Chapter 3 – The humanitarian contexts in Syria and Iraq

" Refugees come from different backgrounds. One must study the community to understand their needs."
Christian male, local NGO worker,
Erbil, Kurdistan region, September 2016.

" One day our landlord attacked me, he was carrying a gun, and we had to run for our lives. We couldn't tell anyone for fear of the consequences."
Young female Syrian refugee,
Beirut, Lebanon, February 2016.

More than six years in, the conflict in Syria has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and continues to take a heavy toll on the Syrian population. As of September 2016, some 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection inside Syria, where more than 6.1 million people are internally displaced.102 In the first six months of 2016, 900,000 people were displaced – an average of 5,000 per day.103 As of August 2016, more than 10 million Iraqis required some form of humanitarian assistance, including 3.4 million internally displaced people, many of whom had been displaced two or three times. Between January and August 2016, more than 280,000 Iraqi people were displaced.104 Neighbouring countries are hosting more than 4.7 million registered Syrian refugees105 and over 238,000 Iraqi refugees.106

The region-wide response to this humanitarian crisis is directed by the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), which brings together the governments of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, UN agencies, inter-governmental organisations, and local and international NGOs. The 2016–2017 3RP relies on more than 200 partners to deliver its regional sector strategies to support resilience (protection, food security, education, health and nutrition, basic needs, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), livelihood and social cohesion).107 In Iraq, the 3RP is complemented by a 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan targeting populations in critical need throughout the country, with five strategic objectives (reach as many people in need as possible; give options to families to live in Iraq with dignity; support voluntary, safe and dignified returns; bridge critical social protection gaps; and help people brutalised by violence to cope and recover from trauma).108

This section investigates the humanitarian needs of conflict-affected Syrian and Iraq populations and on-the-ground responses by humanitarian actors. The focus of interest is on how similar or differentiated these needs are among different population groups and how well the humanitarian response system is geared towards those different needs.

Humanitarian needs in Syria

The effects of the prolonged war on the Syrian population have been overwhelming. According to the UN, more than two-thirds of the Syrian population has no consistent access to safe water, more than half of public healthcare facilities are either closed or only partially functioning, and more than 11 million people require health assistance as a result of the armed conflict. Moreover, 6.7 million people are unable to obtain the basic foods required to meet their needs, 2.4 million Syrians lack access to adequate shelter and four out of five people in Syria live in poverty.109

According to an NCA survey conducted inside Syria, location within the country is a significant factor in people’s access to services. However, health assistance, food and housing are the three most important needs throughout the entire country, reflecting priority needs identified by the UN (see Figure 1, Syria 2016) for a geographic breakdown110). Food items remain the most critical need across the country, and was identified by 80.4% of respondents as their most urgent need. Responses to this question reflected no statistically significant difference based on religious affiliation.

The fact that the most urgent, life-threatening needs do not vary between religious majority and minority groups is backed up by discussions with Syrians111 as well as an analysis of self-reported data collected by a Syrian faith-based organisation as part of its needs assessment and registration process. In Damascus, the top three most urgent needs (‘serious problem’) are the same for both Christian Syrians and other Syrians, ranked in the same order: 1. ‘income or livelihood’; 2. ‘keep clean’; 3. ‘food’. The similarities in priorities between these religious groups continue for the most of the 26-item scale. ‘Place to live in’ stands out, however, as a difference between the two groups, as it is nine positions lower for Christian Syrians than for others. There are also smaller differences on ‘protection from violence for women in your community’ and ‘alcohol or drug abuse in your community’, both of which rank four places higher in terms of importance for Christians than others.112

A comprehensive assessment of the current impact of GBV throughout Syria, coordinated by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Global Protection Cluster in 2016, found that domestic violence, child marriage, sexual harassment and sexual violence are threats that affect women and girls across Syria. The existence of polygamy, temporary marriages and the vulnerability of female-headed households (divorcees, widows and households with a temporary male absence due to conscription, detention or emigration) also came out in the assessment. Household-level intra-family violence identified by the assessment is creating a vicious circle of violence in the community (men towards women, mothers towards children, children towards each other, etc.).

