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It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of Domiz Refugee Camp for the 45,000-plus Syrians now living in this northern Iraq sanctuary after fleeing their country’s civil war.
Many have crossed the border from northern towns such as Amuda, Derke and Qamishli, while others started their journey in Damascus, hundreds of miles away, to settle in the rows of white tents that have been set up close to the city of Dohuk.
Here they receive shelter, food and clothes. Conditions are basic; families sleep on hard floors, and recent heavy rain and snow has made the unpaved tracks treacherous. Small children walk around in oversized Wellington boots, while parents try to clear water from the entrance to their tents. A few stalls sell provisions.
But the lack of security, employment and food at home, means that without the camp, life would be a lot worse. And the camp would not have been able to be installed had not MAG made the land safe first.
This whole area was littered with landmines and other munitions (mortar bombs, submunitions, rockets, hand grenades and more) – remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the coalition forces’ bombardment of military bases in 2003.
MAG Iraq's Mine Action Teams and Conventional Weapons Destruction Team cleared 650,000m2, initially to allow the camp to be set up in April 2012, later to enable it to expand to meet the growing numbers of refugees. In the process, 63 items of unexploded ordnance were removed.
Rudy [pictured at the top of the page] arrived here from Syria a month ago, with his wife, mother and son.
“We left our house in Qamishli and went to Derke because of the war,” he says. “But it was dangerous there too, so we decided to cross the border and come to the camp. It took us about a day to get here.”
Relieved to have escaped the fighting, he plans to remain in Domiz until security improves in his homeland. He is remarkably upbeat: “When we arrived, we got blankets and tents. We have also received food, and soon we will receive children’s clothes. Whenever we go to Dohuk town, people treat us well and are very supportive. They give refugees help with finding jobs.”
The refugees' journey
After walking for days, burdened by luggage and under threat of violence, it’s unlikely that straying into a minefield would be the first thing on your mind. But for thousands of Syrians fleeing to northern Iraq, being unaware of the dangers could cost them their lives.
Every day, around 600 men, women and children enter Iraq on foot at a crossing point near Shilikye village. Those wanting to register as refugees must follow a muddy track to reach the registration office a mile or so away on the edge of the village. But few are aware that this route from the border runs alongside a known minefield.
MAG has so far cleared 220,000m2 of the mined area near the crossing point, finding 78 anti-personnel mines (62 'Valmara 69s' and 12 'VS50s'). But there is an ongoing need to ensure that refugees and others, such as Syrian traders travelling back and forth, are safe.
Many of those making the journey are groups of families, who have no idea about the deadly threat nearby. Because of this, MAG’s Community Liaison teams have been working near the crossing site, distributing leaflets and providing Risk Education to ensure that new arrivals do not put themselves in danger.
Abdullah is one such arrival, having made the crossing with his wife, mother and eight children. “We travelled for days,” he says. “I have lived in Damascus for ten years, but since the violence things have become difficult. No food, no water, no fuel. After three days in another village, we quickly headed to the border.”
“We didn't know anything about the mine contamination. But when we arrived, we saw the MAG team, who gave us information and advised us which path to take.”
Now housed in Domiz Refugee Camp, 40 miles or so from the border, Abdullah is relieved that his family is out of harm’s way: “I’m glad that MAG was there to tell us about the dangers when we arrived. I came here for the sake of my children. I just want them to be safe.”
Many other international non-governmental organisations and UN agencies are currently supporting the refugees in Domiz Refugee Camp (including UNHCR, UNICEF, ACTED and IOM Iraq), as well as the local authorities in Dohuk governorate.
For more information on MAG's work in Iraq and worldwide, please go to www.maginternational.org.
Thanks to all the public, institutional and government donors to MAG's operations in Iraq, including:
• Act for Peace
• Australian Aid
• German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• Irish Aid
• Isle of Man Overseas Aid Committee
• Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
• NVESD HD R and D Program
• Sida - Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
• Stichting Vluchteling
• US Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
Without this support, MAG's lifesaving work in the country could not be carried out.