Syrian refugees flood into Iraq as conflict continues

More than 5,000 Syrians streamed into Iraq’s Kurdistan region on Thursday, taking advantage of a new bridge along the tightly controlled border, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

About 750 Syrians initially crossed the pontoon bridge over the Tigris River at Peshkhabour, but this was followed by a wave of between 5,000 and 7,000 people. UNHCR officers at the border later saw scores of buses arriving on the Syrian side of the border, dropping off people seeking to cross.

“The factors allowing this sudden movement are not fully clear to us at this stage,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva.

Both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the frontier at the Peshkhabour crossing are normally tightly controlled, he said. Some of the Syrians had reportedly been waiting for two or three days in a makeshift site to cross.

More than 1.9 million Syrians have fled from the two-year civil war, the UN said. Two-thirds of them left this year as fighting escalated between troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and factions of rebel fighters. Most of the new arrivals were families with women, children and elderly, mainly from Aleppo and other embattled regions near Syria’s border with Iraq.

They are temporarily being sheltered in emergency transit sites, UN tents and mosques, the refugee agency said. Work is underway to establish a camp at Darashakran.

“This should open in two weeks, and our hope is it will relieve pressure… and enable refugees currently living in costly rented accommodation to move to a UNHCR-assisted camp,” Edwards said.

There are already more than 150,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, according to the UNHCR, which has urged neighbouring countries to open their borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict.