As Refugee Population in Iraq Swells, MSF Scales Up Emergency Response

The number of Syrians registering as refugees at the Domeez camp, near the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq, continues to climb, but there are not enough services in the camps to keep pace with the increased demand.

Of late, as many as 1,000 people have been crossing from Syria into this part of Iraq every day.

“We left because of war,” says one woman. “We came from Qamishli. The city is completely besieged. There’s no fuel for heaters, no water, no electricity. The trip was really difficult and long because we went through the mountains. I have five very young children and they all had to walk. We had to go through much suffering to get here but thank god we arrived.”

Domeez camp was established in Dohuk province in April 2012 and was initially designed to host 1,000 families. However, the population in the camp has now risen above 35,000 people. Despite the efforts of local authorities, the camp is stretched to its full capacity, the level of assistance is clearly insufficient, and aid workers are struggling to keep up with the needs of all the residents.

At present, the lack of shelter for newcomers is especially critical. Most of the newly arrived refugees must share tents, blankets, mattresses, and even their food with other families.

Patient Testimony: Father of Four

“We were living in a farming area. They invaded our village at 5:00 in the morning. We were sitting inside. My youngest daughter came to us saying, 'Baba, the army is outside.' So we went out to see. The regime soldiers held their rifles in our backs saying, ‘If you move, we will shoot you.’

I was afraid they would hurt me. My wife was pregnant and out of fear she told them, ‘My husband has done nothing wrong.’ So they gave us our IDs back and left. Every other day they used to come back to our area. They would break our doors and windows.

My children wouldn’t stop crying, they were terrified. So we left our farm and ran away to Qamishli. Here we are staying with another family, we don’t have enough blankets. All my kids are sick because of the cold.

There are so many people in our situation. The authorities are working hard, but they can’t deal with such a huge number of people. We are registered with the UN as refugees. We registered with everybody, filled the forms, all the papers are with me. But again, the number of people is so big some people are living in the streets. The authorities and the organizations can’t cope with all the needs.”

Working in the only clinic in the camp, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides an average of 3,500 consultations per week and has doubled the size of the staff working on the project. Observed pathologies are mainly related to poor living conditions and shortcomings that have became more glaring during the region’s bitter winter.

“Half of the patients we see suffer from respiratory infections,” says Emilie Khaled, MSF field coordinator. “Overcrowding, with more than ten people sharing the same tent, contributes to the spread of diseases as well. Today, with milder temperatures and very poor water and sanitation systems, we are seeing an increase in diarrhea cases. Urgent solutions must be found to improve people’s living conditions in the camp.”

As the main health actor in the camp, MSF teams provide general health care, mental health care, and reproductive health care. To date, MSF medical teams have provided more than 64,800 consultations and are planning on carrying out a measles vaccination for 31,000 people between the ages of six months and 30 years.

In addition, MSF distributes hygiene kits and conducts water supply and sanitation work. Since mid-January, MSF teams have distributed 160,000 liters of water to 1,800 families. MSF distributed 3,500 hygiene kits in the last week alone and plans to distribute 4,500 more by the end of April.

A Syrian refugee carries her child to the MSF medical clinic at the Domeez camp in northwest Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraq 2013 © Michael Goldfarb/MSF