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Harsh winter

Cathy Otten, Erbil, SulaymaniyahDecember 5, 2013

The stream of Syrian refugees to neighboring countries shows no sign of abating. So far 200,000 have fled to Iraq alone. Aid agencies are working hard to help, but fear that a harsh winter will compound their problems.

children playing copyright: Jacob Russell /TRANSTERRA Media
Image: J. Russell/TRANSTERRA Media

When the rains started at the beginning of November, creating streams of mud, Amoud Mohamed found herself fighting to keep her tent dry. "During the rain the tent was moving, at night we couldn't sleep because of the rain and the wind," she told DW, pointing to a pile of rugs at the entrance of the tent she shares with her family. "The water came in here under the floor. We must manage for the whole winter - we can't go back to Syria."

Amoud and her family of eight are originally from Qamishli in northern Syria. The matriarch of the family, she is a thin woman with strong features.

A few weeks later we stood with Amoud's family in the mud where tire tracks had created sunken puddles, surrounding the tents in Arbat, Sulaymaniyah governorate, in northern Iraq, where just under 3,000 refugees live.

Arbat is one of Iraq's transitional camps - thrown together quickly as Syrian refugees fled fighting and food shortages across the border. Lying near the base of the mountain range that separates Iraq from Iran to the north-east, the Syrian families living here will have to endure freezing temperatures this winter.

Humanitarian crisis

Since the conflict in Syria began, more than 2.1 million refugees have fled to countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, over half of these refugees are aged under 18 years. This has created what UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres described as "a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history."

With the conflict now in its third year, recent fighting between al-Qaeda linked groups and Kurdish militias in the north of Syria, combined with a lack of food and electricity, has only made the displacement crisis for refugees worse. Most of those fleeing Syria into Iraq are staying in the Kurdish north of the country, in the Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah governorates, with smaller numbers in Anbar and Mosul.

Aid agencies in Iraq are working hard to provide winter essentials for over 200,000 refugees. The numbers of refugees rocketed in the last two weeks of August when 47,000 Syrians crossed the Tigris Rivers into Iraqi Kurdistan in search of shelter, food and medical care, overwhelming aid agencies.

Amoud is waiting to move into a new camp now under construction not far from Arbat. As well as separate cooking and washing areas, the camp's 2,050 tents will also have concrete bases. The move, which was planned for the beginning of winter, is now expected to happen in the next two months.

family standing outside tent copyright: Jacob Russell /TRANSTERRA Media
With winter approaching and in light of growing refugee numbers, aid is a scarce commodityImage: J. Russell/TRANSTERRA Media

"We're trying to see if we can speed up the process [of completing the new camp] so the relocation takes place before the winter ends," UNHCR senior field coordinator Kahin Ismael told DW.

Winter preparations

"Where we are right now was not a camp back in August," Peta Barns, Logistics Officer for UNHCR, told DW, surveying the sprawling Kawergosk camp, home to more than 13,000 refugees in the Erbil governorate. "It's hard to imagine now when you look at all the infrastructure, but it wasn't there."

During our visit to Kawergosk in mid-November distribution was in full swing: families lined up and aid workers with clip boards distributed their allocations from vast piles of jerry cans, thermal blankets, plastic sheets and rugs.

Partner agencies such as the World Health Organisation and Iraq's Ministry of Health are also looking out for early signs of illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia and influenza among the refugee population, which are more likely to occur during winter.

Mohamed Masour is worried about keeping warm. He lives in Kawergosk with his wife Fadia and their three children, one of whom is just two months old and was born here in Iraq. Mohamed has a soft, friendly face and Fadia wears a jumper and green patterned dress, untying a scarf from her hair as we enter the small tent.

"We have a heater for winter but the problem is the oil, they gave us some oil but it will soon be finished. If they don't give us more oil on time then we will be very cold," he said.

Mohamed and his neighbour in the camp, Mustafa Yousif, want to find jobs but they have not yet been given their residency and work permits, renewable every six months, promised by the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] to Syrian refugees.

"The winter is very difficult here but what can we do," said Mustafa, who arrived three months ago.

"Where we lived [in Syria] we were just 2 kilometers from the front line fighting between YPG [Kurdish People's Protection Unit] and Jabhat al-Nusra [al Qaeda-linked militant group]. They didn't attack us or shoot at us but it is a dangerous place to live so we decided to come here."

Urban refugee problem

In Iraq there are around 120,000 non-camp refugees, often renting and staying with friends and family, as well as living in make-shift shelters and abandoned buildings. Across the region 80 percent of Syrian refugees are classed as non-camp refugees, living in urban settings with local communities.

child lying among boxes copyright: Jacob Russell /TRANSTERRA Media
Aid has been trickling in, however there is a shortage of oil, heaters and blanketsImage: J. Russell/TRANSTERRA Media

"The conditions vary for the refugees not living in camp," said the UNHCR's Ismael, who works in Sulaymaniyah. "We give our attention to the most vulnerable so that they receive the same level of assistance for those in the camp in terms of heating stoves, kerosene, winter blankets, and other items. We also have some cash assistance for some of the most vulnerable cases."

Fareed Tariq is from Aleppo and now lives on the outskirts of Erbil inside a half-finished building. Blue tarp and colored sheets separate his home from other make-shift shelters. Children play in a ditch outside.

"We have some blankets but it is not enough for us you know, we are eight people. All of these things the neighbours brought for us," he told DW, gesturing to a carpet and a few pots and pans.

Fareed sells cigarettes and tissues to drivers at traffic lights in the Kurdish capital, making just enough to feed his family of eight but not enough for a heater or warm clothes. The family don't want to go to one of the nearby camps; they are worried about violence and disruption there.

However, as winter approaches, Fareed knows that time is running out. "We need oil, heaters, blankets and money for living."