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Far From Home: Future Prospects for Syrian Refugees in Iraq

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Whilst the regional refugee response to the Syrian crisis has largely focused on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, less is known about the situation of Syrian refugees in Iraq. Iraq hosts approximately 250,184 of the 5.6 million (4.4%) registered Syrian refugees in the Middle East region. The majority of them are of Kurdish ethnicity and arrived in Iraq following conflict in 2012 and 2013. Approximately 98.8% of the Syrian refugees in Iraq are registered in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) in Erbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah governorates. The remaining minority of Syrian refugees are registered in central and west Iraq. With conditions in Syria not being conducive for voluntary return in safety and dignity, there is a need to better understand the potential of Syrian refugees finding a durable solution in Iraq. Therefore, this study looks specifically at the potential for local integration in Iraq by assessing:

  • Syrian refugees’ progress towards local integration according to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) criteria on durable solutions, through comparisons with Iraqi residents.

  • The enabling and limiting factors impacting Syrian refugees’ ability to locally integrate.

  • Syrian refugees’ decision-making and long term preferred durable solution.

Data collection was conducted in August 2018. The study focused on households living with the host community in urban areas only, with a geographical focus on Erbil city and Dahuk city in KRI, and Qaim city in the Anbar governorate of Iraq. Syrian refugees and Iraqi residents (not Iraqi IDPs) were covered. Data collection activities included (i) 413 household surveys using random sampling, (ii) 11 focus group discussions (FGDs), (iii) 3 life stories and (iv) 19 key informant interviews. In Anbar, 19 key informant interviews were conducted remotely due to restricted security access.


Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has shown hospitality and positive efforts in accommodating the influx of Syrian refugees despite Iraq’s domestic challenges and difficult circumstances. However, findings illustrate gaps in basic needs and protection for both Syrian refugees and the host community. Community tension could worsen if gaps, including perceived gaps, in access are not adequately addressed.

Of the eight assessed IASC criteria on durable solutions and access to humanitarian assistance, the household survey found that the lowest proportion of Syrian and Iraqi households reported access to public participation (17%) and access to justice (51%), followed by access to employment opportunities (69%). The study found a statistically significant difference where a lower proportion of Syrian households reported access to income-generating opportunities and documentation compared to Iraqi residents. On the other hand, a higher proportion of Iraqi resident households reported being a victim of safety/security incidents and a lower proportion of Iraqi households reported having access to sufficient drinking water compared to Syrian refugees. Across both population groups, only around one third of the assessed households perceived equal access to income-generating opportunities (34%) and humanitarian assistance (32%).

  • Safety, security and freedom of movement: Although a majority of assessed Syrian refugees (93%) and Iraqi residents (94%) reported feeling safe walking around their neighbourhood, a higher proportion of Iraqi resident (21%) than refugee households (8%) reported having been a victim of a safety or security incident in the three months prior to data collection. In FGDs, Iraqi participants perceived that the arrival of Syrians had negatively affected the level of safety in the neighbourhood. Syrian refugees raised concerns about challenges associated with requirements for security approval from Iraqi authorities, such as when renting accommodation and accessing certain jobs.

  • Adequate standard of living, including access to goods and services: Lower proportion of Iraqi residents (65%) than Syrian refugee households (77%) reported having regular access to drinking water, with a statistically significant difference between the two population groups. There were no statistically significant differences between Syrian refugees and Iraqi residents regarding their access to basic food, housing, education and healthcare. According to FGDs, a few Syrians reported Iraqis not renting property to Syrians or charging Syrians a higher rent, though these issues have reportedly improved over time due to increased general trust. Iraqi residents reported overcrowding and pressure on basic services due to the influx of Syrian refugees (and Iraqi IDPs) into the community.

  • Access to income-generating opportunities: Across all assessed IASC indicators, access to income-generating opportunities has the highest gap between population groups. Less refugee households (59%) reported access compared to resident households (78%), though percentages are low for both groups. Surveys also found that less refugee households in Erbil city (45%) than Dahuk city (73%) reported having access. In FGDs, Syrian refugees reported being limited to working in low-skilled sectors; and having to accept lower wages and longer work hours. Some reported facing harassment at the workplace. Iraqi residents reported challenges in job competition due to the influx of Syrian refugees (and Iraqi IDPs).

