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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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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

Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Tens of thousands of people have fled to Erbil and Duhok governorates in Iraq's Kurdistan region over the past week, sheltering in schools, mosques, churches and temporary camps following a surge of violence in parts of central and northern Iraq. UNHCR and its partners have been working to meet the urgent shelter needs. The refugee agency has delivered close to 1,000 tents to a transit camp being built by the authorities and NGOs at Garmawa, near Duhok.

Many of the people arriving from Mosul at checkpoints between Ninewa and governorate and Iraq's Kurdistan region have limited resources and cannot afford to pay for shelter. Some people stay with family, while others are staying in hotels and using up their meagre funds.

In the village of Alqosh, some 150 people from 20 families, with little more than the clothes on their back, have been living in several overcrowded classrooms in a primary school for the past week. One member of the group said they had lived in a rented apartment in Mosul and led a normal family life. But in Alqosh, they feared for the welfare and education of their children and the presence of snakes and scorpions.

Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Iraq: Massive displacement from Mosul

In the past few days, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled fighting in the northern city of Mosul and other areas. UNHCR staff are on the ground to monitor the outflow and help those in need. The needs are immense, but UNHCR is working to provide shelter, protection, and emergency items, including tents. Many of the displaced left their homes without belongings and some lack money for housing, food, water or medical care. They arrive at checkpoints between Ninewa governorate and the Kurdistan region with no idea of where to go next, or how to pay expenses.

UN agencies, humanitarian groups, and government officials are coordinating efforts to do what they can to aid those in need. UN agencies are making an emergency request for additional support. UNHCR is hoping to provide emergency kits as well as thousands of tents. UNHCR and its partners will also be working to protect and help the displaced.

The exodus in the north comes on top of massive displacement this year in the western Iraqi governorate of Anbar, where fighting since January has forced some half-a-million people to flee the province or seek shelter in safer areas.

Iraq: Massive displacement from Mosul

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