The Displaced People’s Shelter In Syria That’s Become A Prison For Thousands Of Iraqis

Around six weeks ago, Iraqi man, Abu Nour, and his wife and two children, aged 5 and 7, arrived in what he now describes as hell. Abu Nour was a teacher in Mosul but had been hampered in his work by both the extremist group known as the Islamic State, that now controls the city, and the fact that the Iraqi government stopped sending salaries to employees of the state there – this includes teachers. 

The 33-year-old also feared that the Islamic State, or IS, group might try and use Mosul civilians, like his family, as human shields once the battle for the city begins. Fleeing from Mosul, this is how he and his family ended up in the Al Hawl camp, located in the district of Al Hawl, 30 kilometres inside the Syrian border. But instead of finding refuge here, Abu Nour says it is more like being in prison. 

This is because once the Iraqis make it to this camp on the Syrian side of the border, they need to get permission to leave the camp and enter Iraq again – and specifically Iraqi Kurdistan. And this permission is often not forthcoming, or else the displaced Iraqis have to wait a long time to receive it.  
“The only available option for escape for the people of Mosul is to enter Syria,” Abu Nour explains; the risky journey took about 12 hours and cost them US$3,000. People smugglers helped them leave the city. “Eventually we got out of the car. The smuggler pointed north and said: Go in this direction and you will arrive at a Syrian area that is under the control of the Popular Protection Units [or YPG]. They will take you to Al Hawl.” 

The family continued on foot through flat, lifeless desert for almost 20 kilometres, carrying the children when they couldn’t walk. Abu Nour’s wife dragged suitcases. “After walking we were exhausted. But we reached a checkpoint manned by YPG fighters. They were trying to shelter from the sun under a flag and they had been watching our approach with binoculars.” 

There were six other Iraqi families there at the checkpoint and a woman in one of them told Abu Nour they all had to wait at the checkpoint for several days longer. The family slept in a ditch for three days and ate food given to them by the fighters. Eventually the fighters took the Iraqis’ ID cards and the 50 people waiting there were taken to the Al Hawl camp by car. 

The camp was built by the United Nations during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, and used again in 2003 but has been mostly deserted since 2007. Today the YPG run the camp; the YPG are a Syrian Kurdish militia affiliated with the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which is in turn affiliated with the Turkish-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. 

The Syrian Kurdish have controlled much of the Kurdish-populated area here, since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The camp is about a kilometre square and is surrounded by barbed wire fencing. The barbed wire has only been there since Iraqis started arriving in April this year. Originally the camp was supposed to serve as a sort of way station for the displaced Iraqis, who might quickly move onto Turkey or back into comparatively safe Iraqi Kurdistan. 

But now, many inside Al Hawl feel as though it’s becoming more of a prison camp than a refugee camp. It is much easier to get in than out – and leaving seems to be getting harder and harder. Bashar al-Jumaili left Salahaddin province and arrived at Al Hawl in mid-April this year. He found only a few falling down buildings so he left for Turkey within a matter of days. “Nobody tried to stop me,” he told NIQASH. “But after another three weeks my family arrived at Al Hawl. They were not allowed to leave for a full month,” al-Jumaili says. 

“They were only allowed to go when I got an approval from the secret service in Dohuk [in Iraqi Kurdistan] and then they could go to Erbil [also over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan].” There are now over 6,500 people in the Al Hawl camp, Ahmad Jadan, a Syrian who visits the camp on behalf of the charity, Mercy Corps, told NIQASH. And that number will only increase as the camp is recieving more people every week, as a result of military operations in Anbar. 

Conditions are far from pleasant. The militias supervising the camp don’t have enough food and water to share and there is limited aid from humanitarian organizations. The Iraqi government has not been helpful either. “Families are eating just one meal a day and drinking unfiltered water,” Jadan confirms. “It’s a catastrophe.” “Every two days we wait for the tankers to bring us well water,” says Abu Nour. 

"There’s always a huge queue in the sun. When we need food, I write a shopping list and give it to someone who can leave the camp and go to the nearest town to buy food for us. But that’s not always easy either. It’s so hot at the moment, my children are drinking hot water and we eat cold food because we have no way of cooking.” Humanitarian organizations that do enter the camp – for example, a doctor from the Red Crescent organization visits twice a week – worry about the health of the inhabitants, as a result of malnutrition and lack of regular health care. 

Anyone needing to go to hospital has to wait to get permission to leave the camp and then they may go to Hasaka, but only for 48 hours. To leave the camp, those inside must get special permission and this is done after they submit their identification and other documents to the Iraqi Kurdish authorities over the border. Only then may they leave the camp and enter into Iraqi Kurdistan via the Rabia border crossing. 

But usually the displaced people have to wait a long time for that permission, if indeed, it ever arrives. Often the displaced inside the camp have to bribe guards to be able to leave. “Even with money it’s hard to say whether they will be allowed out,” Abu Nour says. “There are currently 60 families stuck at the border crossing because the guards in Dohuk took money and made fake permissions. 

The fact that they were faked was discovered and the families are now all stuck in Rabia, because the YPG are not allowing them to return to the camp and the Iraqi Kurdish won’t let them into Iraq,” he says. The only way out of this area is via the Dohuk security checkpoint, which, in turn, controls the Rabia border crossing between Iraq and Syria. Every tent holds a tragic story here in Al Hawl. And as the numbers increase in the camp, so too does the volume of complaints. 

Human rights activists have been appealing for government intervention and on June 27, Iraqi MP, Abdul Rahim al-Shammari, former head of the provincial security committee based in Mosul, paid a visit. He bought with him 300 more tents and some food. After his visit, al-Shammari made an appearance in a video in which he appealed passionately to the Iraqi government to intervene and put pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to allow the displaced in Al Hawl camp to enter that region. 

And if not that, then at least to build another camp for them in Iraq. Abu Nour isn’t sure that al-Shammari’s visit did any good. His family has been here for 40 days now and he knows other families who’ve been waiting for permission to leave for three months. “I’ve called all the people I know to try and help me but nothing has helped. Somebody needs to put an end to this suffering,” the school teacher says, exhausted. 

“If they won’t let us enter Kurdistan or any of the areas of Ninawa that have been cleared of the IS group, and if the YPG forces insist on treating us like animals, then at least let us go back to Mosul.”

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