  • Access to mechanisms to restore Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights: A considerable proportion of assessed Syrian refugee households in Erbil city (53%) and Dahuk city (26%) reported losing their property in Syria due to damage as a result of the conflict and/or displacement. This suggests refugees might be unable to return unless a mechanism to restoring HLP is in place.

  • Access to and replacement of personal and other documentation: A majority of Syrian and Iraqi households reported having access to documents (e.g. birth certificates, marriage certificates and family booklet), with the exception that only 30% of assessed Syrian refugee households had passports. A few Syrian refugees reported that obtaining KRI residence permits was a lengthy bureaucratic process, where they waited in long queues and faced delays if they did not have the required supporting documents.

  • Voluntary reunification with family members: 45% of the assessed Syrian refugee households reported that they were separated from family members during displacement; with more households in Dahuk city (57%) than Erbil city (34%) reporting family separation. Of the respondents that reported family separation, 67% (62) of households had members staying behind in Syria compared households reporting members being displaced elsewhere.

  • Participation in public affairs: Regarding respondents’ awareness of decision-making bodies, Iraqi residents mentioned the Kurdish parliament, ministries, and political parties. Syrian refugees mentioned the Asayish, the Ministry of Interior and UNHCR. The household survey found that 23% of refugee households and 6% of resident households reported “sometimes” or “regularly” participating in decision-making bodies; though these percentages are not directly comparable as refugees are unable to participate in formal political institutions.

  • Access to justice: Only 21% of assessed resident households and 16% of refugee households were aware of legal and justice bodies in Iraq. Bodies cited by residents and refugees included the police, the court (e.g. supreme court, criminal court), Ministry of Justice, Asayish, and the Real Property Dispute Resolution Authority.

  • Access to humanitarian assistance: 11% of assessed refugee households and 17% of resident households reported having access to humanitarian assistance. Regarding perceptions, only 14% of refugee households and 49% of resident households perceived their households to have equal access to humanitarian assistance compared to others in their community.


The study found that the shared Kurdish identity facilitated local integration to a certain extent. Although Syrians had to culturally adapt such as learning the local Kurdish dialect spoken in KRI; some reported being treated as “guests” or “their people” rather than as “refugees”. As some Iraqi Kurds were displaced in the 1990s, FGD participants mentioned that being displaced or in exile was a ‘shared Kurdish experience’ that led the host community to welcome Syrian refugees. However, despite a shared Kurdish identity, some Syrian refugees reported feeling alienated or faced mistrust by the host community.

In FGDs, Syrian refugees also reported that the influx of Iraqi IDPs led to additional integration challenges. FGD participants reported an increase in rent, lowered wages, increased job competition, and the diversion of humanitarian assistance from refugees to IDPs. In comparison, Iraqi residents reported that it was easier for Syrian refugees to integrate compared to Iraqi IDPs. Iraqi FGD participants perceived Syrians to be hardworking, more willing to accept low wages and adaptable to working in different sectors.

Overall, Syrian refugees reported integration challenges to have shifted from socio-cultural barriers to economic barriers over the years. Given KRI’s economic decline - due to the arrival of IDPs causing additional resource constraints, halt of transfers from the central budget, drop of oil prices, among other factors - access to jobs became an increasing challenge and source of community tension. This illustrates how progress towards local integration is not a linear path, but rather a dynamic process where the location integration is vulnerable to external shocks faced by the host community.

Although a considerable proportion of Syrian refugees wished to integrate locally as their long-term durable solution as elaborated in the section below, all Syrian refugees (except one) in FGDs did not expect Iraqi nationality. As there is currently no legal pathway offered to Syrian refugees to obtain Iraqi citizenship; legal restrictions remain a significant barrier to full integration. Syrian refugees reported experiencing fewer rights compared to Iraqis, such as in freedom of movement from the KRI to the rest of Iraq, and facing restrictions in their ability to start businesses or own property.


