More than one thousand Syrian Kurds now survive in dire conditions in Moqoble camp, a refugee settlement near the northern Iraq town of Dahuk. The refugees live without regular access to electricity, water and food in temporary tents provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Heating and cooking systems regularly cause fires that destroy the tents, which are their only protection from the intense summer heat, the winter snow and the blinding sandstorms that regularly afflict the camp. Muddy puddles surround the public toilets, but to date no cholera or typhus outbreaks have been reported.
The Syrian Kurds are among the thousands of Shia and Sunni Arabs, as well as Kurdish refugees from neighbouring countries including Turkey and Iran, that have found refugee in the Kurdish Region escaping sectarian violence in war-torn Iraq and hostile regional governments.
Today, Syrian Kurds are increasingly building up ties with the Kurdish region as they seek to escape the discriminatory conditions imposed upon them in their country of origin.
Since 1962 Syria has classified Kurds as ‘Syrian Kurds’, ‘foreign Kurds’ and ‘concealed Kurds,’ only granting ‘Syrian Kurds’ full domestic rights and Syrian nationality. The remainder, who number an estimated 200,000, are registered as foreigners and live without domestic citizenship rights.
“A lot of us don´t have any right to a passport in Syria,” complained Abdul Aziz, a Kurd from Afrin in northwest Syria. The 71 year old man holds a red document in his right hand, the closest thing he has to a passport. The document notes that the holder is “of foreign origin,” and that he cannot leave Syria for any reason.
“We cannot buy a house or land, we cannot get married or even get a driving license; they call us maktoum [nothing, in Arabic] continues Abdul-Aziz. “I´ll die in this dump,” he says, looking around at the clustering of tents that surround him.
In 2004 armed clashes broke out between Syrian security forces and Kurds in the north-eastern Syrian town of Qamishli during which several Kurds were killed. Following the incident the number of Kurds fleeing into neighbouring Iraq increased substantially as they looked on with envy at the security and rights enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds.
“It´s a horrible situation”, explains Kurdistan, a 20 year old girl from Qamishli. “Some people have tried to go back home but they have been imprisoned, or they´ve just disappeared. But we all know that they´ve been caught by the Muhabarat [secret police].”
Most of these refugees say they can never return home. But they complain that life in Iraq is hard and they are not receiving sufficient help from local Kurdish authorities.
“The KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] built houses for just a few of the Syrian Kurds in the Kurdish Region,” said Hewal, a 24 year old man from Damascus, today a law student at Dohuk University. “They use that gesture as proof to the wider world that they’re helping their Kurdish ‘brothers from the West.’ They have promised houses for us several times but we all feel we´ve been left abandoned to our fate.”
As the Kurdish Region remains under the absolute sovereignty of the central Iraqi government, it cannot issue passports nor grant legal refugee status on its own basis. However, the Kurdish administration says that they will allow them to remain in the region indefinitely.
Yet, despite the dire conditions in the camp and their lack of prospects, many families refuse to accept the degradation to which they are subjected.
Berxwedan was 15 when she arrived with her family from Qamishli in 2006. Thanks to the English she has learnt from television, she says she dreams of going to university and travelling around Europe.
For the moment, she has helped to set up a dance ensemble with the children of the camp. The group is called “Ster” [star in Kurdish] and they perform traditional dances from their Yazira homeland region. The group’s popularity is increasing quickly and they are now beginning to hold concerts across the region, rehearsing in the courtyard of Moqoble´s only building, a crumbling old police station.