Changing employment roles were another pattern identified by the UNFPA, with the conflict empowering women to enter paid employment. Women and girls have faced additional movement restrictions linked to several factors – insecurity, rules imposed by extremist groups, lack of documentation, cultural norms, fear of outsiders and self-imposed restrictions because of fear of violence. The same assessment found that women are more likely to report difficulties in accessing aid, particularly widows, female divorcees and wives of detainees.113 In spite of evidence suggesting differences along religious lines,114 the assessment lacks the granularity to highlight key findings on how women, men, girls and boys with different ethnic and religious background are facing these vulnerabilities.

Humanitarian needs in Iraq

From January 2014 to August 2016, more than 3.3 million Iraqis were displaced – with the Kurdistan region hosting almost 1 million of these people. According to estimates by the KRG, the population of the region increased by 28% due to the influx of IDPs.115 Dahuk governorate in the Kurdistan region hosts almost 400,000 IDPs, of whom 99% are from Nineveh governorate. The spread of IS across northern Iraq can clearly be seen in the timing of displacement, with the majority of IDPs (82%) displaced in August 2014. In terms of shelter arrangements, 38% of the IDP population is housed in camps, 22% in critical shelter arrangements and 41% in private settings.116 Some 62,300 people were displaced in surrounding areas between March and October 2016, and the military offensive to retake Mosul threatens to produce one of the largest human-made displacement crises of recent times.117 According to a UN prognosis, and depending on how the Mosul crisis evolves, as many as 12–13 million people in Iraq may require some form of humanitarian assistance by the end of 2016.118

NCA’s survey in Dohuk governorate in March–May 2016, among a group predominantly comprising Christians (51%) and Yezidi (37%),119 shows a uniformly critical view of their current living conditions – with 71% describing them as ‘poor’ and 24% as ‘fair’. Respondents living in camps were significantly more likely to describe this situation negatively than those living outside camps. This effect is not due just to the camps themselves, but stems primarily from the fact that camp residents have both lower income and employment levels, affecting respondents’ current living situations. Only 19% of camp residents were employed, compared to 25% of non-camp residents.120

More than half of respondents (54%) judged their current living situation to be worse than their living conditions six months previously (33% said they were a lot worse) and only 9% noted any improvement in the previous six months.121 People’s location within northern Iraq is a significant factor when it comes to accessing services (see Figure 2, Iraq 2016). For example, in the camps (Karbato 1&2 and Bakhetma) secondary healthcare was by far the most urgent need, whereas in non-camp areas respondents stated that primary healthcare, housing and food items were more urgent.

Representatives from minority groups in Iraq confirmed that the main, basic needs are the same among groups, although there are some differences in the degree of vulnerability between minority groups. For example, Christian community leaders stated that Yezidis are in greater need than Christians, and also more neglected.122 Current expectations among members of religious minorities are linked to their standards of community and family life before the crisis. There is also a correlation between the satisfaction of needs and the existence of community structures and self-organisation, an area in which Christians have a higher mobilisation capacity and other groups are significantly weaker.123 In the words of a Yezidi representative: “We do not have official institutions nor representatives in international fora as Christians do. Christians have churches and networks, Shias get support from their communities in Iran. We just wait for help from international organisations. And when all of this help comes, Yezidis are getting only ‘the ear of the camel’.”124

As in Syria, evidence from the Kurdistan region confirms the intuitive assumption that people’s basic needs in a humanitarian crisis are the same, irrespective of ethno-religious background. However, people’s religious background, conflict experience and pre-2014 discrimination generate a distinctive set of needs that require a different type of approach. For religious minorities in Iraq, this is especially evident in terms of educational needs and experiences of CRSV.