In the short term, next three months, 78% of Syrian refugees intend to remain in their current location and only 1% wished to return to Syria. The remaining percentages include 2% of households that intend to move to another location and 19% that reported not knowing where they want to be. In FGDs, Syrian refugees reported that the minimum conditions for return were not met due to the lack of safety, basic services and economic opportunities in Syria, in addition to forced conscription for men upon return.

Regarding preferred durable solutions, 37% of assessed Syrian refugee households wished to integrate locally and become part of the community in the long term. 33% of households wanted to resettle to a third country and 25% of households wanted to return to Syria. The remaining 5% reported not knowing their preferred durable solution. However, despite progress made by Syrian refugees in the socio-cultural and economic dimensions of integration, the absence of citizenship (which can only be granted by the Government of Iraq) remains a significant barrier in achieving full integration. For refugees, it is paramount that there is political will to provide an adequate legal framework for integration or at least long-term protection of refugees.

63% of the assessed Syrian refugee households reported “feeling hopeless” or “frequently negative” about the situation and the future. 34% of assessed refugee households in Dahuk city (compared to 5% in Erbil city) reported not knowing where they would like to be in the next three months from the time of data collection. Households lacked future prospects and the ability to make long-term plans. Decisions depended on changes in the safety/security situation, economic opportunities and the availability of basic services in Iraq and Syria. Findings also suggest that return or onward migration are likely to increase if the situation in Iraq worsens.


At least 300 Syrian refugee families were estimated to be living in host communities in Anbar, of whom majority of the Syrians are Arab Sunni Muslims from Deir ez-Zor governorate. They had left camps during ISIL’s occupation and moved to the towns near Qaim, Obaide, Rawa and Ana, where they currently remain. Syrian refugees and Iraqis in Anbar share socio-cultural similarities, including kinship and tribal relations, however Syrian refugees faced multiple challenges and vulnerabilities that impacted that progress towards integration. Qaim city is a conservative community with ISIL presence still looming. Therefore, Syrian refugees faced limited trust from the host community given residents’ suspicions of Syrian refugees being affiliated with ISIL. For this reason, KIIs found trust to be an important factor in facilitating integration and having Iraqi reliable relatives in Anbar was reportedly crucial for Syrians to find jobs. Other challenges in accessing secure employment opportunities included requiring stamped Syrian passports, security clearance procedures and exploitation at the work place. Syrian refugees also reported having to take up high-risk and socially degrading jobs, and at times go into debt, in order to meet basic needs. In addition to facing challenges in accessing secure economic opportunities, refugees were also subject to security restrictions and were not able to move freely to other cities in Iraq to e.g. seek better access to economic opportunities and/or basic services. Additional challenges were faced by Syrian refugees living in houses owned but vacated by Iraqi IDPs as they had to find alternative housing arrangements as soon as Iraqi IDPs returned. This means that these people would have to start all over again in a new community. Finally, the lack of prospect in getting citizenship and Iraqi nationality was also reported as a barrier for local integration in the long term.

Overall, this study demonstrated the progress made so far - and the potential for - Syrian refugees’ local integration in Iraq. In particular, the shared Kurdish identity (in KRI) and tribal links (in Anbar) between Syrian refugees and Iraqi residents facilitated the socio-cultural dimensions of integration. The study also found evidence of successful economic integration; though the host community’s capacity remained fragile when faced with domestic challenges and tensions are likely to escalate if economic conditions deteriorate. Given a considerable proportion of assessed Syrian refugees wished to locally integrate in Iraq; more attention and critical engagement is needed by governments and the international community to uphold the rights and long-term protection of Syrians while supporting Iraq in its current and future challenges. This includes developing legal and policy frameworks that incorporate Syrian refugees in Iraq’s national agenda and programmes; as well as implementing macro-economic policies targeted at benefiting both the displaced and host community to further increase Iraq’s capacity to accommodate Syrian refugees in the long term.