Thousands of refugees arrive in Kurdistan region of Iraq

Briefing Notes, 7 January 2014

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 7 January 2014, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

On Sunday afternoon the Syrian-Iraqi border at Peshkhabour opened and 2,519 Syrians crossed by barge. Border crossing points between the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Syria had been closed since mid-September in the wake of an exodus of some 60,000 Syrians. Aid workers and local authorities worked overnight Sunday to process the group.

The arrivals from Syria must use small barges which carry about 10-30 persons and take about 20 minutes to cross from Simelka, on Syria side of the river. The pontoon bridge is not in use at present and is moored on the Syrian side of the river.

Most appear to be intent on returning to Syria. On Monday, UNHCR staff witnessed some 350 of the new arrivals load barges and go back to Syria with generators, kerosene heaters and other supplies.

Authorities in the Kurdistan region of Iraq have told UNHCR that they have adopted a flexible approach and those Syrians who say they do not want to stay as refugees can visit for up to seven days or approach the local authorities to legalise their stay.

Some 400 persons who requested UNHCR's support as refugees and were taken to Gawilan refugee camp on Monday on buses chartered by the International Organisation for Migration. Gawilan camp is located between Erbil and Dohuk and has some 3,000 residents.

While there were no arrivals via the Peshkhabour crossing yesterday, by this morning several thousand Syrians had gathered at the opposite side but so far no one has crossed.

At present there are 13 refugee Syrian camps or transit sites located in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Al Obeidy camp in western Anbar Province. Iraq hosts 210,000 registered Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, insecurity is creating new internal displacement in central Iraq. UNHCR is working with UN partners and the government to try to assess the needs of displaced persons from the recent upsurge in violence in Fallujah and Ramadi.

Several villages in central Anbar governorate have welcomed displaced persons. UN agencies and NGO partners are working to collect information and try to get access to the IDPs. UNHCR is ready to provide core relief items like blankets, plastic tarpaulins, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, hygienic supplies and other items to complement the support other agencies may provide.

This new displacement adds to the over 1.13 million internally displaced people inside Iraq that fled their homes amidst the 2006-2008 sectarian violence mostly residing in Baghdad, Diyala and Ninewa governorates.

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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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