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Thousands of Syrians flee into Iraq's Kurdistan region, major influx continuing

Briefing Notes, 20 August 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Dan McNorton to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 20 August 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Since Thursday of last week around 30,000 Syrians have streamed into northern Iraq after fleeing communities across a wide swathe of northern Syria.

Yesterday's (August 19th) crossings numbered more than 4,800 people, at Sahela some 120 kilometres northwest of Mosul. Some of those coming across were from Malikiyye city in the neighbouring Syrian governorate of al-Hasakah. They told us they had fled reported bombs earlier that morning. Others arriving over the past few days have been from further west, including Efrin and Aleppo, as well as Al Hassake and Al Qamishly.

With several tens of thousands of people having crossed since last week, this new exodus from Syria is among the largest we have so far seen during the conflict, which is now into its third year. As well as people who told us they were fleeing recent bombings, others say they were escaping fighting and tension amongst various factions on the ground. Also cited was the collapse of the economy due to war and the resulting difficulties in caring for their families.

The influx began last Thursday when the Kurdistan Regional Government authorities in northern Iraq suddenly opened access to the temporary Peshkhabour pontoon bridge north of Sahela, allowing several hundred people camped in the area since earlier last week to enter Iraq. By the end of that day and into the following morning thousands of people had swarmed across the swaying bridge over the Tigris. As of Saturday, UNHCR now estimates that 20,000 Syrians had crossed the Peshkhabour bridge. This was followed by crossings of around 6,000 persons on Sunday when fleeing Syrians were directed to use the Sahela border crossing, to the south of Peshkhabour.

In response to the influx UNHCR and partner agency teams have erected shelters to provide shade. Water and food distributions have also been set up at the crossing points. The International Organization for Migration and the Kurdistan Regional Government have provided buses and trucks to move the thousands of people onwards from the border zone deeper into Iraq.

In Erbil Governorate, further to the east, UNHCR has established a transit site at Kawergost, to the north of Erbil town and in Khabat District. One thousand one hundred UNHCR tents have been erected there along with 200 tents assembled by the International Rescue Committee. The Kawergost transit site is now sheltering some 7,000 to 9,000 Syrians. The President of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, visited the transit site yesterday.

Over the past days UNHCR has dispatched more than 90 trucks carrying aid from Erbil. Relief items have also been distributed, including tents, plastic tarpaulins, sleeping mats, blankets, kitchen sets, hygienic supplies, water tanks, portable latrines, portable showers and electric fans. However, because of the scale and speed of the influx, some people at Kawergost are still without tents and having to camp under tarpaulins or other makeshift shelters.

Yesterday, the authorities provided access for UNHCR to a warehouse in Bahrak and 2500 Syrians are now being housed at this facility. In addition, additional land has been identified in Erbil's Qusthtapa district where a further transit site will be established. As well as those in tented accommodation, some 14,000 people are living with host families or are encamped at mosques in the Erbil region.

Further to the southeast, at Sulaimaniyah, 4,000 people are currently accommodated temporarily in 11 schools. As in Erbil, a temporary site is being set up. Some 3,000 people who arrived yesterday (Monday) were transferred to Sulemaniyah.

As of this morning, a further 2000-3000 people were reported waiting close to the Syrian side of the border, and expected to cross today. On the Syrian side, the border at Sahela is under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces. The Kurdistan Regional Government has identified an additional site in Kushtapa where it has indicated that UNHCR may establish a further transit camp.

To boost stockpiles of rapidly depleting aid supplies within Iraq, UNHCR has sent 15 tractor trailer trucks to northern Iraq from its main regional stockpile in Amman. That shipment, expected to arrive before the end of the week, includes more than 3,100 tents, two pre-fabricated warehouses and jerry cans. Additional supplies are currently being organized.

Longer term, in cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government, UNHCR and its partners are building the Darashakran camp, which is expected to be ready to accommodate refugees within a matter of weeks.

UNHCR built Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, Iraq earlier this year. Domiz, originally constructed to accommodate 15,000 Syrian refugees, is currently overcrowded with more than 55,000 residents meaning that new arrivals are having to be accommodated elsewhere. Prior to this latest influx, UNHCR had registered 155,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq.

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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