Twenty kilometres south of Dohuk, just past one refugee camp, lies another. A group of white tents, murky with dust, line the road. Children with dirty faces play between them, their laughter and shrieks loud. A young man sits outside one of the tents, alongside the main road, nursing a small cup of tea.
This is Camp Qamishlo, a special encampment in the far northern Iraqi province of Dohuk, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Syrian and Turkish borders.
The camp was first established in 2004 after Syrian Kurdish youth began to protest against the Syrian government in March of that year. The uprising was centred in the Syrian cities of Amouda and Qamishli. And the camp was established by those fleeing Syria after that uprising; hence the name of the camp – Qamishlo is Qamishli in the Kurdish language.
At first, there were no more than 100 families living here. But the Syrian uprising, that began in early 2011 and which some are now calling a civil war, has seen a far greater number of refugees seeking shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In mid May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, “3,673 Syrian nationals of Kurdish origin were registered with UNHCR in northern Iraq. An estimated 10 families and 40 singles continue to enter Dohuk [province] daily.”
“The authorities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region maintain an open door policy, allowing an estimated number of 10 to 15 families and 50 to 65 singles to enter Dohuk [province] daily,” an earlier UNHCR report said. And this figure was expected to increase.
Now, according to official figures from the province’s the Department of Displaced and Migration, there are now more than 5,000 refugees in the area.
The director of the department, Mohammed Abdullah, broke the numbers down further: he says there are around 334 families and 3,500 young men without families in the area.
One of these is Ali, the young man drinking tea outside the tent. Inside the tent, there are pillows on the ground and a number of youths conversing. Like most other refugees, who give part or false names, Ali doesn’t give his full name because of potential danger to family he left behind. But he will tell NIQASH how he left Syria. He says he and some of his friends decided to get out of the country together.
“We just wanted to get out of the hell of the war that’s being waged by the Syrian regime against civilians,” Ali says. “There are people smugglers working and they charge you around US$400 to go from Qamishli city in Syria to an area near the Iraqi border – it’s around 135 kilometres away.”
Other reports suggest those fleeing may be paying up to US$850 for similar journeys.
Most of the young men like Ali, who’ve made a similar journey, are men who refused conscription into the Syrian military. Also among them are soldiers who have deserted. Usually, Ali says, they are the young people from predominantly Kurdish ethnic areas – places like Afrin, Qamishli and Tirbassi – who cross the Tigris river at night in small boats. The boat traffic is organised by the people smugglers and each boat holds between 14 and 25 people.
“The most frightening part of the journey was the four hours spent crossing the borders with the smuggler,” Ali recalls the journey he says he will never forget, when he escaped Syria together with 14 others, five of whom were females. “We walked for ages before we reached the river. We were all silent and we were praying the whole time, asking God to help us reach the other side of the river in safety.”
When Ali first reached the site of the camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, he lived in a tent with 24 other young men. “We were 24 people living, sleeping, eating and fighting in one tent,” Ali explains.
“Actually one of the worst parts of the story is that we were afraid to sleep at night because we were worried about snakes and scorpions – the area is teeming with them,” added Othman, another young refugee from Syria, sitting next to Ali. “We kill many every single day!”
As if to prove his point, another young man comes in carrying a live scorpion with no tail. “We’ve learnt to catch them now without killing them,” he boasts. “Then we just take their tails off so they can’t bite us.”
The conversation continues. The young men said that before they came from Syria, they had had high hopes of finding work in Iraqi Kurdistan and sending their families back home some money.
But after talking to the other refugees already at the camp, “we realized that those dreams won’t come true,” the young men say.
“We have lots of time but we have nothing to do,” they complain, “it’s frustrating for all of us. And many of us actually come from poor families who need our support back in Syria.”
While the Dohuk authorities say that the young men are able to move around freely inside the province, the refugees themselves say their lack of official status, which stops them from moving further into, or around Iraqi Kurdistan, is preventing them from getting jobs.
Lawki Haji, a Syrian-Kurdish writer and activist, has been in the area for a longer time than most; he first came after 2004’s Qamishli uprising and formed an association - the Qamishlo Syrian Kurds Welfare Association - to help Syrian Kurdish refugees in the region.
Haji told NIQASH there are around 500 young men and 300 families in the camp, with around 2,000 more young men living in different parts of Dohuk.
“But the difficult living conditions in Camp Qamishlo have actually forced many to return to Syria,” Haji says. “More than 300 young men went back over the past few weeks because they were unable to survive here.”
Talking to other refugees around the camp, they say that a lot of the young men who went back to Syria did so, because they couldn’t get a space in a tent to live in and they had lost any hope of unemployment or more adequate accommodation.
Additionally, one refugee who also came to the camp in 2004 believed that local employers were tending to take advantage of the young refugees without official documents, paying them less or nothing. This has also led to young men wanting to return home.
In Camp Qamishlo, the young men’s tents are on one side of the street. There are about 20 tents for single people, housing between 25 and 30 individuals in each. On the other side are about 350 smaller tents for families. Inside the camp there also is a kind of playground for children, with a handful of swing sets, and near these is a health centre that can deal with minor ailments and illnesses.
Most of the camp’s inhabitants spend most of their time, simply sitting in their tent doorways, chatting to their neighbours. There isn’t a lot else to do.
Aziz Afrini (also a false name) and his family moved into their tent almost three weeks ago. When they first arrived, the family of five shared a tent with another family for around two weeks.
“There isn’t a lot of water and we’re really suffering because of the dust and the heat,” Afrini tells NIQASH. The camp is in a particularly dusty area and often, the camp’s inhabitants will sprinkle water on the ground to dampen the earth. But in many ways, this makes their lives even more difficult and certainly dirtier.
“There’s no water and the hygiene is terrible,” Afrini’s wife complains. “We have to share bathrooms with many other families, as well as everything else.”
Another problem for the Syrian Kurdish in Iraqi Kurdistan is their lack of official refugee status. More permanent accommodation is being built by the state to house the campers, including a new camp at Domiz, but many are still living in temporary housing and tents, including an estimated 100 families in another, older camp, Moqabli, 20 kilometres west of Dohuk.
For the time being, for many young Syrian refugees their dreams of a better life, jobs, safety and relative political freedom are still ending under canvas walls in Camp Qamishlo. Or, unfortunately, on the hard road back into Syria.