals are getting less feed than before,” Abdi added. “A lot of local factories are not buying locals’ milk because they’re getting what they need from the Syrian shepherds. Prices of livestock have also dropped. Before we were selling one sheep for US$325 but now the price has dropped to US$180.”
This decrease has also seen local meat prices fall. Butcheries in Dohuk city and surrounding areas are now selling one kilogram of meat for US$13, which is a major decrease, locals say.
On the positive side, some local economists see the livestock influx as an investment opportunity, suggesting that the government of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan take advantage of the extra livestock by purchasing the animals, then selling them on.
Local economist Kawa Abdul-Aziz, called upon the authorities to, “buy livestock from Syrian merchants who are selling it cheaply, allowing the livestock to enter the region and then breed the livestock or use it in other ways to make a profit.”
So far Dohuk’s authorities have been dealing with the influx in a less profit-focussed and more lenient way though, Jihad Mohammed, the deputy director of Dohuk’s Department of Agriculture, says.
“We are providing assistance to the animal breeders in the Iraqi Kurdish region who have been hit by drought and who have been forced to graze their animals here,” Mohammed explains. “Currently we don’t have any intention to start investing in their livestock.”