Iraq’s Kurds warn of winter of ‘catastrophe’ for refugees fleeing Syria offensive
Authorities are preparing for new influx of 250,000 Syrians into under-prepared camps where temperatures will drop below zero degrees, Jack Moore reports from northern Iraq
Tents spray-painted with red numbers line one side of the new, makeshift section of Gawilan camp in northern Iraq, a washed white background to the throng of construction workers toiling across the dirt track that divides them.
Forced to open prematurely because of a surge of Kurds displaced from north-east Syria by the military offensive Turkey launched last month, Gawilan's new section – which holds about 1,000 new arrivals – sits on muddied ground.
It is incomplete and unprepared for what authorities say could be another wave of refugees from the country long racked by war.
And winter is coming.
Thousands have been frozen out of the homeland they call Rojava, shunted into neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan by Turkish shelling and a motley crew of Turkish-backed Arab rebel proxies who are accused of war crimes.
Those displaced are now set to feel the freeze across the Tigris River in make-do housing while temperatures fall below 0°C.
A total of 15,235 refugees have crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border, most of them smuggled illegally with only the clothes on their backs, into the arms of the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s military force.
They are then taken to camps such as Gawilan, Bardarash – which is at capacity with 12,000 refugees – or Domiz to the north of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital.
Officials say they are preparing for an influx of up to 250,000 people, four times the camps' capacity, if hostilities continue and worsen, warning of the impending human cost and the coming harsh winter.
“We expect if this war continues in north-eastern Syria we will have a quarter of a million people,” Hoshang Muhamed, director general of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Joint Crisis Co-ordination Centre, told The National at his office in Erbil.
“It will be a humanitarian catastrophe because we don’t have the resources to support the people.”
Officials estimate about 70 per cent of those displaced are mothers and their children, making the relief effort even more urgent.
One resident of Bardarash is reported to be 99 years old. While numbers are poorly recorded, dozens of babies have died in winter conditions in camps across the region since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011.
They include Zaatari camp in Jordan and Rukban camp in southern Syria.
Iraqi officials say they have enough stock to help those in need, for now, but the situation could quickly worsen.
“The winter is looming, now the nights are very cold,” Mr Muhamed says. "Rain has just started in the camps. There’s no infrastructure, there’s no sewerage, there’s no drainage.
“So we need to do everything quickly to protect these people, to save their lives.”
Building work is continuing around the camp’s new residents.
A young teenage boy in a blue tracksuit top hauls a tanker of water to his tent along the camp’s dusty path as a road roller smooths out the earth for the new accommodation behind him.
Just feet away, a digger drops dozens of breeze blocks into a chalk-outlined box where a new tent will stand.
Workers wearing orange gloves slap and smooth grout between slabs of stone that have been laid as a foundation to help protect residents from the heavy rains and icy ground.
Relief workers are rushing to protect those already languishing in the camps from the cold.
The agency for refugees, whose logo marks all of the tents at Gawilan and Bardarash, says it has contingency funds and supplies to cope with about 50,000 refugees, far below the worst-case scenario.
For now, it is providing what it calls “winterisation” for the refugees to stave off the cold when it arrives.
“We give every family a winter kit, which means an inner lining and insulation mats that provide some protection to the tent,” says Firas Al Khateeb, spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees in Iraq.
“Every refugee gets a thermal blanket and a quilt, so they are warm. In addition to the heater, we provide kerosene.”
The refugees are also given a cooking stove and plastic sheets that can be put on the tent to provide extra protection. But those living in Gawilan and Bardarash say it is not enough.
Ibrahim Alkif, 23, a charity worker from Syria’s Ras Al Ain, fled after Turkey started bombing the city, fearing regime conscription or death at the hands of Turkish bombs or proxies.
Mr Alkif met a smuggler in a cafe in the city of Qamishli, east of Ras Al Ain, who would take him.