In Iraq, it is widely recognised that education provision is inadequate. Equipment and school buildings have been largely destroyed and the education on offer has not been adapted to meet the needs of children traumatised by violence or who have missed extended periods of schooling.125 Children who have been displaced to the Kurdistan region are facing particular difficulties. The educational environment differs from what they are used to and lessons are conducted in Kurdish rather than Arabic. Language barriers126 and high school official examination validation procedures are also preventing students who have been displaced to the north from attending university. It has been reported that Christians and Yezidis are among those struggling to adapt to the education system in the Kurdistan region.127 On top of that, minority groups speak of how non-Muslim Iraqis are being described in teaching materials in discriminatory and derogatory ways, and of education being politicised.

The level of protection and services in Iraq directed at women exposed to violence during conflict remains poor.128 IS’s sexual violence, including rape committed against Yezidi women and girls, has been widely reported. To a lesser extent, IS sexual violence against Christian, Turkmen Shia and Arab Sunni and Shia women and girls has also been documented. During captivity by IS, the mental and psychological health of victims deteriorates as they are kept in inhumane conditions with no concern for their basic needs. A reintegration process that considers the cultural and religious tradition of the Yezidis has proven effective in bringing some of these women and girls back into society (see text box on page 25). Other groups and religious minorities, like Turkmen, are showing interest in learning from that process.129

This Yezidi woman is participating in a program in the Lalish temple among other women who have survived and managed to flee from IS enslavement. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
This Yezidi woman is participating in a program in the Lalish temple among other women who have survived and managed to flee from IS enslavement. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

Best practice: Reintegrating enslaved Yezidi women into society

NCA’s partner organisation Yazda, in cooperation with the Yezidi religious leadership in Lalish (a Yezidi holy place outside Dohuk) has developed a reintegration process for women survivors of IS captivity.

At the beginning of the reintegration programme, these women visit Lalish for a few days, receive counselling and undergo cleansing rituals, before being publicly welcomed back to the Yezidi community by the clergy in Lalish. Clergy members also publicly state that the women are in no way responsible for what happened to them, and that they should be received back into their families and communities without any resentment or prejudice.

In September 2016 alone, Yazda took 38 women survivors to Lalish. To Yazda’s knowledge, no woman who has undergone this process has been rejected by her family. Some female survivors in Iraq have taken their lives after their return to freedom, but this has not been the case for Yezidi women supported by this programme.

14 years old Madeline got a mental shock when she and her family got caught in a crossfire in Daraa in Syria, and became paralyzed.  Her father Mohammad is carrying her around. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
14 years old Madeline got a mental shock when she and her family got caught in a crossfire in Daraa in Syria, and became paralyzed. Her father Mohammad is carrying her around. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

Modes of expressing distress – how women, men, girls and boys explain and make sense of their health symptoms and how they seek help – are culture-specific, rooted in religion and social norms.130 In Iraq, women’s and girls’ religious and ethnic background are critical factors in understanding and meeting the needs of GBV and CRSV survivors. For example, trust in service providers is necessary for them to come forward, and in some instances women feel more comfortable receiving support from case workers from the same faith. For example, the Baghdad Women Association enables Shia women to support Shia female survivors, as it is perceived that only Shia women can fully understand the hardship they have endured. Furthermore, it is believed that this group will only attend counselling provided by Shia women due to higher levels of trust and family acceptance of going to the centre. If counselling or training does not reflect these sensitivities, few women will access and benefit from it. Sensitivities to women’s family and community culture are also important in supporting survivors of GBV and rape as issues around privacy, domestic habits and tradition sometimes differs – failing to take these into account could prevent women from accessing the support they need.131

