Crisis in Syria: Interview with Martin Zirn, Swiss expert on mission for the UNHCR

Article, 10.08.2012

Thousands of Syrians fleeing to northern Iraq

Martin Zirn is a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit with many years’ experience including several postings to Iraq as an expert in shelter construction, water and sanitation projects. Since the outbreak of the crisis in neighbouring Syria, tens of thousands of people have fled the country including several thousand to northern Iraq. Zurich-based Martin Zirn has been seconded to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by the Humanitarian Aid of the Swiss Confederation as a senior technical co-ordinator and project head.

We have asked him a few questions about his work and the situation in northern Iraq. A photo documentation of his activities in the camp Domiz is also available: Image gallery.

Martin Zirn, why are you currently in Iraq?

UNHCR made a request to SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) for a Senior Technical Coordinator for its Iraq operation. Currently I am stationed in Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

What are your tasks there?

My main job as Senior Technical Coordinator is to direct the construction of two health centres in Ninewa and Erbil. I work closely with all stakeholders, such as the donor representatives, the respective government authorities, implementing agencies and, of course, with the UNHCR to coordinate the parties involved in the projects, to oversee the work to ensure that requirements and standards are met, and to make sure the projects are completed on time.

I am also involved in the camp planning for people who are fleeing the violence in Syria. I provide technical advice on site planning and support UNHCR and the local authorities in all camp-related matters to cope with the influx of people from Syria.

What does an average day look like for you?

Once a week I visit the UNHCR Dohuk Field Office and Domiz camp, which is a 2.5-hour trip from Erbil and 2.5 hours back. Sometimes I stay overnight in Dohuk to have more time for sector coordination meetings as well as meetings with local authorities and government departments that are also involved in the Syrian response. Sometimes trips to Baghdad and other places are necessary. On other days I am busy in Erbil with meetings with local authorities, other agencies and colleagues from other units.

According to UNHCR figures (as of end July 2012), approximately 8,500 Syrian refugees have fled to Iraq. Can you tell us who these people are and why they are fleeing to Iraq, a country that is considered a fragile state?

Many Syrians, particularly Kurds, are entering the Kurdish region in Iraq, which consists of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah governorates. The Kurdish region is relatively safe and secure compared to the rest of Iraq. Based on information from the regional government, the deteriorating situation in Syria has so far caused some 10,000 people of Kurdish origin to flee the violence in Syria and seek refuge in the Kurdish region, where many also have family ties. The total number of registered Syrian refugees in the Kurdish region reached 9,053 in July.

While most of the Syrians fled in family groups, there are several hundred singles. The majority of those registered by UNHCR were found to be young men who were subjected to compulsory military service. They had served their tour of duty but were not released by the regular army because of the situation in Syria. When given the opportunity to go on a short leave, they fled Syria and crossed into Iraq with only their military identity cards as documentation.

It is important to mention that the violence in Syria has not only forced Syrians to leave their country: Iraqis who had fled to Syria during the armed conflict in Iraq are now fleeing the violence in Syria. Many of them are coming home, despite the persisting insecurity in Iraq. According to UNHCR, over 20,000 Iraqi refugees have returned to Iraq during the past ten days [beginning of August 2012].

Domiz camp in Dohuk governorate is one of the camps that falls under your supervision. What is the situation there?

The newly established Domiz camp now houses almost 2,000 people. The camp is designed to accommodate 5,000 people or approximately 900 families. Jointly with the Dohuk authorities we are currently planning a contingency camp to host an additional 5,000 .

Each family of up to four members lives on an 84-square-metre plot. On each plot you will find a canvas tent of about 3x4m erected on a concrete foundation with low concrete block sidewalls to protect the shelters against wind, rain, snow and temperature fluctuations. Dohuk experiences both very hot summers and harsh winters with snowfalls.

Each plot also has a toilet and shower as well as a cooking area and is hooked up to a proper sewage system and septic tanks. Larger families receive a bigger plot and two tents.

All families receive a 1,000-litre water tank for drinking water. A sustainable, piped water supply for the whole camp that fills the tanks regularly is about to be commissioned. The Dohuk Electricity Department ensures the electricity supply to each plot and almost every shelter is equipped with an air cooler and refrigerator.

Can you describe for us the daily routine for people living in the camp? What do the families do all day?

All Syrians, men and women, can move about freely. A few skilled women are engaged in hairdressing and sweets production. But the majority of the women spend their days cooking and taking care of the children. Those families with relatives in the Domiz host community meet as part of their social activities. The majority of men rove about during the day, looking for job opportunities in Dohuk and surrounding areas. Many of them are involved in businesses with relatives -- with their support they purchase basic products that they sell in the camp.

How do the children experience life in the camp?

The majority of children attend school in the morning. After school some help their fathers in the camp shops, while others enjoy the play ground. Some children do not want to go to school, preferring to work in order to cover their daily living expenses and to contribute to their families’ needs. Most of the kids have a hard time bearing camp life. There have been cases of eye and skin problems caused by the dusty environment, and some youngsters are experiencing psychological difficulties.

Image gallery