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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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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Lina has not heard from her husband since he was detained in Syria two years ago. Now a refugee in Lebanon, she lives in a tented settlement with her seven children.
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Syria: A Heartbreaking Human Tragedy

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Iraq: Displaced to Northern IraqPlay video

Iraq: Displaced to Northern Iraq

More than 300.000 people fled the fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul last week and have reached Iraq's Kurdistan region seeking refuge. Many have no money, and nowhere to go.