The interplay of service needs and religious background is arguably no less strong for Syrian women and girl survivors of these crimes. One GBV survivor now in Lebanon illustrates this point well: “People used to advise me to seek help from [the] Sheikh, as they thought I was haunted by evil spirits.”132 GBV and CRSV survivors and case workers in Lebanon state that Syrian and Iraqi survivors’ religious affiliations intersect with their vulnerabilities and available services in different ways. For example, the legal protection order issued by the civil court (based on Law 293) contradicts the custody age regulated by religious courts. Employment opportunities133 and referrals to social and economic service providers are also affected by religious background. A quarter (25%) of women interviewed for a GBV and CRSV rapid assessment conducted for this study indicated that their religious affiliation (and their nationalities) negatively affected their access to services. Two out of three women indicated that they could not access services due to religious beliefs that hinder their mobility, as they need a male figure – Mahram – to accompany them in public. Moreover, they indicated that they would be reluctant to access services provided by international NGOs. Similarly, 20% of the women interviewed in Beirut and Mount Lebanon indicated that they approach religious institutions for either academic assistance (for children) or religious lessons.134

In spite of existing vulnerability differences based on ethnic and religious background and their relevance in meeting women and girls’ protection needs, GBV and CRSV assessments are not always sensitive to these issues, nor directly tackling them.135 Many humanitarian organisations do not currently consider ethnic and religious affiliation, and the significance of people’s ethnic and religious background is overlooked in the way information is gathered. The same is true for the types of services provided, which prevents some people from accessing them – for example, awareness activities with refugee and host communities through public puppet or music shows may be a successful approach in some contexts but it not suitable for a village in Lebanon with a predominantly radical Islamic ideology.136

Humanitarian needs in neighbouring countries

In a focus group discussion in Akkar in North Lebanon, Syrian Sunni representatives expressed that Lebanon’s failure to recognise Syrians fleeing the war at home as formal refugees complicates their lives. They remain in Lebanon with an unclear status, without the rights of formal refugees. They believed that if they were fully recognised and treated as refugees, their situation would be much more dignified and bearable until they could return to Syria.

According to findings from a survey among Syrian and Iraqi refugees coordinated by NCA, employment is a substantial challenge for many refugees in Lebanon – 65% of respondents were unemployed. Just over half (54%) of respondents ranked adequate and affordable housing as their most urgent unmet need and one-third (33%) needed primary health assistance most critically. These were the two most important needs among Syrians and Iraqis refugees throughout the country, though housing was needed more critically in the Beqa’a Valley and North Lebanon.137

The priorities for all refugees in Turkey interviewed for this study were shelter (housing) and food. Education, psychosocial support and employment opportunities have been sorely neglected for all groups of displaced Syrians and Iraqis in Turkey. Indeed, none of the refugee families in Turkey interviewed for this study have children who attend school, with the exception of some attendance at Sunday classes for children attending church.

Similarly to some IDPs in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Syrian children in Lebanon are struggling with language. In Syria, the curriculum is taught in Arabic whereas in Lebanon, despite it being an Arabic-speaking country, many subjects are taught in English or French. In Turkey, Syrian children are faced with education delivered in Turkish.138

The government of Turkey recognises the Christian minority but does not recognise the Alevi community. Subsequently, Alevis in Turkey do not receive any state support and Alevi networks can only provide limited humanitarian assistance to refugees like Alawites from Syria. Many Alawite refugees in Turkey are located in Istanbul, are homeless and live in parks.139 Where possible, an Alevi association supports them with bathing facilities, food, diapers and some money but is unable to offer them housing or further support due to its own limited financial resources. According to the representative from this organization interviewed, schools do not accept Alawite children. In the words of a Syrian Christian refugee woman, “Christians are more privileged than Muslims – you won’t find a Christian begging, for example, because the Church will help them”.140 The same cannot be said for the Alawite community. Yezidi in Turkey are also in a very vulnerable position, not benefiting from temporary protection as refugees and depending on aid provided by individuals, charities and NGOs.141

Aid registration levels among minority groups

Two years into the unrest and conflict in Syria, less than 1% of each minority community (Christian, Alawite, Ismaili, Mandean and Yezidi) was registered in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan or Lebanon.142 Evidence suggests that Christians and Alawites who fled from Syria to Lebanon or Jordan in 2013 did not register with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.143 Similarly, research from 2014 shows that Syrian Christian and Druze refugees in Jordan often chose not to register with UNHCR.144 Sectarian tensions and fears of reprisals were behind these refugees avoiding registration, along with the fact that the refugees had the means to cover some of their own needs.145 Another reason for under-registration that clearly emerged from discussions with Christian refugees and IDPs from Syria and Iraq was less concerned with possible consequences and more with the act of registration itself: a sense of pride that made them less inclined to register as refugees.146

