Conflict & Justice

Op-Ed: Syria's urban refugees are hidden in plain sight


Syrian refugees cross the border into the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on August 18, 2013. Faced with brutal violence and soaring prices, thousands of Syrian Kurds have poured into Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, seeking respite from privation and fighting between Kurdish fighters and jihadists.



Sarah Case is an advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee and is based in Jordan. Her humanitarian work focuses on supporting vulnerable Syrian refugees and Syrians still inside their country.

Near Dohuk, Iraq – We witnessed what may be the largest movement of refugees in the shortest time since the start of Syria’s civil war. In just four days, close to 30,000 Syrian men, women and children trudged across the desert border under the blistering sun, seeking safe haven in Iraq. And they keep coming.

Yes, the country that for a decade following the American-led invasion in 2003 saw more than 2 million of its citizens flee violence is hosting Syrian refugees. Even as sectarian violence ratchets up in Iraq, Syrians still think they are safer there than at home.

While the newest arrivals to Iraq are being sent to two recently opened camps for registration and processing, it’s unclear where they will end up. It could be a refugee camp, or, as most prefer, anywhere but a camp.

We call those who don’t live in a camp “urban refugees.” They’re hidden in plain sight in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The Syrian urban refugee population totals more than 1 million men, women and children, and in contrast to refugees in camps, they are desperately struggling to get aid.

In Iraq, Syrian refugees are largely Kurds who, on top of a long history of discrimination at home, have been subjected to the horrific effects of the civil war. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Iraq is the “overshadowed corner of the Syrian operation.” What started early last year as a small wave of Syrian Kurds seeking safe haven has grown exponentially. In April 2012, there were 6,000 refugees in Iraq. Now the figure is approaching 200,000, of whom 65 per cent are urban refugees. For these refugees, every day presents a struggle to survive. Yet despite their tremendous need; Iraq is at the bottom of the list for support. That must change.

Why choose to live as an urban refugee? Some say there’s a lack of security and privacy in camps. Others seek a more dignified existence closer to where they might find a job. As one Syrian refugee told me, “If there is a chance to get water and bread [outside the camp] then that’s better than the camp.”

Yet the majority of urban refugees struggle to survive. Rarely are they entitled to food rations such as those in camps receive, and housing costs are a drain. Many families are forced to live in overcrowded apartments shared by multiple families. We met one family that was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with seven other families. Imagine.

The challenges don’t end there. Jobs are scarce and access to medical care and education is difficult. Yet while we in the aid community have recognized the unique needs of urban refugees from the beginning of this crisis, we have failed to deliver adequate support.

In one of the rare countries where refugees are afforded the opportunity to work legally, few aid organizations have stepped up to help support job placement or help generate some sort of income for urban refugees. As one told me, “We want work so that we can buy our own food and be able to live with dignity.”

To me, the solution is clear. Both emergency and long-term support for urban refugees must be a priority. Funding for this particularly large and vulnerable population needs to be scaled up. And not only for those in Iraq, but for all of the more than 1 million Syrians now living as urban refugees throughout the Middle East. We have the opportunity to provide meaningful support to refugees in areas where they want to live with dignity; we can’t afford to squander it.