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Syrian Refugees In Iraq Face New Uncertainties

Syrian refugees cross the border into Iraq's Kurdistan region last year.
Syrian refugees cross the border into Iraq's Kurdistan region last year.
Life wasn't perfect in a refugee camp, but things were looking up for Medya Hussain and her family.

Hussain, 35, recently got a job at a hairdressing salon not far from the Dara Shakran camp on the outskirts of Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish Autonomous Region, where she lives along with her husband and their three children.

The income -- supplemented by food, clothes, and other assistance from the Kurdish authorities -- afforded the family a relatively comfortable life, and they were considering moving out of their tent and renting a house in Irbil.

It was a far cry from their situation last year, after the family fled their hometown of Raqqa, Syria, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) seized the northern city.

But now, the same Sunni extremist group that drove Hussain and thousands of other Syrians from their homes is advancing in Iraq.

Having taken control of several Iraqi towns, including the country's second largest city, Mosul, ISIL is moving southward, toward the capital, Baghdad.

This has led hundreds of thousands Iraqis to flee the fighting. Some, have headed north, bringing competition and new uncertainties to the some 220,000 Syrian refugees, most of them Kurds, living in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

Kurdish authorities have introduced more relaxed rules for Syrian refugees to get work and residency permits.

Dindar Zebari, deputy head of the Kurdish region's Department of Foreign Relations, says the vast majority of the refugees have become self-reliant, found jobs, and moved out of refugee camps.

Some 80,000 Syrian refugees remain in nine camps across the region, and mostly rely on food aid and other assistance by the Kurdish authorities.

INTERACTIVE MAP: The World's Displaced People

However, the situation is changing as the region now finds itself dealing with a flood of Iraqis fleeing ISIL fighting.

More than 300,000 people entered Kurdish territory after the fall of Mosul and several smaller towns and villages.

"The situation is very tough," Zebari says. "Internally displaced people keep coming. Some 12,000 people just arrived from Anbar Province."

New tents are being erected for the newcomers, who are also in urgent need of food, clothes, and medical supplies.

Many left their homes in a hurry with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The influx is putting a financial strain on the Kurdish regional government.

"We got very little financial support from the government in Baghdad for the Syrian refugees," Zebari says. "And again Baghdad is providing very little to assist the Iraqi refugees."

Returning Home Not An Option

For Hussain, the situation reminds her of her own situation in August 2013, when her family and 50,000 other Syrians entered Kurdistan in the course of two weeks to flee fighting at home.

Ali Hassan and his wife, both in their 20s, were also among that group.

Hassan left the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin when it came under attack by ISIL.

Hassan and his wife have since managed to settle down in Irbil. Both work in a coffee shop, and live in a rented house.

"We live a relatively comfortable life here, we have everything we need," Hassan says. "I no longer receive aid because I don't need it. I have a job."

Hassan, who has witnessed ISIL brutalities in his homeland, is worried about the militant group taking over Iraqi cities.

He doesn't want to have to leave Iraq's Kurdish region, and become a refugee all over again. Returning to Syria is not an option.

"The situation is very bad in Syria," he says. "There is no security, no electricity, no water, and not even bread. Even if you have money you can't get anything there."

Hassan fears that ISIL won't go away anytime soon. "It will affect the whole region."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah with contributions by Simira Ali Mandi and additional reporting by Abdul Hamid Zebari in Irbil
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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