Since the conflict in Syria began, more than two million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries, with thousands more fleeing across the borders every day. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working in northern Iraq to respond to this situation since May 2012.
“We came from Tel Brak in northeastern Syria,” says Zeina, who has just crossed the Iraqi border with her husband and four children. “Seven months [ago] we left our house as the area was becoming a war zone. The entire village left.”
“We lived seven months in the mountains, with no proper place to live, no work, no money, and sometimes no food,” Zeina says. “After seven months we decided to move to Al Qamishli and cross the border from there into Iraq. The borders were closed, so we had to stay in a school nearby. When we heard that the borders were open again we left early in the morning. It took us two hours to cross on foot. We feel so relieved to be here.”
Some 60,000 refugees from Syria have crossed into the Kurdish region of Iraq since the border was reopened this past August 15 after being closed for three months. On the day it reopened, 7,000 people crossed the border; in the month since then, some 800 Syrians crossed each day.
The border closed again for two weeks in mid-September, reopening for just one day. MSF has set up health posts on both sides of the border to provide medical consultations and distribute water to refugees waiting to be transferred to a number of transit camps that are being set up in Iraq’s Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniya governorates.
The Long Walk to Safety
Most of the refugees arrive at the border on foot after a long journey through a desert valley in intense heat. Many have left everything behind: family members, homes, and belongings. While the majority of new arrivals come from Damascus and Aleppo, there has been a recent increase in refugees from Al Hassaka governorate, in northeastern Syria, after fighting increased in the area.
Treating Mainly Women and Children
“The majority of our patients are children, pregnant women, or mothers who have recently given birth,” says Paul Yon, MSF head of mission in Dohuk. “Many are suffering from moderate dehydration due to the long distance they’ve had to walk or the long waiting time before crossing the border. We are also seeing cases of chronic disease such as hypertension, asthma, and epilepsy. Several have not been able to access their medicines in Syria where the health system has fallen apart. Some patients we see in our health post are in a state of shock; they have been displaced many times inside Syria since the conflict erupted and decided to cross the border because they faced life-threatening situations.”
Since mid-August MSF teams on the Iraqi side of the border have provided more than 1,040 general health care consultations to refugees waiting to be transferred to Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniya. MSF teams also distributed non-food items including jerry cans and plastic sheeting to 290 families, as many people were unable to bring any supplies with them. In the coming days, MSF will also start providing general health care consultations to refugees in a number of camps in Erbil governorate.
On the Syrian side of the border, MSF teams have provided 982 medical consultations and distributed water to 33,000 people waiting to cross into Iraq.
A New Life as a Refugee
Syrians entering Iraq are registered at the border by the Kurdish authorities and the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. After registration, they are transported to one of the many refugee camps mushrooming throughout northern Iraq. For now this is the end of the road for many Syrians who have already been internally displaced several times since the conflict erupted two and a half years ago. However, their future remains far from certain.