Far from Home: Future Prospects for Syrian Refugees in Iraq

Durable Solutions Platform (DSP) and Impact Initiatives, January 2019



Iraq hosts over 250,000 of the 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees in the Middle East region. 99 percent of Syrian refugees in Iraq have settled in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). This report examines the potential for local integration of Syrian refugees in Iraq. Research focused on urban areas of Erbil city and Dahuk city in KRI, and Qaim city in the Anbar governorate of Iraq, and covered Syrian refugee and host population households. Unregistered Syrian refugees, Syrian refugees in camps, and Iraqi IDPs were not covered. The study assessed access (and perceptions of equal access) to legal, material and physical safety based on the IASC indicators for durable solutions. It also looked at access to humanitarian assistance. Overall, Syrian refugees have been able to integrate in the host community to a certain extent. However, there are statistically significant differences between Syrian refugees and Iraqi residents for several indicators:

  • A lower proportion of Syrian households (59 percent) reported access to income-generating opportunities compared to Iraqi residents (78 percent). Syrian refugees reported being limited to working in low-skilled sectors, and having to accept lower wages and longer working hours; some reported harassment in the workplace. Iraqi residents reported increased job competition due to the influx of Syrian refugees (and Iraqi IDPs). 74 percent refugees and 45 percent of residents perceived unequal access to employment opportunities. Access to employment opportunities is most likely to be a source of community tension.
  • A lower proportion of Syrian households had access to documentation. While a majority of Syrian and Iraqi households reported having access to documents (birth certificates, marriage certificates, family booklet), only 30 percent of Syrian households had passports.
  • A majority of Syrian refugees reported being able to access basic services, however a lower proportion of Iraqi residents (65 percent) compared to Syrian households (77 percent) reported regular access to drinking water. There were no statistically significant differences in access to basic food, housing, education and healthcare. Iraqi residents reported overcrowding and pressure on basic services due to the influx of Syrian refugees (and Iraqi IDPs). Perceptions of unequal access were moderately high with 22 refugees and 25 residents perceiving unequal access, suggesting a potential source of community tension.
  • Although a majority of Syrian refugees (93 percent) and Iraqi residents (94 percent) reported feeling safe walking around their neighborhood, a higher proportion of Iraqi residents (21 percent) than refugee households (8 percent) reported having been a victim of a safety or security incident. Some Iraqi residents perceived that the arrival of Syrian refugees had negatively affected the level of safety in their neighborhoods.
  • The research highlights additional challenges faced by Syrian refugees including family separation and loss of property. 45 percent of Syrian households reported that they were separated from family members during displacement; a greater number of households had relatives staying behind in Syria rather than being displaced to another location. Syrian households in Erbil (53 percent) and Dahuk (26 percent) reported loss of property in Syria.
  • Low access to humanitarian assistance combined with perceptions of unfair distribution of asssistance are likely to be a source of community tension. 11 percent of refugee households and 17 percent of resident households reported having access to humanitarian assistance. Only 14 percent of refugee households and 49 percent of resident households perceived their households to have equal access to humanitarian assistance compared to others in their community.

The research examines the enabling and limiting factors for local integration.

  • A shared Kurdish identity and language has facilitated socio-cultural integration of Syrian refugees in KRI. Syrians found the host community to be hospitable and welcoming. Iraqi residents appreciated the positive contribution of Syrian refugees to their society and economy. However, some Syrian refugees reported feeling alienated or faced mistrust by the host community.
  • The influx of Iraqi IDPs has led to additional integration challenges for Syrian refugees, e.g. increased rent, reduced wages, increased job competition, and the diversion of humanitarian assistance from refugees to IDPs.
  • Syrian refugees reported integration challenges to have shifted from socio-cultural barriers to economic barriers over time. While social integration between Syrians and Iraqis has improved (including language and culture), economic integration has worsened due to KRI’s economic decline. Job competition has become a new source of tension.
  • There is currently no legal pathway offered to Syrian refugees to obtain Iraqi citizenship. Syrian refugees reported experiencing fewer rights compared to Iraqis (e.g. freedom of movement from the KRI to the rest of Iraq) and restrictions in their ability to start businesses or own property.

The research also assesses Syrian refugees’ decision-making and intentions:

  • Most Syrian refugees intend to stay in Iraq. In the short term, 78 percent of Syrian households intend to stay and only 1 percent intends to return to Syria. In the long term, 37 percent of Syrian households wish to integrate locally, 33 percent aspire to resettle in a third country, and 25 percent hope to return to Syria. 63 percent of Syrian households reported “feeling hopeless” or “frequently negative” about the situation and the future. Households lacked future prospects and the ability to make long-term plans.

Key recommendations include: (a) authorities should establish a legal framework for the long-term protection of refugees reflecting provisions afforded to refugees and IDPs under Iraqi domestic and international law; (b) the humanitarian community should monitor and respond to protection concerns of Syrian refugees and coordinate effectively among all stakeholders to ensure that gaps between refugees, IDPs, and host community—in particular those related to accessing employment and livelihood opportunities—are closed in a principled and needs-based manner; and (c) the donor community should provide structural financial assistance to support Iraq in rebuilding the social fabric and infrastructures of the country and its capacity to host refugees, while at the same time increase third country resettlement quota to meet the needs of refugees.