Large influx of Syrians seen into Iraq's Kurdistan region on Thursday

Briefing Notes, 16 August 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 16 August 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Thousands of Syrians crossed into northern Iraq yesterday (August 15th) in a sudden, massive movement. UNHCR field officers present described waves of people "streaming" over the recently constructed bridge at Peshkhabour.

The factors behind this sudden movement are not fully clear to us, and since last night we have not seen further large scale crossings. Some of the Syrians had reportedly been waiting near the Tigris River for two to three days encamped at a makeshift site. UNHCR monitors at the border saw scores of buses arriving on the Syrian side dropping off more people seeking to cross over. Both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the frontier at the Peshkhabour crossing are normally tightly controlled.

The first group of Syrians, some 750 persons, crossed over the pontoon bridge at Peshkhabour at the Tigris River before noon. Later in the afternoon a much larger group of 5,000 to 7,000 people followed.

The vast majority of the new arrivals are families (women, children and elderly persons) mainly from Aleppo, Efrin, Hassake and Qamishly. Some families have told us they have relatives residing in northern Iraq, and some students traveling alone said that they had been studying in northern Iraq and had only returned to Syria over the recent Eid holidays.

UNHCR and partner agency teams, together with local authorities worked into the early hours of this morning to aid the new arrivals. UNHCR, its partners and the authorities provided water and food to the new arrivals. IOM and the Kurdistan Regional Government provided hundreds of buses to move the refugees onwards to Dohuk and Erbil.

At Erbil, about 2,000 of the new arrivals are now encamped at a site in Kawergost town where UNHCR has established an emergency transit/reception area. Some of the new arrivals are sheltered under tents already installed by UNHCR. Other new arrivals are reportedly staying in mosques or residing with family or friends who reside in the area.

UNHCR is working with the Kurdistan Regional Government authorities, other UN agencies and NGO partners to establish a camp at Darashakran a short distance from the emergency transit site. This should open in two weeks, and our hope is it will relieve pressure at the crowded Domiz camp and enable refugees currently living in costly rented accommodation to move to a UNHCR-assisted camp.

UNHCR is grateful to the Iraqi authorities and particularly the Kurdistan Regional Government for their involvement in negotiations to permit the new arrivals to cross and the transport and other assistance that was provided at the frontier.

As of today 1,916,387 Syrians have fled the war and registered as refugees or applied for registration. Two-thirds of these have arrived this year. There are now more than 684,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 516,000 in Jordan, 434,000 in Turkey, 154,000 in Iraq (not including yesterday's arrivals) and 107,000 in Egypt.

Governments in the region are carefully managing their borders with Syria mainly due to their own national security concerns, but refugees continue to cross into neighbouring countries in a gradual manner. UNHCR continues to urge countries in the region and further afield to keep borders open and to receive all Syrians who seek protection.

For more information, please contact:

  • In Amman, Peter Kessler at +962 79 631 79 01 or kessler@unhcr.org
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards at +41 79 557 91 20 or edwards@unhcr.org
  • In Geneva, Dan McNorton at +41 79 217 30 11 or mcnorton@unhcr.org
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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