Syrian refugees have been entering Iraq at inconsistent rates. While Kurdistan has maintained a generally open policy toward refugees, most of whom have been Syrian Kurds, Baghdad has remained fickle regarding its stance toward evacuees. After opening the border for a brief stint between July and August, Baghdad closed its al-Qaem border on August 16th, only to reopen it again on September 18th with some improved humanitarian conditions, yet generally insufficient provisions, such as a lack of hygienic supplies, low quality and quantity food, as well as inadequate medical assistance. Various reasons were given for closing the border concerning both camp capacity and domestic security. In Kurdistan, some younger male refugees have been welcomed and provided with military training.
On August 16th, when Baghdad decided to close al-Qaem border in al-Anbar province, two reasons were given, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. The first reason was to wait for UNHCR to improve the camp and prepare for more refugees. The project included additional shelter, medical supplies, food supplies, and a plan to expand the water quantity to 470,000 liters. After the project, the camp was to be reopened (al-Qaem city council cited this as the main reason). The other reason, however, was security. The same HRW report states that “Iraqi authorities have announced that they will re-open the border after expanding the capacity of a camp at al-Qaem, though an official at Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 27th that the ministry had not recommended closing the border and described the decision as purely a ‘security measure.’”
Baqer Jabr al-Zubaidi, a former finance and interior minister, who is now a parliament member from Mr. Maliki's coalition was also quoted saying “[i]f al-Qaeda succeeds in toppling the regime in Syria, then the Shiite government in Iraq will be next."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari further supported al-Zubaidi’s assertion in a separate statement: "The flow of refugees, the entrenchment of terrorist organizations, the veil of a fundamentalist regime, all this could impact us," Zebari told Reuters. "We are trying to take an independent position. Based on our national interests... Things are not black and white."
Although there is no evidence whether closing the border actually contributed to Iraq’s national security and prevented infiltrators, it certainly had not stopped shelling and other threats from across the border. On September 7th, 3 shells were launched into Iraq from the Abu Kamal district in Syria, killing 2 civilians, one of whom was a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 5 others. And while the official rhetoric focuses on preventing a “Sunni” threat, the rockets were Russian Katyusha rockets, which were most likely used by the regime.
Eventually, al-Qaem was reopened on Tuesday, September 18th, with increased security, which, as of September 24th, prevents single young men from entering the camp, allowing only women, children, and elderly or sick people. Between September 19th and the 23rd, a total of 618 Syrian refugees were granted entrance into the Iraqi territories, averaging 123 people per-day.
Tying up humanitarian issues with national security is not new; nor is prioritizing national security over human rights. However, the way by which al-Zubaidi and Zebari generalize the identity of Syrian refugees and link their migration with al-Qaeda, while placing them in opposition to the “Shiite government in Iraq,” distances officials from a responsibility for fundamental humanitarian matters. By conjuring the al-Qaeda threat, real or imagined, and associating it with an influx of a population in need, the Iraqi government can, and has been able to, justify almost any policy on the basis of an identity.
Conversely in the north, the KRG hosts their (mostly Kurdish) refugees very differently. As of September 28rd, the KRG hosts approximately 28,074 refugees distributed throughout Domiz camp in Dohuk, as well as host communities in Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. There is also a new camp under construction in Kasak, Mosul. Syrian Kurdish politics and their relationship with the KRG have created new regional dynamics, while the lack of international aid has generated domestic tension.
Syrian Kurdish identity in the KRG, as it relates to armed resistance, functions on several levels. By providing arms and military training, the KRG and various Kurdish political parties are offering a solution to Syria’s uprising, which would simultaneously provide “protection” to Kurdistan and offer a new instrument for Syrian Kurdish autonomy. However, the overall goals of the new militia are ambiguous.
Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) external relations chief, Hayman Hawrami, said that they provided military training to many of the young men “so they can be a main supporter of the Syrian opposition and a main supporter of the positive change in Syria.” Furthermore, although the training has been viewed as an aggressive measure, both by Baghdad and Ankara, Kurdish officials, such as Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, maintain that it is “for the purpose of protection” and not explicitly to fight in Syria.
There are also opportunities for conflict. Although Iraqi Kurds have already established an autonomous region and maintain a distinct heritage, part of their culture is still intrinsically tied to Iraqi Arab culture because of their converging histories, governments, customs, and even ethnicities. This is analogous to Kurds who live/lived in Syria and their relationship with Syrian Arab identity. Syrian Kurds may experience inequality for a number of reasons because they are “visitors” and have entered into a reciprocal relationship with their Iraqi Kurdish comrades. They may even face conflict if they support the PYD, a rival faction of the two ruling parties in the KRG and believed by some Syrian opposition websites to be supported by the al-Assad regime. Many Syrian Kurds are still fighting for their own autonomous region in northeast Syria and do, in fact, support the PYD. And although it is entirely possible that conflictive politics will be avoided and cooperative politics will prevail, this depends on how the factors above are publicly addressed and the ways by which conflicts are resolved.
Furthermore, international aid has also been a key concern for the KRG. The KRG has petitioned for additional and necessary aid from various sources to provide refugees with vital assistance during the upcoming months as winter approaches and more refugees enter Kurdistan. It has not yet received a sufficient sum, nor comparable to other host governments. Shakir Yasin, the Kurdish official who is in charge of Syrian refugees in the KRG, mentioned his petition to the EU. “Their reply was that the number of refugees should be at least 15,000 to qualify for financial aid. The number reported by the Kurdistan Region has exceeded 27,000 so far, and still nothing has happened.” While it is unclear if other governments are directly funding Kurdistan, the KRG has recently allocated $10 million to support Syrian refugees within its borders. The KRG has not placed any limits on refugee capacity as yet. Therefore, without significant international financial assistance, the strain and limit on the KRG’s resources will be felt by many.
The KRG maintains a volatile relationship with almost all of its neighbors, including Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as Baghdad. The mass influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, combined with the KRG and Baghdad’s different reactions, creates new opportunities for opposition and conflict. Political and regional alliances, as well as demographic shifts are occurring, which will consequently inform and affect how NGOs operate in Iraq.