Middle East

Contrasting fates of Syria's refugees

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Media captionSyrian refugees are flooding across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan

As UN agencies say that the number of Syrian children forced from the country has passed one million, the BBC's Jim Muir compares how refugees are faring in two of Syria's neighbours - Iraq and Lebanon.

"It's hard, but we have to endure," says Roken Muttahed, one of the Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan's Kawargosk camp, looking down at her two-month-old baby daughter, the youngest of her four children.

"God be praised that we're still alive, and we've been able to save the children from death," she says.

Roken and her family were among the first to cross the swaying pontoon bridge at Pish Khabour when the sudden exodus of refugees from north-east Syria got under way on Thursday last week.

They came from the town of Malkieh in northern Syria, which has recently been hit by shelling as the conflict intensifies in many parts of the country.

Now, having arrived on day one, they are veterans of the new emergency camp that has suddenly mushroomed at Kawargosk on a previously deserted patch of open plain to the west of Erbil, the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Image caption Kawargosk camp is already home for thousands

In just one week, a tented township housing 15,000 refugees has sprung up, expanding daily with more people arriving constantly after a long journey across the border through scorching summer heat.

Big tents, mainly provided by UNHCR, have been set up in serried rows, with water tanks and toilets. The site was prepared by the Kurdistan government, which even managed to put in an electricity network.

"They have given us everything we need - food, water, shelter - and we're very grateful," said Roken Mottahed. "Maybe now my husband can find work as well - he's a driver and porter."

Harrowing journeys

Around half of the refugees at Kawargosk - and of the 42,000 who have flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan in the past week - are children.

"It's a massive upheaval for them," said Jaya Murthi, spokesman for Unicef, as he surveyed the mushrooming camp.

"Many of these children have seen horrific things. They've seen bombings, they've seen friends and family members killed, schools destroyed. They've walked for hours on end, displaced, really harrowing journeys.

"Those events have really scarred them, and will scar them for a long time. So it's really important that we find safe spaces for them to play in, and be children again, so we can help them overcome the trauma and stress they've been through," Mr Murthi says.

Image caption Camp arrivals have often walked for hours on end after harrowing experiences in Syria

The exodus of mainly Kurdish refugees from northern Syria into Iraqi Kurdistan has settled into a pattern that shows every sign of continuing.

Around 3,000 to 4,000 people are coming across the border daily. Relief officials estimate that in the coming weeks, the total could rise to 100,000.

Relief operation

Kawargosk can only absorb about another 5,000, so several other camps are being established while some of the arrivals are being put up temporarily in warehouses, mosques and schools.

International aid agencies have rallied to the challenge, with UNHCR, Unicef, and many other NGOs pulling out all the stops to deal with the sudden rush of desperate refugees in what has been billed as the biggest relief operation ever mounted.

The Kurdistan regional government has also been widely praised for its response.

Virtually the whole population of Iraqi Kurdistan fled into the mountains to escape Saddam Hussein in 1991, so they know what it is like to be displaced and dispossessed.

Image caption Most of the new arrivals in Iraqi Kurdistan are being registered as refugees

But it's a challenge that is not going to go away, and is growing by the day.

Can the goodwill and support that the initial flood have encountered be sustained as the novelty wears off, and weeks turn into months and maybe years?

Most of the new arrivals in Iraqi Kurdistan are being registered as refugees, which gives them at least some status and entitlements.

Abandoned children

But in Lebanon - which has received more refugees than any of Syria's other neighbours, although it is the smallest and least able to cope - many have slipped through the net.

It's estimated that there are tens of thousands of Syrian children who are living on the streets of Beirut and other Lebanese cities, begging or selling chewing gum, toys or flowers.

"Abuse, molestation, drug trafficking, you name it, they come with all these problems and all we know is, this child has been abandoned, has been abused, and we take him in," said Noah George, deputy director of Home of Hope, one of the few shelters taking in unregistered street children.

"Many of the children who come have had their childhood stolen from them. So a big goal of ours is to give that back. And we've found that giving a kid the right to enjoy his life again, most of the trauma and issues and bad memories that they come with, just fade away," Mr George said.

One of the children at the shelter, Youssef, is only six years old.

"We used to work on the streets and take money back to our cousin," he said.

Image caption Many Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing profound hardship

"Then the police brought us here. But our family came back for us and we went back outside, and we were forced to work again. Now that I'm back here again, I don't want to leave, because here, nobody beats me. My cousin used to beat me a lot, if I didn't bring money home."

Harsh life

The shelter can only take in a small number of the children - around 500 have passed through its doors in the past year.

Outside, Imm Mahmoud is living under a flyover with her nine-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old son. A Syrian, she fled to Beirut after her Lebanese husband was murdered in Damascus.

Her son Mahmoud has now become head of the family, and she's trying to ensure he's tough enough to face the harsh life ahead.

"I beat him, so he learns to work and to be a man. People whose life isn't hard will never learn. I want him to work, but he hasn't found anything yet."

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