Until 2014, the humanitarian response plan for the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan was focused on providing refugees with life-saving assistance. Since then, a new plan endorsed by international actors includes a resilience component in parallel to the life-saving component. This new component aims to move from solely providing humanitarian assistance to supporting long-term self-reliance between both the refugee and host communities equally. For the near 240,000 Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region, building resilience means reducing people’s external dependency and providing communities and institutions with an increased capacity to absorb future crises.

In the development context, resilience building combines two dimensions: human resilience is based on peoples capacity to sustain their own livelihoods, while institutional resilience is based on the capacity of the national system to meet and maintain the delivery of public goods and services.

How far is the situation to be resilient for the refugees in Kurdistan? In terms of human resilience, in spite of the economic slowdown, rates of participation in the labor force are very similar between refugees and the host community. 57% of the male adult population and 6% of the female adult population are employed. A policy of free movement in and out of the camp and the facilitation of work permits allow refugees to freely pursue employment opportunities. However, the employment situation, in terms of type and quality of jobs, severely undermines refugees’ livelihoods. Due to the functioning of the regional labor market, refugees mostly work in unskilled and temporary positions, irrespective of their qualifications. As a general result, the average household income is largely lower for refugees if compared to the host community.

In addition, there has been a successful focus on supporting business entrepreneurship within refugee camps. However, it must be taken into account that the camp setting is a closed economy, with a very limited market. There is a substantial risk to fall into an excess of internal competition and non-profitable businesses in the camps if barriers are not addressed. A crucial barrier, for instance, is the legal constraints on refugees to establish a business outside of the camp, because their property rights are not recognized.

Regarding institutional resilience, the provision of public services in Kurdistan is non-resilient, in the sense that the capacity and delivery mechanisms were largely constrained. This was true in many sectors, such as education, health or municipal services, even before the onset of the crisis. There was no buffer capacity to absorb shocks, due to historical underinvestment, and there is currently no financial room for quick response actions.

In the development context, resilience building combines two dimensions: human resilience is based on peoples capacity to sustain their own livelihoods, while institutional resilience is based on the capacity of the national system to meet and maintain the delivery of public goods and services.

Key principles to take forward

Building resilience is definitely in the hands of both the humanitarian actors and the KRG; however, combined interventions are required.

Firstly, livelihoods support that is targeted towards refugees and host community must be boosted, such as building credit and savings facilities, improving the productive value chain in which they participate, supporting employment allocation schemes, encouraging women participation in the labor market and building community trust.

Secondly, institutional resilience cannot be solved at refugee camp level. It depends inevitably on system-wide resilience. International support has to be more targeted towards capacity building within Kurdistan’s local authorities, which do not necessarily have the required capacity to ensure access to quality services, both in normal times and time of stress.

Third, advocacy is required for key policy changes in Kurdistan, such as labor market reforms, better protection of employment rights, legal property rights for refugees and participation in safety nets. Crucially, this means that Kurdistan should see the refugee population as assets, rather than as people that need to be taken care of. Their capabilities to initiate private endeavors that can create employment in the host community, which is now legally not allowed, is something to be welcomed in such a situation of economic deterioration.