Urban life worse than camps for refugee women

Syrian refugee women living in Iraq’s host communities are more vulnerable to exploitation and face more unsanitary living conditions than those in refugee camps, says an international women’s charity

Syrian refugee women living in Iraq’s host communities are more vulnerable to exploitation and face more unsanitary living conditions than those in refugee camps, says an international women’s charity.

Female refugees from Syria’s conflict, who seek a normal life and some autonomy by living outside the camps, live in “grotty and poorly equipped” buildings because they have little money to afford better accommodation, said Mandana Hendessi, regional director for the Middle East and Europe, Women for Women International (WFWI).

“Some women squat, some rent unfinished buildings that are exposed to rain and wind where the kitchen is a building site. They have their own life but their vulnerability increases because the protection [of the refugee camp] is not there,” said Hendessi. “When Syrian women go out to find work, we hear many reports they are told, ‘Either you sleep with me or you don’t get a job’.”

There are more than 240,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, according to the UN’s refugee agency, and some 60 per cent live in urban areas. The vast majority of the refugees – 84 per cent – are based in Erbil and Dohuk, cities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

The UK-based charity’s findings come from a project working with Syrian refugee women in Iraq, where the NGO discovered high levels of depression from prolonged stays in refugee camps. This “loss of motivation and enthusiasm” drives many to leave the relative safety, shelter and services of the camp and live in towns and cities, according to Hendessi.

“Life is very monotonous in the camp. You live in a tent and the tent is your territory,” she said, adding many women feel they are seen as numbers by overstretched aid workers. “I met one refugee, a civilian engineer, who said she was so incensed that she was reduced to a number and it was if she had no feelings, history or personality. She felt humiliated and degraded.”

WFWI ran a 5-month pilot project, beginning in November 2014, with 400 Syrian women in Kawergosk refugee camp in Kurdistan, providing trauma counselling and a business skills course for 20 women.

From the start of next year, the charity is rolling out a new three-year programme to help around 600 women – including Syrian refugees, displaced Iraqis and Yazidis – living outside camps in Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. The programme will provide specialist trauma counselling, basic business skills, gender-based violence protection training and a job placement scheme. The charity estimates the programme will cost a minimum of $260,000 per year, for which WFWI has already raised $1.2m through an art auction in the UK.

The NGO also plans to help around 100 women with $500 grants to start their own enterprise, and maybe more, depending on any new funding WFWI can attract. The programme will assess which vocational skills are most lacking and try to avoid traditional sewing and hairdressing courses that many NGOs already offer, said Hendessi.