However, unsurprisingly this initial reluctance lessens as the severity of needs aggravates. As time goes by and the conflict and experience of displacement further erodes refugees’ social or economic assets, the urgent need for assistance overrides other considerations. The vast majority of respondents to a survey conducted by NCA in Lebanon in 2016 (80%) were registered with, or had submitted their names to, UNHCR.147 Of those not registered with UNHCR, 43% said it was because UNHCR stopped registering refugees, 19% because they did not know how to register, and 18% because they did not think it was useful. Almost half (49%) of all Syrian and Iraqi respondents were registered with an organisation other than UNHCR, including local charities, NGOs, churches and the government.

In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, 98% of the sample was registered with the Kurdistan regional authorities. Almost all (99%) of respondents were registered with an organisation other than the Kurdish authorities, to complement the support they could provide: 54% were registered with an NGO, 49% with a UN agency, 48% with a church organisation and 3% with a charity.148

Significant reasons for Syrian refugees surveyed in Lebanon not being registered with UNHCR included being Armenian Orthodox (59%) or Greek Orthodox (57%). While these findings should be taken with caution, as they could be the result of the survey design, reasons behind this could relate to these religious minorities having a sufficiently strong community support network in Lebanon. Reports indicate that Armenian Orthodox refugees can, and do, access services and support upon their arrival in Lebanon from locally active Armenian churches and Armenian NGOs, making the need to register with UNHCR to access services less acute. Similarly, resettlement through UNHCR is likely to be less necessary for Armenians, as their desire to return to Syria is higher than among other groups149 and they have the option to flee to Armenia, a country with a strong connection and welcoming policy towards this group.150

Inside Syria, 83% of the respondents to a similar survey conducted by NCA were registered with at least one aid organisation. Controlling for a number of variables, respondents who were least likely to be registered with an aid organisation included Alawites, university graduates, current residents of metropolitan Damascus and Sweida, as well as younger respondents. Socio-economic status, as measured by pre-conflict profession, did not affect registration. Overall, registration status decreased in line with additional education (90% of respondents with no formal education were registered with an aid agency, versus 75% with a university degree).

Among respondents in Syria who had registered with an organisation, 64% were registered with only one organisation, 34% with two organisations and 1% (21 respondents) with three or more organisations. One-third (33%) of registered respondents were registered with an NGO and 71% with a church. Respondents who registered with a church were more likely to rely solely on its support as it was the only organisation with which they were registered. Church registration was significantly higher for residents of Daraa (89%), al Hasakah (82%) and Aleppo (75%), and lower for residents of Latakia (39%), Sweida (18%) and Hama (10%), though these variations could be due to sampling strategies in these governorates. Age, employment, socio-economic and marital statuses were not significant factors in church registration. However, respondents with a university degree were significantly less likely to register with church organisations.

NGO registration in Syria was highest among Muslim respondents (54%),151 compared to 24% of Christian respondents. This underscores the abovementioned reluctance by many Christians to publicly ask for assistance – especially because, before the crisis, many of them were more likely to be aid donors rather than recipients.152 However, this could also be the result of real or perceived discrimination by certain NGOs against non-Muslims.153 The relatively low level of Christians registered with NGOs contrasts with their registration rates for aid from church organisations. Among Christian respondents, registration with church aid providers was highest among Syriac Orthodox people (85%), Evangelicals (79%) and Syriac Catholics (70%), highlighting these groups’ preference for this type of humanitarian aid channel.

Christian faith-based organisations in Syria provide aid based on humanitarian principles, to both Muslim and non-Muslim populations. As of September 2016, a Christian faith-based humanitarian organisation in Syria has among its registered beneficiaries 33,800 Muslim families and 8,781 Christian families from Syria, as well as 2,094 Muslim refugee families and 194 Christian refugee families and 22 Sabean-Mandean families from Iraq.154 Registration with, and humanitarian delivery rates from, these organisations demonstrate trust for churches among the local population, independent of religion.

