Some 10,000 Syrian refugees crossed the border into Iraq in the last 24 hours, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported, as clashes between the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) military wing intensified.
The number of refugees fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan totaled 17,000, the U.N.’s refugee agency said, adding that this was one of the biggest single exoduses of refugees to have taken place since the uprising began in March 2011.
The refugees had to cross a mobile bridge installed on the Tigris river to reach the Iraqi side of the frontier.
The BBC reports quoted correspondents as saying that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and UNHCR were struggling to cope with such a massive influx.
Several thousand are being housed at the Quru Gusik camp just west of the Kurdish regional capital Arbil, although it is still under construction and lacks many basic services, with others set to be moved to neighbouring Sulaimaniyah province.
“There was war and looting and problems,” said Abdulkarim Brendar, who trekked with his five children to Iraqi Kurdistan. “We did not find a morsel (of food), so, with our children, we came here.” The plight of civilians like Brendar and his family prompted Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional president Massud Barzani to threaten earlier this month to intervene to protect Syrian Kurds, the latest sign of the conflict’s growing cross-border impact.
“We fled because there is war, beheadings and killings, and in addition to that there is no work,” said Fadhel Abdullah, who crossed into Iraq from the Kurdish-majority Qamishli area of northeastern Syria.
“The economic situation deteriorated and everything became expensive.” The access of Syrian refugees to Iraq has been erratic, with local political tensions and fears of a spillover of the conflict leading Kurdistan regional authorities to shut the border in May.
Some restrictions were eased last month to allow Syrians to join family members already in Iraq, but the number allowed to cross the border had remained relatively low.
At least 17 people have died during intense fighting on the strategic border town of Ras al-Ain, just across the Turkish town of Ceylanpınar, on Aug. 17.
Many civilians also fled into villages in Turkey, according to the Syrian Kurd activists.
Government troops pulled out of predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria last year, leaving Kurdish militia to fend for themselves.
PYD’s leader Salih Muslim came to Turkey twice during the last month to hold diplomatic discussions on enabling the creation of an autonomous region to improve security in the northern parts of Syria mainly populated by Kurds.