Part I: he role of civil society organizations from northeastern Syria and Challenges Ahead
What’s new? Over the years, civil society organizations from northeastern Syria have shown they play a critical role in aiding refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan by doing everything from delivering humanitarian aid to advancing gender equality.
What’s the challenge? The efficiency and continuity of refugee support programs are, however, being hampered by a shortage of funding, political polarization, and strict laws and regulations, which are also impeding the possibility of a long-term civil society project that may offer prospects to the area.
What should be done? TEVIN and its partners are urging donors to uphold the values of justice, equality, and sustainable development and provide more funding to civil society actors operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, civil society organizations should work together to create effective and powerful refugee support programs while seeking to diversify financing sources and improve financial transparency. Programs that need more funding are related to humanitarian aid, psychological and social support, and gender- and community affairs.
According to data collected by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 5.4 million Syrians are estimated to live as refugees in neighboring countries by the end of 2023. A significant amount of those in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Data varies. According to data collected by the UNHCR and published by the Kurdistan Regional Statistics Office around 251 010 Syrian refugees have been registered in Iraqi Kurdistan as of July 2023. 112 101 of them reside, according to the same dataset, in camps established by humanitarian relief organizations.However, unofficial sources put the number of Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan at up to 500,000. The majority would live outside the camps in cities and remain unregistered.
As a result, various international, regional, and local organizations are stepping up their efforts to support those in need. Among those are the United Nations (UN), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Kurdistan Regional Government, and many civil society organizations that collaborate across borders to improve the lives of Syrian refugees, most of whom are Kurds, on the ground.
This report aims to shed light on the role that Kurdish civil society organizations from northeastern Syria (Rojava) (can) play in supporting Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. By doing this, we hope to better understand the impact that these organizations (can) make in enhancing refugee conditions and assisting post-transitional political initiatives to reconstruct the larger region.
Firstly, by examining their accomplishments and limits in the area, this report will evaluate the role of Kurdish civil society organizations from northeastern Syria in Iraqi Kurdistan. This paper will then go into greater detail on the difficulties they have when (attempting to) implement(ing) sustainable refugee support programs in the region. Finally, this report will offer recommendations aimed at fostering an efficient and sustainable civil society project in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The findings of this report are the result of field discussions in Iraqi Kurdistan between members of the TEVIN team, Syrian refugees, Syrian civil society organizations, foreign organizations, and government authorities. TEVIN also held an analytical discussion with a number of groups and activists in Iraqi Kurdistan in collaboration with the Bercav Foundation.
The Role of Civil Society Organizations from northeastern Syria in Supporting Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan: Achievements and limitations.
Civil society organizations from northeastern Syria have demonstrated a crucial role in supporting refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, largely because of their employees’ and volunteers’ expertise, drive, and ability to reach their target beneficiaries.
TEVIN and its partners could identify that the significant support they have been undertaken in the aforementioned region mostly includes:
Providing humanitarian aid: civil society organizations have been providing essential aid to refugees. Aid has been provided in the form of shelter, food, water, healthcare, transportation, and clothing.
Promoting gender equality: Civil organizations have been playing a significant role in gender-related matters, by promoting gender equality and justice and combating gender-based discrimination.
Providing psychological and social support: Civil organizations have been providing psychological and social care to refugees who are dealing with psychological and social trauma as a result of their traumatic experiences. These organizations aim to alleviate the effects of these traumas and improve people’s psychological and social well-being.
Fostering community engagement and protecting refugee rights: Civil society organizations act as intermediaries between refugees, governmental entities, and international organizations to ensure the protection of refugee rights and the fulfillment of their needs.
However, Tevin and its partners warn that these efforts have not been sufficient to meet the needs of refugees in the region. For example, a participant in an evaluative meeting in Erbil noted that three people died in Dar Shukran camp because there is a lack of transportation. Moreover, job opportunities within the camps are scarce.
Additionally, we observe that the organizations have been failing to turn their efforts into a sustainable civic project that can bring about policy change and compile evidence of discrimination and women’s rights violations in Iraqi Kurdistan.