Church-based humanitarian organisations in Syria are frequently criticised by both other church-based institutions and Christian representatives for not helping the Christian communities more. These critics see the majority of the humanitarian support provided by these organisations being distributed to needy people who are not Christians, and also state that it is very difficult for non-Muslims to access support distributed through mosques. In response, church-based aid organisations maintain that their mandate is to provide support based on people’s needs rather than their faith, in accordance with humanitarian principles. This approach is also based on the tradition of churches in Syria.

In spite of this criticism, Christians affected by conflict in Syria do have a support network in their churches. Trust and a sense of belonging make it easier for them to approach churches and related organisations to register for, and receive, humanitarian aid. The felt humiliation of some having to stand in line in public to await assistance vanishes when such assistance is provided in a sensitive way in the safe space of a church.

For Syrian and Iraqi Christian refugees, there is strong evidence that churches in countries like Jordan or Lebanon are their main point of contact and critical support when they arrive and throughout their stay. Although the majority of displaced people already have an established local contact before entering a new country, churches in host countries have developed their own informal ‘referral system’, redirecting Christians to the church of a particular denomination.155 Nevertheless, there have been experiences of discrimination between and within Christian religious groups. Some groups report that they have been more excluded from services and assistance than members of other Christian groups, suggesting that certain religious leaders and organisations prioritize refugees from their own denomination.156

The impact of aid criteria and priorities on minority groups

Some Christian organisations providing humanitarian assistance believe the beneficiary criteria imposed by donors is a barrier to supporting religious minorities. One of the restrictions most commonly cited is family size. Syrian Christian families comprise, on average, four members, while the average Muslim family size is significantly higher – approximately 5.5 by some accounts.157 This discrepancy is also clear from results of the NCA-conducted survey in Syria, where the average number of dependant children for a Muslim family was 2.4, whereas for a non-Muslim family it was 1.1. It has been reported that the vulnerability and beneficiary criteria applied by some donors prioritises families of more than four members, and government programmes may have similar shortcomings. It has been reported the cash assistance from the Government of Iraq is 1 million Iraqi dinar (around 800 US dollars) per family, regardless of its size, despite the fact that Yezidi families average 10 members.158

Similarly, some donors funding projects in Syria earmarked their financial assistance for displaced populations only, entirely excluding affected host communities. According to a Syrian Christian-based organisation, non-displaced Christian families are also badly affected by the conflict. These requirements have resulted in widespread complaints by Christian conflict-affected populations in Syria, and Christian refugees in neighbouring countries, about being marginalised in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Valentina is a refugee from Khabour in Syria. For one year she was a captive of IS. She now teaches and activates refugee children in an Assyrian Church in Lebanon. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
Valentina is a refugee from Khabour in Syria. For one year she was a captive of IS. She now teaches and activates refugee children in an Assyrian Church in Lebanon. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

Allocating assistance by nationality is also mentioned as an excluding factor that, when applied on the ground, leaves some population groups more vulnerable and generates tensions between different groups. In Lebanon, this approach has been denounced by a Christian-based organisation that serves refugees from Iraq and Syria, as well as Lebanese people in a deprived area of Mount Lebanon. The organisation reports that funds allocated for providing assistance to Syrians are a source of tension between Syrians and Iraqis, as well as with members of the Lebanese host community.159 Christian Iraqi refugees in Jordan also complain about being discriminated against in favour of Syrian refugees.160

