Syrian Kurds continued to stream into the Kurdish north of Iraq on Sunday in numbers not seen since the civil war began.
The flow of arrivals — about 30,000 since Thursday last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday, with many more en route — is drawing Iraq’s Kurdish communities ever closer to the growing regional crisis.
Refugees stranded on the border are mainly women, children and the elderly, Save the Children said on Sunday.
About 7,000 refugees were taken to an emergency camp, but thousands were still waiting to be registered at the border, and the influx showed no signs of slowing down, the charity said.
Over the next few days, the aid agency is expected to distribute more than 40,000 liters of water at the border crossing.
“This is an unprecedented influx of refugees, and the main concern is that so many of them are stuck out in the open air at the border or in emergency reception areas with limited, if any, access to basic services,” Save the Children’s emergency team leader Alan Paul said.
For more than two years the war has raged without serious impact on Kurdish communities in Turkey and northern Iraq. All the while, most Syrian Kurds have endeavored to remain neutral as rebel groups, backed by increasing numbers of jihadists, have battled the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers.
Kurds and mainstream rebel groups had largely managed to hold an uneasy truce in the northeast of the country, which was shattered in recent months when jihadists attacked Kurdish communities near the Turkish border.
The area is a vital corridor for jihadists from Iraq, who are taking a more prominent role in Syria’s eastern desert areas, which border with Iraq’s Anbar Province where a Sunni insurgency is raging.
Villages in Efrin, Hassake and Qamishly are defended by well-armed Kurdish militias. However, communities are steadily being ravaged by the fighting and chilled by the realization that security in Syria’s northeast is likely to deteriorate further. Kurds account for about 95 percent of the new arrivals, the UN estimates.
The exodus has caught the UNHCR and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) offguard.
“UNHCR staff working at the Sahela border crossing estimate that more than 5,000 Syrians have arrived so far today,” said Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR representative in Iraq on Sunday. “Teams at Sahela report that it looks like a river of people moving across the border.”
Many of the refugees had crossed the pontoon bridge at Peshkhabour over the Tigris River.
KRG authorities said 4,000 refugees had been transferred to Sulamaneyah. Many of the rest of the arrivals are being processed in transit camps near Erbil.
Youssef Mahmoud, a spokesman for the UNHCR in the Kurdish region, yesterday told the Associated Press that the latest wave has brought the number of Syrian refugees in the Kurdish region of Iraq to about 195,000.
Additional reporting by AP