As the conflict in Syria escalates, an increasing number of Syrians have crossed the Iraqi border. In April 2012, approximately a hundred people came through each day, but that number has escalated closer to seven hundred today. Domiz Refugee Camp, the largest in Iraq, continues to grapple with providing shelter and sustenance for forty to seventy thousand inhabitants, depending on various estimates.
While the humanitarian issues loom large, the concentration of people and the lack of services within the crammed tent city provides great potential for the entrepreneurially minded. Some residents have begun businesses offering goods and services in order to be economically self-reliant.
With UNCHR and other IGOs overwhelmed by logistical challenges, many of the camp inhabitants’ economic wants have gone unfulfilled. In true enterprising spirit, occupants have capitalized on these needs. One such entrepreneur sits underneath an umbrella near the main gate of the camp. The old man waits for newcomers to leave the UNHCR offices so that he can provide laminating services. He charges one thousand Iraqi Dinars (roughly .86 cents) to protect newly printed asylum-seeker documents.
As one continues down the main road bisecting the camp, merchants sell everything from cigarettes to stuffed animals. A group of men huddle around one stall to find the appropriate adapter for their new satellite dish to be installed outside of their tent. The city of Duhok is a mere twenty-minute ride from the camp, so some hawkers will even take orders for specific products.
On the left side of the road, Kurdistan Café sells falafel and shawarma in true Syrian style, grilling the sandwich with chicken fat. The restaurant has been such a success that the owner has expanded the adjacent building into a bakery. He saved enough from the profits to move his family out of the camp and into an apartment in Duhok.
With such success stories, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and IGO’s lack of support and advising for business initiatives seems surprising. Why would they not want more of the camp’s inhabitants to be financially independent? Such incentives could ease pressures faced at Domiz, and an advisory council could help match jobs with available labor throughout the region.
Micro enterprise boards can provide beneficiaries short-term loans for small business initiatives. Micro financing has been successful in refugee camps from Guinea to Colombia. Income generating services not only provide refugees with capital, but can also have a positive social impact within the camp.
The short answer for why this is not happening is the issue of permanence. Intraregional refugees have historically created problems for the host countries; such as the instability brought on by Palestinians living in Lebanon. Some fear Syrian Kurds could instigate similar conflict in Iraq spilling the Syrian crisis across the border as has already happened in Lebanon and Jordan.
Still, the Kurdish Regional Government presents itself as the protector of all Kurds so it cannot be seen turning away Syrian Kurds at the border. Furthermore, the Iraqi Kurdish Region faces population issues and an influx of Syrian Kurds would provide a population increase and strengthen the Kurdish Democratic Party’s political base.
The KRG has made it easier for refugees to move around the region through the issuing of residency cards. Many refugees are reluctant to search for jobs or undergo business ventures because they hope to return to Syria. With this mentality, the refugees will cause more of a drain on the national and international development programs. Instead, active encouragement from the government can find employment for the refugees and tap into this skilled labor force.
Organizations involved in micro finance or consulting need to reach out to residents within Domiz. A local musician plays the stringed rebab as the dusk approaches the camp. He carried his instruments from Syria and wants to find a performance space nearby. Although the people here have been bruised and scarred, the hopeful signs of business within the camp prove that their enterprising spirit burns on.