In Turkey, according to a Syriac Orthodox Church representative, the church cannot support Iraqi refugees due to limited resources and the need to prioritise Syrian Christians. They cite two reasons for this. Firstly, donations from Turkish church members are often earmarked for Syrians. Secondly, the media and political focus has been on Syria, neglecting the ‘Iraqi case’, placing external pressure and expectations on the church to care for Syrians. This is not to say that Iraqi Christians were entirely neglected – they were able to attend and participate in church activities, access essential social support, and upon their initial arrival a few years earlier, received temporary accommodation. However, these Iraqi refugees are now primarily self-supporting, materially and financially. For example, although the Syrian Christian refugees interviewed were housed together and had all their expenses covered, Iraqi Christians were paying rent and other expenses from their savings or earnings from the little work they could find.161

Displacement and feelings of insecurity among minority groups

Due to sectarian tensions, harassment and intimidation, religious minorities tend to avoid mixed IDP and refugee camps. According to Yezidi representatives, some 200 displaced Yezidi families left IDP camps in the Kurdistan region because of humiliation and hate speech. Now, these families live in unfinished buildings around Erbil and lack assistance.162 Yezidi refugees are reluctant to be settled in Syrian refugee camps run by the Turkish government as they fear others in the camps may be close to IS militants.163 Similarly, Alawite refugees avoid Sunni-majority camps in southern Turkey.164 Kaka’i hosted in the Kurdistan region also refer to feelings of insecurity and harassment as reasons for avoiding IDP camps.165 Syrian Christian and Druze refugees in Jordan often avoid formal refugee camps, instead seeking lodging in urban centres – often living in monasteries, clustered housing or makeshift camps. In such settings, religious minorities experience isolation, stigmatisation and (perceived or real) discrimination in accessing humanitarian aid and assistance.166

Overall, IDP respondents to NCA’s 2016 survey in the Kurdistan Region were positive about their safety situation; 70% of respondents reported feeling ‘safe’ or ‘very safe’ in their present location. However, levels of perceived safety varied significantly by location: residents in Alqosh (46% felt ‘safe’) and Kabarto 2 – an IDP camp – (42%) felt significantly less safe than residents of other locations, especially Zakho (97%), Dohuk City (95%) and Amadiya (90%).167 A large majority of Christians (85%) reported feeling safe, a percentage very close to that of Muslims (80%). A significantly lower percentage of Yezidis reported feeling safe (48%).

Olivia kisses a picture of her father who was killed by IS in Tel Hermes in Syria. She and her two sisters and mother are now waiting for resettlement to Australia. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
Olivia kisses a picture of her father who was killed by IS in Tel Hermes in Syria. She and her two sisters and mother are now waiting for resettlement to Australia. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

In general, respondents to a similar 2016 survey conducted by NCA in Lebanon were positive about their safety situation; 86% of respondents reported feeling either ‘safe’ or ‘very safe’ in their present location. However, respondents in Mount Lebanon reported significantly lower levels of perceived safety – with nearly a quarter (24%) reporting feeling unsafe compared to 5% in the Bekka Valley and 1% in North Lebanon. Overall, Sunnis felt slightly safer than members of other religious denominations, but this effect is less important than the effect of geographic location in Lebanon. These differences are in part due to regulations that some, but not all, municipalities have placed on refugee movement. Two-thirds of respondents (66%) reported that they could move freely in their current area, 9% reported that they could not, and another 25% reported only being somewhat free to move. Of those reporting restricted ability to move freely, more than 60% lived in Mount Lebanon.

In Turkey, while no Christian refugees interviewed for this study shared direct experiences of religious persecution or discrimination, some expressed caution about wearing visible signs of religious identity in public spaces. One Syrian Christian woman explained: “It is not because they [local, Turkish Muslims] will physically attack us or try and hurt us. But because we do not know the language and there are cultural differences, maybe we won’t know what they are saying. If they look at us funny then, you know, they may treat us differently. It’s better not to wear one [a cross]”.168

In contrast, members of the Alawite community have faced direct discrimination. For instance, when they were identified in camps in the south of Turkey, violence broke out between refugees forcing them to leave camps and stay in urban centres without housing and support. Outside the camps, they try to hide their religion as much as they can.169

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Chapter 2 – The social and historical background to conflict in Syria and Iraq

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Chapter 4 – Prospects for the future