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Iraqis Flee to Kurdish North in Search of Safety


The U.N. refugee agency reported this week that some 4 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war and more than half of those have left the country. The rest are looking for a safe haven in Iraq, and some of those have found it in Iraq's Kurdish north. VOA's Barry Newhouse visited an office keeping track of the displaced Iraqis and has this report.

A worker in the residency office for the Kurdistan Regional Government stamps documents for newly arrived Iraqis in a crowded waiting room. Most of the people here are Sunni Arabs who have come from Baghdad, Mosul and Ramadi. Many of them refuse to talk about their plight.

One man says the situation in Baghdad has become so dire, that despite the ongoing security operation, this week he finally decided to leave.

He says he faced many problems in Baghdad from terrorist gangs and from Iraqi security forces that have sectarian agendas. He says the dangers and the economic situation became so bad that he had to flee.

This office issues permits for one of Iraq's three Kurdish-controlled provinces. Since 2005, it has granted temporary residency permits to nearly 30,000 people - a small fraction of those in need.

U.N. refugee agency officials say fleeing Iraqis have overwhelmed local governments in some areas of the country. But U.N. officials also have criticized regions that turn away people who need assistance.

Kurdish security forces restrict entrance to fleeing Iraqis at tightly controlled checkpoints, denying entry to people considered security risks. In general, Kurdish officials say they let in professional workers, such as doctors and engineers, or those who can have a local resident vouch for them.

Recently arrived Arabs in Kurdistan say they understand the need for controlling access.

This man says that he is not disturbed by the practice, because there are some
Iraqis who work with terrorist gangs, and the Kurdish forces must protect the region.

Those Iraqis who qualify for entry say staying in Iraqi Kurdistan is much better option than fleeing to Syria or Jordan. This businessman from Baghdad says in Syria, Iraqi refugees live in a legal limbo, in constant threat of deportation.

He says many families sell their homes and their possessions and go to Syria. But there, even if they have the permit from the U.N. refugee office, they will spend all of their savings, because there are no jobs. He says life there is expensive. In Kurdistan, he says, you can work.

But the influx of wealthy Iraqis has pushed up the cost of living for Irbil residents as well. This Iraqi man, who has arrived recently, says he understands the locals are getting upset.

He says we know that rents are getting high, and it is bad for the poorest people here. But, he says, "We don't have a choice."

U.N. officials say the plight of Iraqis fleeing violence is getting worse, yet calls for international help have brought few results.

In Irbil's residency office, several Iraqis said they were not looking for handouts, but merely a chance to start over after losing everything.

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