That is to say, we observe that Syrian civil society organizations struggle to provide necessary information and awareness to the public.
They are also unable to apply sufficient pressure to governmental and political institutions to pass laws and policies that advance gender equality and defend the rights of women and girls in the region.
Furthermore, these organizations lack the capability to conduct comprehensive research on various gender-related topics, such as workplace discrimination, domestic violence, sexual and reproductive health.
Finally, we see that in comparison to neighboring countries, women's capacity building, training, and empowerment have lagged. Syrian civil society organizations have not adequately fostered women's participation in politics and decision-making, whether in the economical, sociological, or cultural field. The amount of women working in civil society organizations, political parties and councils demonstrates this lack.
Challenges hindering the implementation of efficient and sustainable Refugee Support Programs
Syrian civil society organizations face a variety of difficulties that hinder their efforts to and potential of implement efficient and sustainable refugee support in the region. The most significant difficulties identified by TEVIN and its partners are covered in this section.
Funding shortages: Meeting the needs of refugees requires significant financial resources. Increasing numbers of people fleeing and ongoing crises have created a shortage of financial resources to provide needed assistance. Especially, securing sufficient and sustainable funding for gender-related issues is a fundamental challenge faced by Syrian organizations in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Volatile humanitarian, political, and economic conditions: constant changes in humanitarian, political, and economic situations necessitate continuous adaptation of humanitarian aid to address evolving needs.
Bureaucratic procedures: Administrative and organizational requirements have been hindering efficient aid.
Lack of international interest: International organizations and countries are less interested in Iraqi Kurdistan compared to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. There is a deficiency of ongoing assistance and a lack of attention paid to crucial issues such as education and resettlement.
Organizational capacity limitations: Institutions lack the capacity to train their staff to implement gender-sensitive programs. Additionally, women lack the room to become empowered, especially in the political realm.
Lack of infrastructure and staff: Humanitarian organizations lack infrastructure to provide adequate psychological and social support to refugees. There is also a shortage of specialists in psychological and social support working with refugees, impacting the ability to provide necessary assistance.
Socio-cultural and economic differences: Refugees and the host community struggle to communicate and understand their cultural and linguistic differences. As a result, communication between them is difficult and refugees are hesitant to participate in social events and programs. Besides that, the economic challenging situation of a large group of refugees limits their ability to participate.
The International donors do not provide enough funding for civil society organizations to meet the growing demand for services and programs. As a result, civil society organizations typically rely on donations from other sources of finance. This means that their ability to implement their goals and develop sustainability is often precarious, because they depend on external contributors who often donate money on a project-by-project basis. If civil society organizations receive funding, donor agencies impose constraints and conditions, which limit their ability to implement their programs in a way that aligns with the needs of the refugees. Moreover, there is a lot of competition between civil society organizations to receive money from donors.
Other causes of financial shortages are the Syrian civil war and the influence of other countries, particularly Turkey. We observe that international donors are providing more funding for civil society actors operating in northwest Syria. This is partly owing to the enormous number of refugees in this region, as well as the fact that Turkey has a strong influence there and greater political leverage within the international community. Due to this influence and political leverage, funding and support for Syrian Kurdish civil society organizations functioning in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as northeastern Syria have been restricted. Partly due to weak governance, a lack of economic resources, and other domestic issues, political and societal entities in Kurdistan have limited capacity to counter this influence and as a result, challenge the current balance of power.
Additionally, large amounts of funds remain under the grip of political parties in an attempt to retain control of the channels of aid for refugees and broader support for Syrians.
Finally, the region's precarious security environment including military interventions, terrorism, and other security concerns ensures that it is difficult for civil society workers to operate and implement programs, making it more difficult to receive adequate project-based funding. Bureaucratic measures and strict laws imposed from the government are only complicating it even more. Especially, securing sufficient and sustainable funding for gender-related issues is a fundamental challenge faced by Syrian organizations in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Legal, political, and administrative challenges
Iraqi Kurdistan and the surrounding area are marked by a state of political polarization, in which political parties fiercely compete and have an impact on the activity of civil society actors in the region. That is to say, political polarization has affected where they can operate, with whom and to whom they can deliver services, frequently favoring one group over another.
