Kurdish leaders today announced the liberation of Sinjar, Iraq, from the grip of the Islamic State. With coalition air support and U.S. military advisers on the ground, 7,500 Kurdish peshmerga fighters and armed Yazidis launched the counteroffensive yesterday, claiming Road 47, a key artery linking Mosul to the ISIS “capital,” Raqqa. It was a crucial victory, cutting the continuity of the caliphate and opening it up to future offensives.
Within hours, the Kurdish forces took three more villages, three hills to the northwest and a checkpoint, freeing up 80 percent of Sinjar, which was under siege. “Sinjar was liberated by the blood of the peshmerga and became part of Kurdistan,” Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said in a news conference.
But even victories come at a price in the battle against ISIS. The immediate counter-offensive will increase the number of Yazidi refugees who have already been crowding Iraqi Kurdistan for over a year: Before, they fled from ISIS, now from bombs. Humanitarian organizations expect another stream that will increase existing tensions.
“They should be welcomed, we cannot let them die,” said Akhbar, a Kurd here in Erbil who has a degree in economics but is unemployed. “But this huge influx of Arabs leads to poverty.” Akhbar moved from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil hoping for a job, but with ISIS snapping at the gates and 2 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees already here, there was no job to be found. “Until 2013, we lived in a golden age: Foreign companies were investing large sums of money in Kurdistan. Then came Daesh and business plummeted. And Baghdad has cut funding.”
Between the atavistic friction with the central government in Baghdad, the Islamist incursion and the arrival of millions of refugees, it was a recipe for crisis.
So, after economic peaks of 8 percent per annum growth from 2003-2013, today Erbil’s economy is growing at 1 percent. It built refugee camps, spending money to accept them, as tourists and investors ran away. Existing Erbil residents complain they’ve lost their jobs. “The Arabs, Syrians and Iraqis from Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul work at half price,” explains Mahmoun from behind the reception desk at his hotel. They’ll work for “$300 per month, when the average salary is $600. They’re waiters, construction workers, hotel workers, cleaners.”
“They find themselves in a place we call ‘work stations,’” says Zardesh Abdulrahman, a social worker at the Qushtapa refugee camp, who is himself a refugee. At the work station, black market fixers give them odd jobs. “Some days they get work, sometimes they go home empty-handed.” That’s the case for Mohammad, a Syrian father. In his tent, he told me about the difficulties of finding a stable job. He relies on temporary gigs and help from family members who are working in Erbil.
But not everything is as hopeless as it seems. If Erbil can ameliorate the crisis by selling crude oil without going through Baghdad, refugees will benefit: Bakeries will sell Arabic bread and increase production, shops selling fans and stoves will do more business and the loss of tourism would be replaced by wealthy families who rent apartments and spend in the local economy.
For now, the 2 million people, about 25 percent of the population, is more than UNHCR can handle, and there is no more room in the camps. This has resulted in an underground industry made up of private companies (Turkish and local) to which the Kurdish government commissions construction of new camps, new neighborhoods populated by refugee families who can afford the rent and hotel rooms rented to refugees. That boom has pushed rental prices up 20 percent, although the living conditions aren’t great.
“In these residential complexes for refugees, closed off by nets and gates, the houses are all equally dilapidated,” said Chiara Moroni, of Un Ponte Per, an Italian NGO. “And in the camps, the types of facilities vary depending on the builder, and families are distributed according to the needs of the providers. Many were sent to places far from where they wanted to live. We’re seeing a second displacement, resulting in an even greater sense of loss for the refugees.”
Because of this, Un Ponte Per initiated a campaign designed to increase communication between refugee service providers and the refugees — mediation in which the refugees are active actors, informed and consulted about how to organize the camps. They’re provided with information about their status, access to services and ways to tackle everyday issues, like access to health care and how to prevent fires, which aren’t uncommon in the tents in a refugee camp.