“We are suffering here in this time," he says. "If the rain comes heavily we will be in a bad situation. We are in tents, you know?”
“That is not enough for us. The winter is a hard thing. It is the enemy of the children. The illness will be so strong on them.”
Other residents say their tents have been shaking in the wind throughout the night and that rain is leaking in from the sides when there is heavy rainfall.
Mohammed, 26, from the north-west Syrian city of Afrin, which Turkey invaded and took over last year, points to the interior of his tent and its four small mattresses.
“This is nothing,” he says. "It’s just rock. It’s going to get flooded.”
Ravinder Singh, founder of Khalsa Aid, a Sikh organisation that has been in the region since 2014 to help displaced Yazidis after the ISIS massacre in Sinjar, says the rains and cold are devastating for those living in the tents.
“I am dreading the approaching winter, especially as the Kurdish government is already stretched with the existing camps," he says.
"I hope the international NGOs and governments will step up the assistance."
The cold weather will make movement for the Syrian Democratic Forces more difficult on the plains of north-east Syria against Turkish air power and artillery.
It is an advantage that analysts say Ankara could capitalise on in coming months, pushing more Kurds across the border.
Ankara initiated the operation to combat Kurdish fighters it says are a threat to its security after US President Donald Trump ordered American troops to withdraw from northern Syria.
Those Syrian Kurdish forces who are meant to be protecting the civilian population are not allowing many of them to flee.
They fear Turkey will move in and replace them with Arab refugees who fled other areas in Syria, and redefine the demographics of the north-east region.
The numbers of those crossing have now fallen from 2,000 a day to several hundred. The only official crossing for refugees is Faysh Khabur, which requires permission that is difficult to obtain. Many are now turning to informal routes.
The Syrian Kurds who do manage to flee will have to make arduous journeys in bitterly cold temperatures.
From the northern Syria city of Hasakah to Faysh Khabur, it is a 200-kilometre walk. From Ras Al Ain, the city first attacked by Turkish forces last month, it is 250km to safety.
Despite those long distances and reports of the SDF restrictions, Iraqi Kurdish government officials remain sure the number of refugees crossing their border will rise sharply.
“Turkey will not be stopped,” an Interior Ministry official says.
Aid groups say the worst affected will be those who remain inside Syria because nearly every international humanitarian organisation that was operating in the north-east is leaving.
Many of those groups did not disclose their operations because the Syrian regime did not want them there, aid workers say.
The only remaining international assistance for north-eastern Syria comes from the UN, which delivers limited aid from Damascus.
Local aid workers at risk of regime or Turkish persecution are still there, but without the means to help the two million people in the area.
“The fact that there are no humanitarian organisations able to work in Syria will prevent them getting essential support to deal with the harsh winter conditions,” says Tom Peyre-Costa, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq.
"We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people and they are just left alone. The real emergency is there. That’s why we expect more people to cross the border.”
Many are sending their young on the journey into Iraq, hoping they find work and can send funds home to help their displaced family cross the border, or to at least sustain themselves.
But camp authorities and the Kurdish Regional Government are not letting refugees leave the camps to find the necessary work, they say.
“We need $200 for every person,” Ibrahim says. “I worry if I stay here for a long time without work. We came and we need to pay for our family. The government tells us we stay here.”
Like the camps’ residents, the government is also in financial straits, having already taken in 1.1 million refugees from the ISIS occupation of Mosul and its surrounding areas from 2014 onwards.
The refugees cannot acquire full Iraqi citizenship unless they can prove their parents were born in the country, and they cannot expect handouts from authorities.
Refugees at Bardarash say they received rice, lentils and stew for the first 10 days in the camp, and then no more, forcing them to use whatever money they have left.
“What we can provide is protection, so they feel they are safe and that they have dignity like a human,” Mr Muhamed says.
“But what we cannot provide them is a luxury life in the camp.”
Updated: November 15, 2019 02:12 AM