Besides that, civil society organizations are subject to local laws and regulations in Iraqi Kurdistan hindering their ability to operate. That is to say, in order for them to be allowed on the territory they must obtain licenses and permits from local authorities. They encounter obstacles as they work to obtain these licenses and permits. For example, only a few number of permits are available to Syrian organizations, reviews take a long time, and at least 70% of the staff must be Iraqis. Notably, whether Syrian civil society organizations are granted a license or not is significantly influenced by the lack of effective government and the political polarization dynamic in the area.
Furthermore, the Kurdistan Regional Government enforces tight visa requirements for anyone working in civil society groups and sets strict limits on Syrian organizations crossing borders. Aid distribution has slowed down as a result, and opportunities for Syrian civil society actors in the region are scarce.
Finally, civil society actors from northeastern Syria struggle to interact and collaborate with local and political entities in Iraqi Kurdistan. Establishing these relationships often requires navigating through the gateways of political parties in the region or cultivating ties with influential political figures.
Based on the role that civil society organizations from northeastern Syria (can) play(s) and taking into account the challenges, this paper will conclude with seven recommendations aimed at supporting an efficient and sustainable civil society project in Iraqi Kurdistan.
All recommendations require flexibility, adaptability, and enhanced cooperation from and between local, regional, and international stakeholders.
International donors: International donors should adopt donor strategies based on the principles of justice, equality, and balanced development. Donor agencies must not be influenced by politics and put humanitarian needs first. Civil society organizations operating in Iraqi Kurdistan area should receive adequate support.
Funding and Collaboration: Civil society organizations operating in Iraqi Kurdistan must continue to communicate and collaborate with donor agencies, local and international partners to improve funding and enhance their role in the region. In order to do so, they must develop and present effective and innovative project proposals that match the needs of the community, promote independence, and prioritize humanitarian concerns. Meanwhile, they should seek to diversify funding sources and enhance financial transparency to improve their financial sustainability. All this will require integrated and continuous efforts from civil society organizations, donor entities, local partners, and international actors.
Humanitarian Assistance: The international community should continue to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees. In order to do so it needs to collaborate effectively with civil society and humanitarian organizations, governmental authorities, and international institutions. Among others, they should share their expertise and resources with all partners to meet the needs of refugees and enhance their living conditions in the region. The exclusion of Iraqi Kurdistan from the United Nations’ plan to transition from humanitarian work to recovery and development, shows that the need for humanitarian aid is still high.
Education: The international community should continue to provide financial aid to support education, improve school infrastructure, and train teachers to address the unique needs of refugee students. Enhancing cooperation between local government, civil society organizations, and international institutions can improve the quality of education and provide educational opportunities in the region
Gender Issues: Overcoming challenges faced by women requires sufficient financial and logistical support for Syrian civil society organizations to work on developing organizational and staff capacities to effectively implement gender programs based on best practices. Communication and awareness efforts should emphasize the importance of gender issues and equality, and their role in achieving sustainable development.
Psychological and Social Support: To overcome challenges in providing psychological and social support, civil society organizations need to collaborate with governmental bodies and international institutions, secure more funding and resources dedicated to delivering psychological and social support. Besides that, civil society organizations should organize training for specialists working with refugees and invest in supportive and effective programs to help refugees cope with psychological and social challenges. When developing and implementing such programs, cultural and language differences should be taken into account to ensure maximum benefit for refugees.
Community Participation: In order to enhance refugee community participation, civil society organizations should provide educational and awareness programs to refugees explaining their rights and laws related to community participation. Besides that, they should encourage refugees to become involved in decision-making and policy development programs related to refugees and their relationship with the host community. Finally, civil society organizations should offer economic support and training to empower refugees to participate socially and economically.
 Syria Situation. (2022). UN Refugee Agency. https://reporting.unhcr.org/operational/situations/syria-situation  Indicator. (2023). Kurdistan Region Statistics Office. https://krso.gov.krd/en/indicator